Pittsburgh Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez swings as he hits a three-run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of a spring training exhibition baseball game, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Dunedin, Fla. (The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette/Associated Press)
The crack of the bat was loud. The reaction on twitter was louder, and left no doubt about which player Pirates fans are most hopeful about this season.
Pedro Alvarez’s opposite-field, three-run home run yesterday, coming on his first spring training at-bat, was impressive. What was more striking was the overwhelming outpouring of cautious optimism in the form of tweets mentioning “El Toro” or daydreaming about a monster season from Alvarez.
Spring training stats are virtually meaningless to most seasoned observers. If a player already has a job, as Alvarez does, spring is the time to get settled in and not get hurt. Fans know this, too. They know how irrelevant the numbers are -- save for a rare case like Andrew Lambo’s March nosedive last season, one that seemed to cost him a spot on the opening day roster.
That fans reacted the way they did while still being aware of how trivial home runs are in March underscores how crucial Alvarez is to the Bucs’ success. A big year from Alvarez can do more for the Pirates than a breakout season by almost any other player. Gerrit Cole making the leap to ace could have a massive impact. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco doing their best Andrew McCutchen imitations would be enormously positive for the team as well.
No one can bring what Pedro can, though. In an era where offensive numbers are at historic lows, Alvarez represents the potential for instant offense, the ability to change a game or even a playoff series with one swing.
What makes Alvarez’s upcoming campaign so fascinating is that it represents the rare situation in which no outcome would be surprising. It is equally easy to visualize him hitting 35 home runs and playing a strong first base, or bombing at the plate and being mediocre defensively. He is a true wild card.
It seems that many fans harbor the opinion that Alvarez doesn’t work hard, doesn’t care, and should have been traded long ago. I’ve never understood that school of thought. All I’ve seen and heard suggests that Alvarez is a model teammate, a tireless worker, a thoughtful speaker, and if anything, a guy that cares too much.
To wit, Alvarez said yesterday that he takes every spring at-bat seriously, something I doubt most established players, even ones who have struggled at times, would be able to say under oath. That level of focus and care for the craft is rare, and makes him an awfully easy guy to root for.
If Alvarez takes to first base, the Pirates will get a nimble athlete whose skill set should make him overqualified for the position. If he regains a consistent home run stroke, the Pirates will get a thunderous bat that could easily lead all of baseball in home runs, and help to more than replace the lost production that Russell Martin took with him to Toronto.
If he doesn’t, Corey Hart will become far more important than the Pirates want him to be. If Pedro flames out at first base, he won’t have much purpose to the Bucs, and the team will be without a traditional middle-of-the-lineup power bat. The pressure to carry an offense that was very good without a productive Alvarez last year will ramp up even more. Polanco and Marte, as well as Josh Harrison, will all have to carry a big load.
McCutchen is the Pirates’ most irreplaceable player. That much is obvious. But he’s also a known commodity. It’s okay to pencil him in for a big season, because his track record is established.
Alvarez is the Pirates' most pivotal player. The team can win without a strong year from him, but it will be a tall order in a beefed-up National League Central.
A Pirates team featuring a ferocious, baseball-mashing menace with power to all fields and a nifty glove at first base? That’s not a fringe contender. That’s a very possible front-runner. That’s a team that can contend; not just for a division, but for a pennant and beyond.
Judging by the tweets on day one of spring training, many fans don’t need me to tell them that. They already know.
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