Friday, December 04, 2015

In Alvarez, Pirates GM Huntington's 1st call turns into his toughest cut

Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, 9:27 p.m.
(Getty Images)

Pedro Alvarez left Pittsburgh quicker than anyone would have expected seven years ago when the Pirates drafted him second overall with hopes he would become a franchise cornerstone.

On Wednesday, the Pirates made Alvarez a free agent a year ahead of schedule by not tendering him a contract for 2016 — letting him walk away without receiving compensation.

The enigmatic infielder played parts of six seasons with the Pirates, for whom he unleashed costly, errant throws almost as frequently as he clubbed titanic home runs.

As Alvarez, 28, heads into the next chapter of his career, it's clear he never fully tapped his potential with the Pirates.

“My mistake was bringing him to the big leagues before he was ready,” general manager Neal Huntington said late Wednesday night, minutes after the club officially severed ties with Alvarez. “That was my mistake. In hindsight, giving him additional time in the minors probably would have been very beneficial. Things might have been different.”

The Pirates hired Huntington in November 2007 and tasked the former Cleveland Indians advance scout with turning around a franchise that had been a loser for more than a decade. Seven months later, Alvarez became the first player Huntington drafted.

At Vanderbilt, they called him “El Toro” — the bull. With a strapping frame and quick wrists, Alvarez captivated scouts by clouting towering home runs. Despite his bulky size, he was an adequate third baseman, although some evaluators predicted he eventually would have to move across the diamond.

During the lean seasons before Huntington took over, the Pirates had plenty of high draft picks. With a few exceptions — such as Andrew McCutchen, a first-rounder in 2005 — the team bypassed elite talent and instead chose players who were willing to sign for lower dollars.

By selecting Alvarez, who is represented by hard-line agent Scott Boras, Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly sent a message that the Pirates had stepped up their tactics.

From the start, though, Alvarez seemed to be a poor fit. He agreed to a deal with a $6 million bonus minutes before the midnight Aug. 15 deadline but did not immediately sign the contract. The Pirates put him on the restricted list, and the players' union responded by filing a grievance.

On Sept. 22, 2008, Alvarez finally inked his name on a renegotiated, four-year contract that included a $6.35 million bonus.

The Pirates lost 95 games in 2008, then dropped 99 the following season. In 2010, with the club on its way to a 100-loss season, there was enormous pressure on the front office to bring up its prized prospect.

After playing less than 1 12 seasons in the minors, Alvarez made his Pirates debut June 16, 2010. He went on to hit .256 with 16 home runs and 119 strikeouts in 347 at-bats.

In 2013, Alvarez hit 36 homers to share the National League crown with Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Alvarez also led the NL with 186 strikeouts and made 27 errors at third base.

Late in the 2014 season, Alvarez's poor defense forced him out of the everyday lineup. He later was switched to first base but played only five games there before going down with a season-ending foot injury.

Alvarez began this past season as the starting first baseman. Although he batted .243 — his best average since 2012 — with 27 homers, his 23 errors were twice as many as any other first baseman in the majors. He had a 0.1 wins above replacement rating, essentially the equivalent of a Triple-A call-up.

In the late innings of close games, manager Clint Hurdle routinely replaced Alvarez with Sean Rodriguez.

Alvarez was benched for the NL wild-card game against the Chicago Cubs. He entered as a pinch hitter in the third inning with the Pirates down by three runs. Alvarez struck out. The Cubs went on to win 4-0.

In his final year of arbitration eligibility, Alvarez was pegged to make $8 million next season. Huntington studied the analytics and concluded the budget-minded Pirates could not pay so much for Alvarez's meager production.

“As is the case every offseason, there are challenging decisions we have to make,” Huntington said. “Certainly, we'll miss his power. But this is an opportunity for us to utilize dollars that we would have (spent on Alvarez) to improve our club, whether it's at first base or in the pitching staff or at another spot.”

Huntington called Alvarez on Wednesday afternoon and told him that, barring a last-minute trade, Alvarez would be non-tendered. Alvarez was not bitter and thanked Huntington for the opportunity.

“We made every effort to trade him,” Huntington said.

The problem was, other clubs had practically no incentive to swap players or prospects for Alvarez.

“The Pirates were asking for a lot (in return),” Boras said. “But other teams also knew they'd only be getting Pedro for a year before he became a free agent. When a player's in free agency, it's a different situation because (teams) are not giving anything up to get him.”

The optimal time to move Alvarez would have been after the 2013 season, when he was at the height of his home run prowess. Huntington admitted he mulled trading Alvarez before this year but said he never made a strong push.

“There were more reports of us actively moving him than was the reality,” Huntington said.

Why did the Pirates hang on to Alvarez as his value as a trade chip evaporated? The Pirates were at the start of a three-year run of postseason appearances in 2013, and the team hoped Alvarez would break out of his fielding funk and become even more valuable.

It's rarely an easy call to give up on a player, especially one who was a high-profile pick.

Some folks in PNC Park's front offices still are haunted by Jose Bautista — one of the few major gaffes by the current executive group. In August 2007, the Pirates dealt Bautista, then a 27-year-old third baseman, to the Toronto Blue Jays for a backup catcher. Bautista evolved into one of the most feared sluggers in the American League.

This past season, Alvarez became the 54th Opening Day first baseman in the Pirates' 129-year history. Who's next? It could be Michael Morse, an 11-year veteran who was acquired in July and is signed for 2016.

“He is not far removed from a 20-plus home runs season in the big leagues,” Huntington said of Morse, who last season hit a combined .231 with five homers for the Pirates and Miami Marlins.

Huntington also will explore the free agent crop (which has few standout first basemen this year) and mull trade possibilities. MLB's annual winter meetings, where such deals often are struck, begin Monday in Nashville, Tenn.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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