Highs And Lows
Alvarez stays steady despite slow start
By Kary Booher
KINSTON, N.C. —Glamorous it is not, and that's obvious as Pedro Alvarez slips behind the billboard-lined wall on a recent Carolina League stop.
Across an aging blacktop street buzzes a lawnmower as it chops a small patch on a corner lot, and an old warehouse just half a block down looks like it could use a paint job.
This is a Saturday afternoon, just ahead of batting practice, so the healthy stream of spectators that will funnel into the Kinston's Grainger Stadium is still hours away.
But even then, the crowds are much friendlier, much more reserved than the passionate rowdies that Alvarez saw regularly in pit stops in his Southeastern Conference days.
To Alvarez, taken second overall last June by the Pirates and now a member of the Lynchburg Hillcats, his new surroundings are actually pretty neat. Even the bus rides. That much is clear as he leans against the back outfield wall and smiles.
"Oh, it's no different from where I grew up. Playing three years in the SEC, I did get kind of spoiled," said Alvarez, who was raised in a two-bedroom New York City apartment. "But the great thing about the SEC is it is so tough, it gets you ready for the grind and it makes you focus on every pitch, every inning."
He later added: "How can you complain when all you have to do is play baseball?"
With that in mind, Alvarez is eager to become a sponge—his manager's word—as the third baseman traverses through his first full season, a year in which the Pirates want to see strides made in whittling down his own strike zone and in enhancing back-hand plays at the hot corner.
First, however, Alvarez is searching for that one special week that sends him stalking the Carolina League leaderboard, a surge that became his signature at Vanderbilt.
Through his first 103 at-bats, the lefthanded hitter had mixed results in batting just .214/.328/.417 with six home runs as well as three doubles and 25 RBIs. But he also had drawn 19 walks against 32 strikeouts.
Those close to him say not to worry, that his workmanlike approach on the field and easy-going demeanor off it will enable Alvarez to find his comfort zone.
"He knows people want to see him succeed because he's the most talked-about prospect in America," said shortstop Jordy Mercer, a third-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2008 and one-time teammate with Team USA. "And he wants to go out and do that. He's got all the tools, all the makeup you need."
Farm director Kyle Stark recently spoke with Alvarez, who was hard on himself even though he had not played competitively since last June until spring training.
"He said, 'Yeah, but we're 20 games in,' " Stark said. "I said, 'We've got 120 games to go.' We've got plenty of time."
Fortunately, Alvarez does not lack confidence.
Sure, he's got the big pedigree, the big contract and arguably the most recognized representatives in sports, the Scott Boras Corp.
In fact, when the union filed a grievance last August and successfully argued that he was not signed until two minutes after the Aug. 15 deadline, the Pirates had to return to the negotiating table. Alavarez eventually signed for a $6 million bonus as part of a slightly increased $6.355 million major league contract.
Still, Alvarez appeared to be handling his star status thanks to his time in big league camp.
"I felt like I belonged in the locker room, but the reason I felt that way was because they were so accepting of me," Alvarez said. "Everybody goes through slumps. Hearing it from them, from people who have gone through slumps and gotten through them, it does help me a lot."
Good, then, because the slow start to his season apparently had not gotten the better of him.
"He's a sponge," Lynchburg manager P.J. Forbes said. "And he puts into practice what we're working on. He's one of those guys, and that makes it fun. He comes off as wanting to be a very good baseball player."
Mercer adds that Alvarez still busts jokes in the clubhouse. Asked if he might seek revenge in kangaroo court, Mercer broke into a wide grin, saying, "I'm sure we'll get him a few times. He's got that coming."
An easy-going attitude could become a positive. Offensively, he's expanding his zone too frequently and giving away at-bats, even striking out nine times in 15 at-bats in a series at Kinston.
"You feel like he's always going to give you a quality at-bat," Forbes said. "What he has to do early in the game when he gets in a two-strike count, he just needs to drive a run in. But he has to realize he doesn't have to hit a long fly ball. He can hit it to second base and get the job done."
Defensively, Alvarez is taking grounders in afternoon workouts. Because he's bulky at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he has difficulty ranging to his right and then trying to retire a speedy runner.
Forbes, a long-time minor league infielder, is encouraged with Alvarez's range to his left but stresses improvement in backhand plays. The emphasis centers on his set up.
"It's about repetitions and understanding the game is going to get faster (in the higher levels)," Forbes said. "And the importance of being ready in his pre-pitch is going to help him out."
All of the lessons are sinking in.
"I don't want to start guessing at pitches. I want to be able to react to pitches," Alvarez said. "Once I get acclimated and start getting acclimated to the pitchers, then I will start adapting. Right now I'm just trying to battle.
"Defensively, well, I take pride in my defense, and it's coming along."