By Alex Sibley
April 6, 2012 7:00 a.m. PITTSBURGH —
Most of the press was long gone by the time Pedro Alvarez made his way to his clubhouse stall following the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1-0 opening day loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Thursday afternoon.
That lack of attention is a change of pace for a player that has lived under the microscope starting with his arrival in 2010.
Attention often comes with the territory when you’re the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, which Alvarez was in 2008. And it only gets more intense when you’re labeled one of the main cogs that would help the Pirates reach October baseball for the first time since gas prices didn’t require a second mortgage.
“A lot has been expected out of him early in his career,” said Pittsburgh’s center fielder Andrew McCutchen said of Alvarez, who made his debut in 2010. “You expect a lot out of the guy coming out of college, a first-round draft pick. He’s going to have that added pressure because of all that.”
It’s been quite the ride for Alvarez in his first two seasons. In his rookie year, the Vanderbilt product belted 16 home runs and batted .256, only to follow that up with a horrid, injury-plagued 2011 where his average dipped to .191 with just four home runs.
It didn’t go unnoticed. Pirates fans are becoming frustrated. In his second at-bat on Thursday, a strikeout in the fifth against Roy Halladay, some boos could be heard from the 39,585 patrons, the largest ever to see a game at PNC Park.
The only not noticing the criticism is Alvarez.
“I only hear the criticism when it’s talked about,” said Alvarez, who finished 0-3 on Thursday batting in the seventh spot in the lineup. “I just try to come in everyday and work as much as I can to get better. That’s it.”
His spring numbers won’t help his case and most certainly won’t silence the critics.
Alvarez hit just .170 with two home runs in Bradenton, Fla. during the spring. And unlike years past with the Pirates, there is stiff competition for the third base spot.
Most notably is Matt Hague. Hague, a former 2007 draft pick of the Cleveland Indians and a ninth-round selection of the Pirates in the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft, flat out mashed the ball in spring training. He had a .400 average with seven homers.
Hague is normally a first baseman. He played 383 career games there in the minors, compared to 66 at third. But Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said earlier this spring he could be an option at third in certain situations.
He’s definitely ready.
“Whenever my name is called upon to get the opportunity, I’ll be ready,” said Hague, who batted .309 with 12 home runs and 75 RBIs last season at Triple-A Indianapolis. “That’s my job — to just be ready when (Hurdle) calls my name.”
The length of the leash could and should be much shorter this season for Alvarez. In a weak National League Central Division, the Pirates have a roster of young talent and a strong pitching staff that has the chance make some noise.
“They have a very good team,” Philadelphia catcher Carlos Ruiz said. “They have a lot of young guys that can swing the bat and also have a very good bullpen. They’re real good this year.”
Hurdle is going to have a difficult decision to make if Alvarez still has the yips in a month or two from now. Stick with Alvarez, or go another route at the hot corner?
Hurdle is no doubt a backer and believer in Alvarez. He stuck with Alvarez’s choice to ditch playing Winter Ball and train on the West Coast — an odd decision when you look at Alvarez’s numbers last season.
But it’s also Hurdle’s job to put the best nine athletes on the field who can produce — and that hasn’t been Alvarez. Not since 2010, anyway.
That isn’t lost on Alvarez, either. He knows that he’s fighting for his job every game.
“There is always a battle, nothing is handed to anybody here,” Alvarez said. “You always have to stay on top of your game and earn your spot.”
What is not known is if Alvarez is capable of keeping that spot. Can he turn it around? Or are the Buccos willing to settle for inconsistent production from a player that was supposed to turn the franchise relevant again?
One game down in 2012. And we’re still wondering.