No. 28 Pirates: 3rd in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Padres.
While it may not be enough to soothe the pain of 19 consecutive losing seasons, Pirates fans at least have someone to blame. That would be Pedro Alvarez, or perhaps Greg Smith and Neal Huntington.
Alvarez turns 25 in February, so it's not fair to call him a bust. But he's sure trending that way, and even if he clicks down the road he and Pittsburgh fans still will have their scars from 2011.
It's a distant memory now, but agent of change Clint Hurdle had the Pirates in first place in the tepid NL Central on July 19 last season. They were 51-44, in large part because of a terrific bullpen. They somehow went 21-46 the rest of the way, falling to 18 games below .500 in fourth place.
Huntington knew his pitching wouldn't hold up. Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton will carry you only so far. But he and Hurdle, a combination manager/hitting coach, figured the Pirates would start scoring runs.
It didn't happen, even though Huntington added Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in trades. Alvarez, who hit in the No. 5 spot on Opening Day, got off to a slow start, spent time on the disabled list with a strained quad and returned in late July only to do a belly flop into the deep end. He finished with a slash line of .191/.272/.289 in 74 games, somehow managing only 14 extra-base hits.
The Pirates, who averaged only 3.5 runs in their last 67 games, could have used three times that. They thought he might be that type of hitter when they started the ride with him.
Others agreed. Baseball America went so far as to make an Albert Pujols comparison in its scouting report before the 2009 season.
"Alvarez has the talent and charisma to become the face of a struggling franchise that has lacked star power since Barry Bonds left as a free agent following the 1992 season,'' it wrote. "Pittsburgh hopes to build a lineup around him that can end a streak of losing seasons that began after Bonds departed.''
Alvarez spent the winter in California, working with agent Scott Boras' staff to regain his batting stroke and his confidence. Hurdle said Alvarez has worked hard on his conditioning — "He's doing a very complex and big time set of training skills out there'' — but knows his success in 2012 will depend largely on clearing his mind.
"Once he put (down) those bags, those emotional bags, he had been carrying around all season, he's feeling better about himself, he's working hard,'' Hurdle said. "Everything is in a better place. Very upbeat, very positive.''
While Hurdle is counting heavily on rising stars Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, he knows it's hard for the low-revenue Pirates to add anyone with the upside of Alvarez. They have made some relatively minor moves for 2012, signing shortstop Clint Barmes and power-hitting catcher Rod Barajas and trading for the Brewers' Casey McGehee, who's trying to bounce off his own bad season. McGehee will provide insurance or a platoon option for Alvarez (and first baseman Garrett Jones).
Say a prayer for Alvarez. And another for the Pirates.
•The Pirates believe they will be hurt by the draft spending caps in the new CBA. They were the high spender in 2011, investing $17 million on the likes of UCLA's Gerrit Cole and high school stars Josh Bell and Clay Holmes in the draft, and have spent $52 million over the last five drafts. That's the most in the majors, followed most closely by the Nationals, Royals, Red Sox and Orioles.
•The Pirates also have been both aggressive and creative internationally. Switch-hitting shortstop Gift Ngoepe, who is trying to be the first black African to play in the big leagues, hit .306 in limited duty in the South Atlantic League.
•Huntington is an optimist. Trying to snap the 19-year losing streak, he has imported lefties Erik Bedard and Jo-Jo Reyes. Bedard's health has allowed him to make only 54 starts over the last four seasons (but 24 last season); Reyes endured a 28-start stretch in which he was 0-13 with a 6.59 ERA.
•The short-lived success of Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek may make the bullpen appear stronger than it is, especially without Jose Veras, who was traded for McGehee. In 2011 Pittsburgh ranked 20th in the majors with a 3.76 bullpen ERA.
•Cole, selected by the Pirates with the first overall pick, isn't nearly as polished as lefty Danny Hultzen, whom the Mariners got with the second pick. Cole could need at least a couple of years in the minors; Hultzen has a chance to start his career in Seattle.