Pedro Alvarez, 3B: The No. 2 overall pick in last year's Draft made headlines for the wrong reasons at the signing deadline. Now it's time for him to turn heads with his play on the field. Alvarez already has helped people forget what happened in August with the effort he's made to get in shape and his ability with the bat. He's got power now and the ball makes a different sound coming off his bat. He hasn't looked overmatched at all in big league camp. While he hasn't gotten that much game action at third base, he's been putting in a lot of work defensively and no one is questioning his ability to stay there. The hope was that Alvarez would be an elite hitter who could move quickly through the Pirates system. And that's exactly what it looks like he'll be.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Shelby Ford, 2B: Since being taken in the third round of the 2006 Draft, Ford has hit .283 with a .350 on-base percentage; solid but not spectacular. That about sums up Ford, who spent all of last season at Double-A Altoona. He doesn't have the plus tools that jump out at you, but he's solid-average in just about every facet of the game. He's gotten increasingly better defensively at second base. Offensively, he's a switch-hitter with some extra-base pop, though he's never likely to hit many home runs. He runs well enough and his instincts and effort help him maximize the skills he does have. The 24-year-old should move up to Triple-A and, after getting some time in big league camp, could be ready to help out if and when the need arises in Pittsburgh.
Robbie Grossman, OF: The Pirates took Grossman in the sixth round of last year's Draft, then gave him a $1 million bonus to keep him from going to the University of Texas. He's not the type of player who's going to wow you with any one tool, but he's a switch-hitter who grades out as solid-average across the board. He's a real cage rat who loves to play and his makeup should allow him to maximize the tools he has. He's got the chance to be good on both sides of the ball and should have enough to stay in center field, with just enough power and just enough speed to become a solid all-around player. Wherever he starts his first full season, he could be a fun one to watch because he's the type who knows only one speed: full.
Brad Lincoln, RHP: Don't look at Lincoln's numbers from the 2008 season. The fact he made 19 healthy starts is good news enough. The 2006 first-rounder had Tommy John surgery in April 2007 after throwing only 23 2/3 innings in his pro debut. He had a 4.69 ERA over 103 2/3 innings, but it's interesting to note he walked only 17, an impressively low number considering control often eludes TJ surgery patients in their first year. His velocity and stuff was back and his delivery is better than it was before the injury. Another year removed, the Pirates are curious to see if there's more crispness with his fastball, slider and changeup, which has been improving, this season. He pounded the strike zone last year; now the Pirates are hoping that his command within the zone improves. If that happens, he may not be far away from contributing in Pittsburgh.
Andrew McCutchen, OF: The talent-rich draft class of 2005 already has had some considerable big league success, even among the high school outfielders in the group. So it might seem that McCutchen's star has faded because he hasn't gotten there yet. Keep in mind, however, that he's still only 22 and was a Triple-A All-Star last season. A tremendous athlete, he's learning rapidly how to become a better baseball player. His plate discipline has improved, but the challenge now is for him to get a good swing on pitches he can drive, letting his plus bat speed generate power, rather than trying to do too much. With his speed, he has the chance to be an impact player both offensively and defensively. Regardless of where he ultimately hits, the key for McCutchen is to have the same approach no matter what, something he'll likely have to do back in Triple-A, waiting for his first opportunity.
Daniel McCutchen, RHP: Acquired from the Yankees in that Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade, McCutchen gets high marks for his competitiveness and strike-throwing ability. He goes right after hitters and buys into the mentality the Pirates are trying to establish with all their pitchers. He's got a fastball he can throw up to 94 mph. His breaking ball has some serious bite to it and his changeup can be an above-average pitch. He pounds the strike zone with all his pitches and has solid command. People may see that he's 26 and think he's been knocking around a while, but he didn't enter pro ball until 2006 as a fifth-year senior. He could pitch in a variety of roles, though the Pirates still see him as a starter. He's getting a look for a rotation spot, and even if he heads back to the Minors it wouldn't be surprising to see him contribute at some point.
Bryan Morris, RHP: The Pirates didn't get a chance to see much of Morris after they got him from the Dodgers as part of the three-team Jason Bay deal. The right-hander made only three starts before being shut down as a precaution with some shoulder/biceps soreness. Tommy John surgery forced him out for all of 2007 and he had toe surgery in December. Needless to say, the Pirates are thrilled he's healthy for the first time in two years and are excited to have him out on the mound regularly. He's got some serious upside as a big, physical right-hander with power stuff. He's got an above-average fastball, his breaking ball could be a strikeout pitch and his change is developing. He came to camp feeling good physically and mentally and the Pirates are hopeful this is the year the 2006 first-rounder starts to put it all together.
Daniel Moskos, LHP: The Pirates' first-round pick in the 2007 Draft, Moskos didn't have the best first full season you'd like to see from a player taken No. 4 overall. He walked 43 over 110 1/3 innings and finished with a 5.95 ERA. Primarily a closer at Clemson, the Pirates asked him to start last year, and making that adjustment may have caused his struggles. He wasn't completely ready for the change, pitching every fifth day took a toll on his overall stuff and his mechanics got out of whack. He has the stuff to start, with a fastball, slider and changeup, all solid-average or above. What his role will be going forward remains to be determined as the staff decides if he needs more innings every five days or should be out there more frequently to get back to where he was in college.
Jose Tabata, OF: Of all the players the Pirates got in the Nady/Marte trade with the Yankees, there's no question Tabata has the biggest upside. Still only 20 years old, his star had faded with the Yankees. The change in scenery seemed to do him some good last year as he hit .348 with a .964 OPS after the trade. He's got some serious impact potential offensively, with above-average raw power, which at the very least should make him an extra-base-hitting run producer. He's a solid defender with good tools and feel for the game. His instincts and approach should allow his tools to play. He's said he didn't handle adversity well last year and the Pirates hope the natural maturation process will help in that regard. Now he's excited to be in the organization of Roberto Clemente, with the goal of manning right field in the future.
Neil Walker, 3B: Watching Walker play third, you'd never know he just switched to the hot corner a year ago. The former catcher is showing the ability to be a good defender. Offensively, the switch-hitter, who was the Pirates' top pick in 2004, had an up and down 2008 campaign, his first at Triple-A. While he struggled in terms of getting on base and strike zone discipline, he did show more power than he had previously. The key for him will be to put it all together, and the Pirates are encouraged about what the 23-year-old can accomplish with the bat and glove. He's had a solid big league camp, something to build off as he's likely to return to Triple-A to refine his overall game.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less