Bucs hope Alvarez takes ownership of cleanup spot

Young slugger aims to improve after struggling in brief stint as No. 4 hitter in 2012

Bucs hope Alvarez takes ownership of cleanup spot

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When the Pirates bus Saturday morning to Port Charlotte to engage the Tampa Bay Rays in their Grapefruit League opener, it will be the first preview of their new look.

It will not, however, offer a first look at what manager Clint Hurdle is hoping becomes a fixture: Pedro Alvarez in the cleanup spot, as the centerpiece of a deep lineup.

The first extended look at Alvarez as a cleanup hitter came early last season. It wasn't a good look, because people soon were watching through the spread-fingers of their hands covering their faces. Garrett Jones owned the four-hole for the latter half of the 2012 season.

It did not go well for Alvarez in his brief stint in the four-hole. Promoted there on May 5 after a torrid stretch had jacked his average to .260, Alvarez immediately chilled and went on to hit .138 -- with one home run and 35 strikeouts in 87 at-bats -- in his month in that spot. He did not revisit it the rest of the season.

Asked Thursday whether he might've been undone by putting extra pressure on himself to perform in that pivotal role, Alvarez, with characteristic reticence, said, "No."

At any rate, there is a consensus in camp that coming off what evolved into a 30-homer season, and one which he had finished hot enough to wind up registering the fourth-best average (.244) on the team, Alvarez now has the self-assurance to comfortably transition into the cleanup spot.

"Our vision is that we will be best served when he puts his foot down and takes ownership of that spot," Hurdle said. "It's something we've already talked about, and we'll see how it plays out. We'll start Saturday, and will work our way from there.

"Definitely, you'd like to find a guy you can put in that spot and leave him alone, and Pedro is definitely one we're considering."

The other prime option remains Jones, who became the primary No. 4 hitter following the audition of Alvarez and whose production there ignited the Pirates' midseason surge.

No one on this team, though, brings the game-changing caliber of Alvarez, who disputed the observation that he appears to be much more at ease this spring than a year ago, when he was working his way back from a nightmarish 2011.

"Everything feels in place, everything's good. Now it's just a matter of transitioning into games," Alvarez said. "But to be honest with you, I feel the same. I came in last year with a positive outlook on things, and I feel like I'm carrying myself the same way now. So although you're thinking I look a little more upbeat, I do feel the same."

Alvarez consistently keeps his emotions private; also, in remarkable control. If maintaining an even keel is indeed important in a daily sport such as baseball -- as veterans are always preaching -- the Bucs' hot sacker has that ingredient of success nailed down.

Strikeouts or home runs, they're not written on his face. Alvarez takes his lumps the same way he takes his bows. Some people might want to see more elation in triumph and more pique in defeat, but Alvarez isn't here to conform to others' ideals, and his manager would not want him to try.

"That's a loaded question for me," Hurdle said. "I like our guys being themselves. I'm very, very comfortable with the determination and the intensity level our guys have. All of them.

"I've played with players who showed no emotion to the fans and were criticized for that, but they had no idea of the energy and intensity they had in the game. I've also seen guys who were all pomp and circumstance, and the fans really bought into that, and reality in the clubhouse didn't always match up to that."

The proof of Alvarez's mindset might be in the playing. Last spring, under that aforementioned burden, he struggled mightily out of the Grapefruit gate, batting .170 in 19 exhibitions, with 22 strikeouts to nine hits.

He does not seem to share the importance the club places on his ability to produce in the cleanup spot.

"[Hurdle] hasn't talked to me about it," Alvarez said, "but I think [where I hit] is irrelevant. I just want the opportunity to be able to help this team out wherever I can. I'll be grateful for any opportunity I get. Where that comes is something out of my control. Wherever they deem appropriate to put me, I'll gladly take it. How can I help the team out? It doesn't matter where I'm at."

In the lineup, that is. On the field, it's got to be at third base, where he considers himself able to help his pitcher as much as damage the other team's guy. Alvarez has an admirable arm and quick hands, and he has focused his work on the footwork to make the defensive package complete.

"I consider that one of the biggest parts of my game -- how can I help out my pitcher? Saving some runs from scoring is something I always take a lot of pride in," said Alvarez, whose Major League-leading 27 errors (eight more than anyone else at the position) mostly came on errant throws on relatively simple plays when he was caught off balance.

"That all went into his offseason plan, work up first-step quickness," Hurdle said of Alvarez's time at the IMG Academy. "We always ask our guys, 'Find different ways to improve yourself coming in.' That first step can help in so many different ways, not just on defense. On the bases, too,"

Not to mention, at the gate. Have Alvarez get out of it fast, and there's no telling how high he can push his ceiling.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.