The concerns have nothing to do with his arm (which is above-average) or his production (which should certainly suffice at a position that typically produces middle-of-the-lineup bats). The issue has always surrounded his physical conditioning.
In his first full season of professional baseball, Alvarez played third for Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona. However, how Alvarez fares in the offseason conditioning program he has recently begun will go a long way in determining whether the third baseman can ascend to the Majors at his natural defensive position.
"He wants to stay there," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He has worked hard to get back into third base-type condition and he's done a nice job with that. It will ultimately depend on the body. He has the feet. He has the hands. He has the arm. He has the athleticism to play third. Does he physically give himself a chance to stay there? As we sit here today, the answer is yes. He's worked hard."
Alvarez spent much of last offseason working and conditioning at Vanderbilt. It wasn't long after he began working under the supervision of the Pirates staff, though, that the organization expressed disappointment and concern over Alvarez's level of conditioning, which they expected to be better than it was.
In an effort to ensure that Alvarez continues the conditioning work he began during the Minor League season, he headed out to Phoenix shortly after returning from Italy, where he won a gold medal with Team USA during the World Cup. He is spending the offseason there, training at the Athletes' Performance Institute.
As explained by Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development, Alvarez is focusing primarily on strength, conditioning and nutrition, with the objective being that Alvarez will show up at Spring Training in peak physical condition. The Pirates chose for this workout and nutrition regimen to be Alvarez's focus, rather than sending him out to play winter ball somewhere.
"We will be in constant contact with him this offseason to make sure that he's able to meet the goals that we're setting for him," Huntington said. "I don't want to portray that he's in terrible shape, because he's actually in the best shape he has been since he's been a Pirate. I don't want the negative that he's overweight. We're just trying to get him to take that next step to put him in position to be able to play third base for 150-plus games for many, many years to come."
Should Alvarez not be able to stick at third base because of his body size, a move to first base would be in order. At this point, though, that remains solely a contingency plan and not the preference of either party.
Alvarez hit .288 with 27 homers and 95 RBIs this past season. The possibility certainly remains that Alvarez will make his Major League debut at some point in 2010, especially if he meets the goals of this offseason program.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.