Expectations don't distract Alvarez

Expectations don't distract Alvarez

BRADENTON, Fla. -- By this time last spring, his swing had already been compared to Pirates great Willie Stargell. He was garnering the largest crowd of onlookers during batting practice. He had dented more than one car beyond the right-center-field wall. He was often the first player sought out by visiting members of the media.

Pedro Alvarez was who everyone wanted to see. He was the story. He had already been anointed the coming savior for a franchise that has been looking for a superstar since Barry Bonds elected for free agency in 1992. The hype was palpable, the expectations great.

And to think that all this came before Alvarez ever took the field in a professional baseball game.

So how has the 23-year-old top prospect continued to handle all this? Well, quite humbly, actually.

"Nothing is going to be given to you," Alvarez said following a recent workout at Pirate City. "You just have to keep working hard. There are a lot of things that go into becoming a Major Leaguer. I try to learn every day as much as possible."

There's no discernible sense of entitlement when Alvarez speaks. Nor is there evidence that all this external pressure and expectation eat away at him.

"Obviously he's going to hear it, but how he deals with it is going to help him grow and mature as a player," manager John Russell said of those outside expectations. "Andrew McCutchen heard the same things. It's how you deal with it. I think he's done well separating them."

Alvarez is not interested in getting caught up in what you might think about him or say about him or hope to see from him one day. He's ignoring the comparisons, discarding the projections.

"It's a lot for a young man to face those expectations," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Pedro has a great head on his shoulders. He has a great family. He's humble yet confident, and that's a great element to have. He believes in his abilities, but he knows he has development left.

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"He can't meet people's expectations in a day," Huntington added. "But when we look up at his career at the end of the day, we believe he's going to have had a great one."

There may be no more intriguing storyline in Pittsburgh this season than the one that involves Alvarez, the Vanderbilt prospect whom the Pirates gladly snagged with the No. 2 pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. His inevitable and seemingly imminent arrival in Pittsburgh has already invigorated a frustrated fan base.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let's be careful not to make him a legend just yet.

"To make predictions today would not be fair," Russell cautioned. "Let him be Pedro. Let him go through camp."

Alvarez may be the most singled-out of the 66 players the Pirates have in camp right now, but, in a way, he's just like anyone else. He has developmental benchmarks and plenty of potential for growth. Management has a checklist for him.

Much of that started with Alvarez's physical conditioning, a lack of which made headlines last spring. To improve, Alvarez spent 12 weeks participating in an offseason conditioning program at the Athletes Performance Institute in Phoenix. He sat through nutrition seminars and invested in a weightlifting program.

The Pirates' media guide lists him as 12 pounds lighter this spring than he was a year ago. Alvarez describes himself as better able to get through a day's work than he used to be.

"I think it's obvious that he's in better overall condition than he was last year," Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark added. "I think he's stronger. I think he's more prepared to go through a Spring Training than he was condition-wise a year ago."

However, there is still work to be done, as multiple members of the management team will attest. And how Alvarez takes care of his body will go a long way in determining whether he will stick at third base for the long term.

"He has the hands. He has the arm," Huntington said. "He has the ability to make plays that a third baseman makes. Will he be a third baseman 15 years from now? That's a legitimate question. Physically, he has the attributes to play third. Body composition, can he stay there? That's the question we have to answer."

It's not a question that's going to be answered quickly. And quite frankly, it's a question that Alvarez is likely to face well into his career. But how he fares at the hot corner this season will be a start.

There is one other factor, though to a lesser degree, in determining Alvarez's defensive future.

"It depends what Andy LaRoche goes out and does, and what Jeff Clement goes out and does," Stark explained. "That can affect things as well."

In other words, if the Pirates' greater need turns out to be at first base, the Pirates will consider moving Alvarez to the other side of the diamond. Still, Huntington said Alvarez will not get any work at first this spring and won't during the season unless the situation in Pittsburgh dictates such.

For now, pencil in Alvarez as the starting third baseman for a Triple-A Indianapolis club that is expected to feature three of the Pirates' top prospects at the start of the year. Alvarez didn't touch the Minor League's highest level in 2009, which he split between High A Lynchburg (Va.) and Double-A Altoona (Pa.).

"I have every bit of confidence in myself that I can match up against any of the best players out there, and I think if I keep believing in myself and keep that confidence up there that things will be OK."
-- Pedro Alvarez

Alvarez combined to hit .288 with 27 homers and 95 RBIs in 126 games last season. He also had a penchant for coming up with the clutch hit, another thing that has added to his already-growing legend in Pittsburgh.

"I went through some ups and downs," Alvarez said, particularly noting his slow start in High A. "It's a lot different than any other game I have played before. The thing I learned the most is that you have to constantly make adjustments."

By the end of the year, did he feel he could match up with the best of the best at his level?

"It's like everywhere you play," said Alvarez, whom MLB.com ranked as its eighth-best prospect heading into 2010. "You have your players that stand out. Every team has a couple. I have every bit of confidence in myself that I can match up against any of the best players out there, and I think if I keep believing in myself and keep that confidence up there that things will be OK."

Plenty of honors and opportunities came his way last year, too. Alvarez participated in the All-Star Futures Game in July and played for Team USA in the World Cup tournament two months later. He was named the organization's top Minor League player at the conclusion of the season.

A year removed from his first taste of professional ball, Alvarez is knocking on the Major League door. Many see him taking a route similar to McCutchen's in 2009: a few months of continued seasoning in the Minors and then a debut in Pittsburgh. Barring injury, Alvarez should certainly be donning black and gold before the season ends.

But much like the expectations stacked on his shoulder, Alvarez refuses to pay much attention to a timeline. He'll remind you that, for goodness' sake, he's less than a month removed from his 23rd birthday. He knows that he is on his way. But he plans to enjoy the journey, too.

"You have to envision yourself playing up there, because it keeps things in perspective," Alvarez said. "It constantly reminds you that you have an opportunity, that you have a shot. Whenever they feel like I can get an opportunity or a chance, then I will graciously accept that. But until that happens, I just have to keep focusing on what I have in front of me and take it day by day."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.