BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's certainly debatable as to where the anticipation lies for the Pirates' 2010 season.
Some, of course, will point to Opening Day. It marks a fresh start, another year laced with increased hope and higher expectations. It's a day that breaks with palpable optimism.
In Pittsburgh, however, Opening Day will likely be trumped by another date before the season comes to a close, regardless of whether the Pirates make their first serious run at .500 in more than a decade. No one knows the exact date yet, though many have their guesses. But everyone knows what's going to happen.
Not since Barry Bonds have the Pirates had a prospect with as much superstar potential as Alvarez. Aramis Ramirez, Jose Guillen and Andrew McCutchen enjoyed similar hype upon their arrivals in Pittsburgh, but all to a lesser degree than what Bonds received and what Alvarez is expected to get.
Like Bonds in the mid-1980s, Alvarez has the tools to complement the hype, the ability to match the expectations. And the good news for Pirates fans: He'll be here soon.
Alvarez, whom MLB.com ranked as baseball's eighth-best prospect heading into the season, is the premier piece in a group of three prospects whom the organization expects to see in Pittsburgh by season's end. Outfielder Jose Tabata and right-hander Brad Lincoln round out that trio.
Because of tempered win-column expectations (at least externally), the Pirates' season could well end up being defined by the entrance of these three and the ripple effect that those arrivals have on the rest of the Major League roster.
"To have that pushes us to be in a position where if those guys come up, they can be a difference-maker for us," starter Zach Duke said. "Any time you feel like your team is going to get better with the additions, it is an exciting time. Those guys who are right on the cusp of the big leagues are certainly ready to make an impact."
That begs two questions, though, which will be answered in the course of the 162-game season: What is the timetable for these prospects, and what pressure does their presence put on already-established Major League players?
The club isn't setting any target dates, but with Alvarez, Lincoln and Tabata all beginning the season at Triple-A, each is just a phone call away.
Financial implications would make it advantageous for the Pirates to wait until at least the end of May before summoning any one from that group to the Majors. By doing so, the club would push back both arbitration and free-agent eligibility by one year. And while management doesn't mention this as a factor, know that it is a significant point of discussion.
Alvarez, for one, will make his own timetable by what he accomplishes in the Minors. Management wants to see him put together better at-bats against left-handers, and there are still questions about whether he can stick at third base in the long term.
But when Alvarez shows he's ready for the step up, no one will stop him.
"My thing is just to try and get there as quickly as possible," said Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. "I feel very confident in my ability to play this game and play it at this level. I just have to keep working hard at it."
Alvarez's eventual arrival obviously puts pressure on Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche to prove that he can still be an integral part of this team once Alvarez is promoted. If LaRoche can show more consistent offensive production, the Pirates haven't ruled out moving Alvarez to first base or converting LaRoche into a second baseman down the road. If LaRoche doesn't perform early, though, he could find himself handing his starting job over before the middle of the summer.
"I know he's there," LaRoche said. "He's a great player. He's a phenomenal athlete. When his time is ready, he'll be there. I would love to see both of us in the lineup."
In the cases of Tabata and Lincoln -- both of whom finished last season in Triple-A -- opportunities to reach the Majors might not be so entirely self-dictated. Lincoln could be ushered up to the Majors earlier than expected if the Pirates' rotation ends up having some holes. He could also be held back if the starting five all perform up to expectation and stay healthy.
For Tabata, the health and effectiveness of Garrett Jones and Lastings Milledge will have an effect on when he will be making his big league debut. Still, both have the ability to push the timetable up based on how quickly they meet development checkpoints early in the year.
The anticipation of Alvarez's imminent arrival and the eventual impact additions of Lincoln and Tabata give the organization something to look forward to regardless of what the on-field results might be early in the year.
If this team exceeds expectations and is competitive into the second half of the season, these three prospects could be quality complementary pieces. If the early results are disappointing, these prospects could at least provide a reason to keep watching come August and September.
Either way, there is intrigue. There are storylines. And there is a reason that the 2010 season is opening with anticipation.
"When I was coming up through the Minors, we didn't have that much depth," noted McCutchen. "We had the team in the big leagues and we had just a select few guys that could take their places. Now, we have that depth in the Minors. We have guys behind us that when they get here, they'll be able to execute things that need to be executed and help us win ballgames. It's going to be real fun."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.