Spring Postcard: Pittsburgh could surprise with young talent
Stud prospect Pedro Alvarez is drawing rave reviews at his first spring training
New pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is taking a hands-on approach with the staff
If you haven't noticed, Ryan Doumit has quietly emerged as a top fantasy catcher
1) El Toro is stealing the show.
"He has Willie Stargell's swing," former Pirates All-Star catcher Manny Sanguillen said. "I know that swing. Wow. Power."
"A Baby Pujols," marveled a drooling scout shaking his head as he roamed the fields.
Said shortstop Jack Wilson in the Pirates locker room after watching the phenom take his cuts during a workout: "The kid is the real deal."
The kid is Pedro Alvarez -- the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft -- and while he may not take a swing at PNC Park in 2009, he was all the buzz in Pirate City.
"It's hard not to love what you see," GM Neal Huntington said one morning, with the big smile of a guy who'd just taken a new set of wheels out for a spin. "Tremendous upside. It's been 10 months since he last played a competitive game, but we're already seeing it. You hear [first base coach] Perry Hill talk about how he likes the foundation of what he does defensively as a third baseman; you hear [hitting coach] Don Long talk about how he's got an advanced approach as a hitter; you hear Manny Sanguillen drop the Willie Stargell comparison. He's still 22 and got a long ways to go, but the ceiling, we're certainly seeing it. We're very pleased with his progress."
Listed at 6-foot-3, 233 pounds -- his teammates at Vanderbilt called him "El Toro" (The Bull) -- Alvarez, to the delight of the Pirates, reported to camp slimmed down after his conditioning was questioned this winter. Watch Alvarez take his cuts in person, and you immediately see his offensive skills: the scary bat speed that allows him to rip balls to all fields; the quick hands that permit him to let the ball go deep into the strike zone; the professional approach at the plate that allows him to consistently make solid contact. Scouts and coaches wonder if Alvarez ultimately will stay at third. He possesses a good arm, but has average range and agility. Regardless, whether it's at third or in the outfield, Alvarez will be a premier No. 3 hitter and the face of the Pirates for years to come. As for his arrival in The Show? Interestingly enough, Pirates manager John Russell hasn't ruled out the possibility that he will be starring at PNC Park this summer. Stayed tuned.
2) The Professor has arrived.
"His strength is game planning, and that's a key match for us," said Huntington. "We had times last year where we struggled in the first inning. We struggled with making adjustments on the fly or helping guys eliminate big innings. Joe's strength is recognizing pitchers' strengths and making in-game adjustments. It's an area where we certainly needed improvement."
3) Ray of Hope.
The Pirates did take the Rays' run to heart. "They were able to go out there and do it and Detroit did it a couple years ago when they went to the World Series," says Wilson, who has played for eight of the Pirates' losing teams. "It makes you think that it can happen for anybody. You keep that in your thoughts. They're where you want to get to."
Said Huntington, "Anytime you see a team go from 90-plus losses to 90-plus wins, it gives you hope. It gives you reasons for optimism. You look at the Twins and they lose Johan Santana and Torii Hunter and brought in some young players and really built around their core. Projected to win somewhere in the low 70s, they won in the upper 80s and played a meaningful game one day after the season ended last year."
Prospect creating a buzz
One day after workouts, Russell was talking about -- who else? -- The Phenom, Alvarez, when he suddenly changed the subject. "You know, you should watch [Jose] Tabata hit," he replied. "Jose Tabata is kind of going under the radar here, but this kid has a special bat as well."
Indeed, Tabata's been under Alvarez's shadow, but he's shown that he will be a big part of the Pirates future, as well. Tabata -- acquired in July in the Nady trade with the Yankees -- is expected to start the season at Class AA Altoona to start the season, but he'll get at-bats at Class AAA Indianapolis and may even take a few cuts in Pittsburgh late this year. Tabata earned a bad reputation in the Yankees organization after leaving a game early at Class AA Trenton, but the Pirates have liked Tabata's quiet attitude thus far. The Pirates have also liked what they've seen on the field this spring -- he has big gap power that they think ultimately will turn into home run power.
If you haven't noticed, Ryan Doumit has quietly emerged as a top fantasy catcher. At 28, Doumit is entering his prime and showed remarkable consistency last year -- there wasn't a month that he hit below .290. Last spring, Doumit -- a former outfielder and first baseman -- didn't even bring his catcher's mitt to camp, but then he took the starting job from Ronny Paulino. His .318 batting average would have ranked fourth in the league, but he was 37 plate appearances short of qualifying. Doumit won't fall short this year. Coaches in Pirates camp think he's primed for a big year. While he won't have any eye-popping RBI totals in the Pirates lineup, he's a decent bet to hit over .300 with close to 20 home runs.
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