NL Central spring training preview (cont.)
The Big Question: Is Pedro Alvarez still a future star?
A year ago, Alvarez was coming off the big September surge that capped his rookie season, and was ripe with all of the promise one might expect from a slugger who was the second-overall pick in the 2008 draft and a top 10 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2010 season.
In 2011, however, Alvarez didn't hit at all. He was batting .208/.283/.304 with just two home runs when a quadriceps injury shelved him for two months, and he was even worse after he returned, hitting just .173/.260/.273 with two more taters over his final 124 plate appearances, which surrounded a brief late-August demotion.
There was no silver-lining to that performance. Alvarez didn't just struggle, he was the 10th-worst hitter in baseball out of the 306 with 250 or more plate appearances last year, posting a 56 OPS+ (100 is average) that matched Adam Dunn's mark in his disastrous debut season with the White Sox. Alvarez is now 25 and a career .230/.304/.392 hitter in the major leagues. This is a player who was supposed to be a pillar of the Pirates rebuilding, a player many ranked ahead of Andrew McCutchen as a prospect. One has to wonder if that potential is still there, or, if not, how much of it remains.
The Big Battle: Leftfield
After making the All-Star team and winning an (undeserved) Gold Glove as the Pirates centerfielder in 2008, Nate McLouth was traded to the Braves in 2009 and hit just .229/.335/.364 in parts of three seasons with Atlanta. The Pirates brought McLouth back on a one-year deal this winter, and he'll likely challenge Alex Presley for the leftfield job this spring, though the 26-year-old Presley should prove victorious.
The Big Prospect: Gerrit Cole
The top pick in the 2011 draft is just one of three Pirates prospects, along with fellow righties Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia, who could grow up to be legitimate major league aces. However, Cole, who made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League after signing with the Pirates, is the only one of the three who will be in major league camp this spring.
A solid 6-foot-4, the 21-year-old Cole can hit triple-digits on the radar gun, compliments that heat with a wicked slider and above-average changeup and expects to be on the fast track to the major leagues, starting with a full-season assignment in April.
The Big Question: Can Ian Stewart rebound from his lost 2011 season?
The first trade made by the Cubs' new front office, headed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, brought Stewart to Chicago as Aramis Ramirez's replacement at third base coming off a season in which Stewart hit .156/.243/.221 without a home run in 136 major league plate appearances. The price for Stewart wasn't high. Third-year outfielder Tyler Colvin was barely any better at .150/.204/.306 last year and is only five months younger than Stewart, while infielder DJ LeMahieu can hit for average but lacks power, patience, or a defensive home.
Still, Stewart didn't exactly set the world on fire even before his disastrous 2011 season. He has 20-homer power, but is an average fielder and hit a fairly pedestrian .246/.334/.454 in two and a half seasons as the Rockies third baseman from 2008 to 2010, that despite the fact that he was the rare Rockie who hit almost as well on the road as at home.
The good news on Stewart is that he hit .275/.359/.591 with 14 homers in 195 Triple-A plate appearances last year and it can be argued that the Rockies were too quick to demote him in April and again after just 24 plate appearances in May, given that one can point to injury and illness (sprained knee, hamstring, flu) as possible reasons for his early-season slump.
The Big Battle: Centerfield
The addition of rightfielder David DeJesus would seem to have signaled that the Cubs top prospect, centerfielder Brett Jackson, will start the 2012 season back in Triple-A. However, unlike first baseman Anthony Rizzo -- whom the front office has explicitly stated will start the season in the minors -- Jackson just might have a chance to break camp with the team. He could force incumbent centerfielder Marlon Byrd into a platoon with the left-handed DeJesus in rightfield or he could secure a bench role as a roving fourth outfielder.
The Big Prospect: Brett Jackson
Jackson, the team's first-round pick in 2009, is a five-tool centerfielder, though not necessarily a future superstar. A career .292/.393/.491 hitter in the minors, Jackson has 20-homer power, can steal a similar number of bases at a solid percentage, is a competent defensive centerfielder with a strong arm and will take his share of walks. He's also prone to strikeouts, though, which suggests he might not hit for much average in the majors, and he doesn't do any one thing at an elite level.
Still, the 23-year-old is the team's top prospect and hit .297/.388/.551 in 215 plate appearances after a mid-season promotion to Triple-A last year and could well be the Cubs' best outfielder from the get-go this year. He, Rizzo, and shortstop Starlin Castro are expected to give Epstein and Hoyer a young offensive core to build around, and Chicago's hope is that Rizzo and Jackson will join Castro in the majors by the second half of this season at the latest.
The Big Question: Who are these guys?
Of the eight men in the Astros projected 2012 lineup, just two -- veteran Carlos Lee and centerfielder Jason Bourgeois -- were on the team's Opening Day roster in 2011, and it's not as if the other six (as well as possible outfield alternates Brian Bogusevic and Jordan Schafer, neither of whom was on the 2011 Opening Day roster, either) were big-name additions or highly-touted prospects. Lee is the only one of the 17 hitters on the Astros 40-man roster to get enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in either of the last two seasons, and it's hard to look at that group and see it as anything other than a Triple-A lineup.
The Big Battle: Outfield
Lee is shifting to first base, and 24-year-old J.D. Martinez, arguably the top hitter among the group of young Astros who filled in the lineup late last year, will take his place in leftfield. Exactly who will be roaming the other two pastures, however, has yet to be decided. Fallen Braves prospect Schafer, who came over from Atlanta in the Michael Bourn trade, will battle the 30-year-old Bourgeois for the centerfield job, while Bogusevic, who turns 28 this weekend, will try to hold off 24-year-old rookie J.B. Shuck in rightfield.
Schafer, 25, was once considered the Braves' centerfielder of the future, but he hasn't hit at any level since 2008 and was busted for marijuana possession in October after hitting just .242/.309/.315 in 337 plate appearances for the Braves and Astros last year, his first major league action since 2009. Bourgeois isn't appreciably better and is already past his natural peak. Shuck is a hard-nosed player who will take a walk, but is unlikely to eke out a career as a major league starter given a dearth of other skills. Bogusevic was converted from pitching in 2008, which means he's younger in terms of development than his actual age, and is the best hitter of the quartet, but that's not saying much.
The Big Prospect: Jonathan Singleton
Acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade along with the organization's top pitching prospect, Jarred Cosart, who won't be in major league camp this spring, Singleton immediately became the Astros' top hitting prospect. The 20-year-old first baseman has hit .294/.393/.456 in two-plus minor league seasons as a teenager, topping out at High-A last year, and more power is expected from him as he matures. If that happens, he'll be a legitimate heart-of-the-order slugger, which is what he'll have to be given that he offers nothing in the field or on the bases.