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Anticipation builds for Bucs' trio of prospects

Anticipation builds for Bucs' trio of prospects

PHILADELPHIA -- Where are the kids? And when are they going to arrive?

Those were the questions Pirates fans were asking as the season approached. And now, six weeks in, the calls for the kids have only increased.

The kids, of course, are Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln and Jose Tabata. All three sit in Triple-A, merely a phone call away from letting the city of Pittsburgh decide for itself how much of the hype that is attached to them is justified. All three carry immense expectations from a fan base craving for reasons to be optimistic about the future.

This spring, the Pirates emphasized time and time again that they had no intention of rushing any of the three to the Majors. Each needed to meet additional developmental goals, the organization said. Each needed more seasoning, more refining.

That position was repeated in April when the Pirates' pitching staff struggled. It was stated again in May when Pittsburgh's bats went cold and the idea of inserting Alvarez into the lineup seemed more and more appealing.

"We've got to remain disciplined and patient," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The landscape of Major League Baseball is littered with prospects that were rushed to the Major Leagues because of desperation or because of excitement or over-enthusiasm. We need to call them up when they're ready to help us and [can] compete at the Major League level. Our job is to put people in position to be successful, not because we're desperate. There is that fine line."

The Pirates have insisted that the decision to start all three in the Minors was never a financial one. Still, it's about that time in May when teams all around baseball begin to consider summoning their Triple-A studs. The timing isn't a coincidence.

By holding a prospect back for the first part of the season, teams put themselves in position to delay a player's first year of arbitration eligibility, because each year, the top 17 percent of players who have between two and three years of Major League service time are eligible. The rest must wait to complete a third year.

There isn't a defined cutoff date for this "Super Two" period, but it has usually fallen about a week from now.

So with financial concerns about to become moot, now seems as good a time as ever to check in on these three prospects:

Alvarez: After a slow start, Alvarez has caught fire lately with Indianapolis. Since the start of the month, the former No. 2 overall pick has hit .304 with nine extra-base hits (four homers) and 21 RBIs in 15 games. He posted a .224 batting average in April.

For Alvarez, the goals have been plainly laid out. He has to show an ability to hit left-handed pitching consistently, and he must continue to make improvements defensively. Reports on the latter have been encouraging, but Alvarez continues to struggle against southpaws, hitting .220 against them so far.

So when might Alvarez arrive? The Pirates haven't shown their hand, though signs aren't pointing to Alvarez arriving before June.

That's because the Pirates haven't begun to address the overcrowding that is bound to happen at third base when Alvarez arrives. If Alvarez sticks at third base -- which he hopes to -- Pittsburgh is going to have to find another place for Andy LaRoche, whose bat the Pirates are likely to want to keep in the lineup.

That very well could mean shifting LaRoche to second. There, he could take over for Aki Iwamura, who isn't likely to be back next season. But if the Pirates go in that direction, LaRoche, whose only previous experience at second base was in the instructional league last fall, would need to begin taking ground balls to prepare for the position change.

To this point, he hasn't.

The other option would be to move Alvarez across the diamond to play first base. Again, though, he'd want to get some playing time there in the Minors before making the change in the Majors. That hasn't happened.

"We're still looking to get Pedro established offensively and continue the work defensively at third base," Huntington said. "Right now our focus is still on Andy as our third baseman at the Major League level and Pedro at third base in Triple-A. There will come a time when it starts becoming appropriate to start thinking about one or the other."

When that time comes, it'll mean that Alvarez is close.

Lincoln: Lincoln could be the first of the trio to arrive in Pittsburgh, only because the Pirates' need might necessitate his promotion the earliest. After an up-and-down start, the right-hander is coming close to meeting all of the organization's Minor League benchmarks.

Lincoln is more consistently throwing his breaking ball for strikes. He's going to his changeup more often and seeing it be effective. His fastball velocity has hit as high as 96 mph, and he's been consistently in the 93-95 mph range.

All this had Huntington saying last week: "At some point this summer, we expect Brad to be ready to go."

Lincoln heads into his start for Indianapolis on Monday with a 4-1 record and 3.83 ERA in seven starts. He has pitched at least six innings in every start since his first one and went eight his last time out.

The former first-round pick has more upside than any of the other pitchers currently in the Triple-A rotation. And should the Pirates need to tap into that depth soon, Lincoln is giving management fewer reasons not to consider him.

Pittsburgh's rotation has steadied out recently with Ross Ohlendorf's return and Charlie Morton's improvements. However, the fifth spot remains in flux. The Pirates are going to stick with Brian Burres for now, but if the left-hander has a few more starts like his last, he won't be the long-term answer.

That could certainly leave Lincoln -- who has 19 Triple-A starts under his belt -- the next and best option.

Tabata: He may not be as widely followed as Alvarez, but Tabata has challenged Neil Walker as Indianapolis' best player so far this year. Tabata ranks second in the International League with 46 hits and has posted a .317 batting average through 33 games.

The 21-year-old outfielder has primarily batted leadoff, too, which is particularly intriguing given that the Pirates don't currently have an ideal leadoff hitter. Entering Monday, Tabata's 17 stolen bases were a league high.

Pittsburgh was in no rush to hurry Tabata to the Majors, especially given his age. Management went into the season wanting Tabata to prove that he can be consistent with his offensive approach over a lengthy period of time. He's done it for six weeks so far, but the Pirates would like to see him extend that out even further.

How he might handle his first bit of adversity, too, will give management a good read on whether he's mentally ready for the step up.

"Sometimes it's tough to stay patient with a 21-year-old, but he's doing so many things right and so many things that we've asked him to do," Huntington said. "He's going to force our hand at some point in time. We've still got some issues to work through, but it's been very positive to date."

Fans often point to Tabata's lack of power as the biggest concern, though the Pirates don't necessarily see it as such. Though Tabata hit .293 combined at Double-A and Triple-A last season, only 29 of his 106 hits went for extra bases. Only five left the park.

This year, Tabata has nine extra-base hits, two of which were home runs. It's not exactly the power production typically desired from a corner outfielder, but Huntington downplayed those concerns.

"We're talking about a 21-year-old in Triple-A that is actually fulfilling our organization belief -- that is hit over power and power will develop," Huntington said. "There is a track record of guys who have been quality Minor League hitters that hit over power, that have bat speed and athleticism -- all the traits that Jose has -- that develop power at the Major League level."

Once the Pirates see the sustained consistency and continued maturity from Tabata that they are seeking, he'll be in Pittsburgh. That is expected to be sometime this summer. Right field remains Tabata's most likely fit, and the Pirates could open up a spot there by shifting Garrett Jones to first.

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

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