Fresh start -- and no defensive responsibilities -- could lead to monster season
By Richard Justice
Pedro Alvarez's career is entering a different phase as a new member of the Orioles. No longer will anyone see him as the savior of a franchise. He's simply a guy trying to jump-start a new chapter in his career.
No matter how long Alvarez played for the Pirates, no matter how much he did, it was never going to be enough for some people. The Bucs hadn't been to the postseason in 16 years when they made Alvarez the second overall pick of the 2008 Draft.
Alvarez played his first Major League game less than two years later. He hit 16 home runs in 95 games that first season, and expectations took off. Two years later, in 2012, Alvarez hit 30. In '13, he tied for the National League lead with 36. In his past four seasons, he averaged 28 homers, 20 doubles and a .767 OPS.
If anyone thinks Alvarez did not produce with the Pirates, that he was some kind of flop -- and some have that perception -- those numbers scream otherwise. Problem was, it was never enough. Not just for Bucs fans, either. Alvarez seemed to sense it, too.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle spoke to Alvarez about understanding how productive a player he'd become. Alvarez is smart and shy and sensitive, and he clearly burned to be great. Just being very good wasn't enough. For some players, dealing with some failure and disappointment is a bigger challenge than Clayton Kershaw's curveball.
The Bucs cut ties with Alvarez after six seasons last fall. Rather than making the $15.8 million qualifying offer, they allowed him to swim in free agency's uncertain waters. That Alvarez remained unsigned until Thursday was somewhat surprising. But as one interested general manager wondered, "Where do we play him?"
Alvarez averaged 25 errors the past four seasons, the first three at third base and last year at first.
At 29, Alvarez joins the O's on a modest one-year, $5.75 million deal that could increase to about $7 million with performance bonuses, and he probably will be asked to be a designated hitter. This deal allows him to play in a great environment -- a nearly perfect one, in fact -- and then try free agency again after this season.
Alvarez's name means little in Baltimore. He will simply be someone the Orioles grabbed late in free agency to fill a hole in the lineup. If Alvarez produces exactly the way he did in 2015 -- 18 doubles, 27 home runs, .789 OPS -- everyone has a chance to go home happy.
Alvarez was part of something special in Pittsburgh. After 20 years out of the postseason, the Pirates have been there three years in a row, with Andrew McCutchen emerging as one of baseball's dynamic stars and Hurdle creating a nurturing, supportive atmosphere.
It's temping to look at Alvarez and think that O's manager Buck Showalter will work the same magic with him that he did first baseman Chris Davis, who'd lost his job and his confidence in Texas.
Problem is, Baltimore's environment is no better than Pittsburgh's. Showalter's genius is putting players in position to succeed and getting the best from them. But that's what Hurdle does, too.
This time, though, expectations are different. Alvarez will be allowed to go play and have fun. He'll love being teammates with Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, etc.
Alvarez isn't a perfect fit, but then March signings seldom are. Outfielder Dexter Fowler was Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette's first choice, but he ended up with the Cubs.
Alvarez's arrival means that Mark Trumbo could move from designated hitter to the outfield to allow Alvarez to DH. On the upside, this is a lineup that will hit home runs (and strike out) in big numbers, a lineup that has the potential to change games in an instant.
On Opening Day, the O's likely will have 25-homer potential up and down the lineup -- Davis, Jones, Wieters, Trumbo, Alvarez and Manny Machado.
This is what they do. In the past four seasons, they've won more games and hit more home runs than any other American League team.
There are questions about the rotation, but every AL East team has a question or two. The Orioles will be picked to finish fourth or fifth, but that's the kind of doubt Showalter and Jones thrive on.
Don't be surprised if Alvarez feeds off this setting, settles into the next chapter of his career and has a monster season. The Orioles got better on Thursday when his signing became official, and they got more interesting as well.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.