Pedro Alvarez: Should The Pirates Consider Trading Their Former Top Prospect?

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 07: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on against the Houston Astros during the game on September 7, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates defeated the Astros 5-4. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Pirates third baseman once looked like a future star. But after a disastrous 2011 season, should the Bucs consider trading him?

There's an interesting tidbit about Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez in an article in the Denver Post Wednesday.

The Rockies will cast a wide net, from the tough-to-get (Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox) to the intriguing (San Diego's Chase Headley and Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez). When looking to trade Stewart this past summer, the Rockies inquired about Headley and Alvarez. Neither team was interested in making a deal, but it would be no surprise if Colorado restarts talks this winter.

Pirates Prospects and other Pirates fans have already weighed in on the possibility of an Alvarez trade. As of now, there's no indication that the Pirates have come close to trading Alvarez. But is it something they should consider?

I'm not sure I know the answer, but it's an interesting question. A commonly-held axiom among hardcore baseball fans is that when trading, you should buy low and sell high. The idea is that if someone has been playing at below his level of talent, you shouldn't trade him, whereas if he's playing above his level of talent, you should trade, because both players are likely to get back to their normal levels eventually. So since Alvarez just had a down season, now wouldn't be the best time to trade him, because the Pirates wouldn't get good value.

... Or at least that's how the theory goes. The problem is that in practice, it doesn't always hold. There's no question that Alvarez is an incredible talent with spectacular power. But if he's not capable of turning that talent into major-league production, then the buy-low, sell-high axiom doesn't apply, because while his value might be in the trash can now, it might be at the dump within a year. The Pirates could trade Alvarez now and get something for him. If he has another season like he had in 2011 next year, they won't be able to. 

I'm not sure what Alvarez's future holds, and I don't feel capable of making the call on whether he can turn his career around. I hope someone in the Pirates' organization has a better idea than I do. But my problem with Alvarez is that his 2011 wasn't the sort of early-career season where a player struggles but appears to be on the cusp of figuring things out. Instead, it was one where he looked completely clueless. He swung at every breaking pitch in the dirt as if he'd never seen one before. He got into more 0-and-2 counts than a Beijing cab driver gets into traffic jams. And he rarely made hard contact.

What's more, these are problems we might have seen coming, judging from his minor-league numbers. Alvarez mostly hit well in the minors, but he had long stretches where he was unproductive, and he also struck out too much - he had 129 strikeouts in 2009, and 68 strikeouts in 278 at-bats in 2010. That's a red flag, because if a hitter has that much trouble making contact, major-league pitchers can often find a way to exploit him.

Still, Alvarez didn't even begin playing pro baseball until the 2009 season. Most players need more time to get through the minors than he got. And it's not uncommon for talented young players to struggle in the early parts of their careers. If the Pirates decide Alvarez isn't going to become the sort of middle-of-the-order power hitter he looked like he could be when he was drafted, they'd better be right. That's not a call I'd feel comfortable making, particularly given that the return isn't likely to be that great. The Pirates might get a decent but non-elite prospect in return, or another former top prospect who has struggled. Also, the Pirates have no one to fill Alvarez's shoes at third, so there's certainly a spot for him in the lineup if he can turn things around.

The most likely scenario, then, is that the Alvarez trade rumors won't go anywhere. It's unfortunate, though, that Alvarez's season was so poor that we can have this debate. Last year, he looked like the future of the franchise. This year, not so much. 

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