There’s no denying how excellent a story the Pittsburgh Pirates are this year, spending a few days in first and sitting only a half-game back in the NL Central only a year removed from a depressing 58-win season. There’s also no denying this run wouldn’t be possible without some help from an immensely flawed division. The Brewers have been sub-replacement at shortstop and third base, the Cardinals at shorstop and in the bullpen. The Reds have fewer glaring holes, but have been weak at shortstop, left field, and in the starting rotation.
It doesn’t matter how it’s happened, though. What matters is that the Pirates sit in the thick of a pennant race for the first time in years. The black and yellow are not without flaws of their own — specifically, the Pirates have been at or below replacement level at both first base and third base, and likely need to rectify this situation to have much of a chance at the division title. The Pirates have been active in the trade market according to the rumor mill, but one solution may be sitting in Triple-A right now. That solution is Pedro Alvarez, who recently returned from a quadriceps injury and is tearing up the International League to the tune of a .424 wOBA.
Alvarez struggled to open the 2011 season even before his injury, showing absolutely no power as part of his .208/.283/.304 slash line. But it’s difficult to ignore his overall minor league success — Alvarez posted ISOs above .200 in AA and AAA at ages 22 and 23, and posted overall wOBAs near or above .400 as a result. ZiPS projects him for a .338 wOBA going forward, a .254/.326/.446 line that would be considered disappointing after last season’s excellent rookie campaign but still well above the league average in today’s suppressed offensive environment.
He would hardly need to play that well to improve the team’s offense at third base. So far, the Pirates have only managed a .222/.280/.322 line at the hot corner thanks to the incompetence of Brandon Wood, Steve Pearce, Josh Harrison, and Chase d’Arnaud, as well as Alvarez himself. However, seeing as the Pirates defense had been a key reason behind their success this season — they rank fourth in the majors in defensive efficiency — they may not want to put Alvarez at the hot corner, as his defense has been poor by the numbers and some scouts envision first base as his future home.
Perhaps Alvarez’s future home should become his present home. As much a problem as third base has been, first base has been even worse for Pittsburgh, as Lyle Overbay has floundered his way to a .236/.304/.357 slash line and -0.7 WAR. Again, Alvarez hardly even needs to reach his numbers from 2010 or his projections for 2011 to be a major upgrade for the Pirates. The Pirates pretty clearly need another bat — their 87 wRC+ ranks in the bottom 10 in the majors — and inserting Alvarez for Overbay seems like a fine way to solve that issue without sacrificing much, if anything, on defense.
The Pirates may want to see a bit more from Alvarez at the Triple-A level to be sure he’s over his quadriceps issue, and there’s no need to rush him back from injury, although his performance at Indianapolis seems to suggest he’s ready to go. An Alvarez call-up would be perfect for this young team — it adds some talent to the MLB squad without sacrificing talent for the future.