In full disclosure, I like Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez — both as a baseball player and, more important, as a young man.
Always have, since the first time I met Alvarez and his family.
They are all the personification of The American Dream: Pedro, the son of hard-working Dominican immigrants to New York City who has been equally hard-working, plying away with a bat and glove from Washington Heights to Vanderbilt and now to an everyday corner man for the Pirates.
Pedro is a professional athlete who gets it. He values every opportunity, and has a tremendous drive within himself to be perfect – even as he rarely shows much outward emotion.
Want a brief glimpse of Alvarez’s professionalism? Do yourself a favor, fix your eyes to him during the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and notice he stands sturdy, shoulders firm and stares a laser beam into that American Flag.
The way it should be. The way not enough athletes do nowadays.
As the Pirates — and Alvarez — have begun making their way to Bradenton for Spring Training this week, there are a few undeniable truths: Pirates fans have grown tired of the way the past two seasons have ended and, by extension, it might be largely incumbent on Alvarez to ensure so much doesn’t happen again in 2013.
Few probably need to be reminded the Pirates finished 79-83 in 2012, even as they were 60-44 on Aug. 1. In 2011, the club rolled into mid-July with a 51-44 record; rolled into the offseason with just 72 wins.
If such a collapse happens again, take all the torches and pitchforks you want down to the North Shore this coming late-summer, as the organization will deserve it.
Once is a fluke, twice is a pattern, and thrice would be a dreadful trend — and, yes, cause for those torches and pitchforks.
Nonetheless, this is where Alvarez comes in — he needs to do more to stop a third consecutive collapse.
Yes, it is an inescapable notion that he has to perform better, and this isn’t a column in an effort to call the 26-year-old out, as he more than likely knows it more than anyone else.
The reason it falls on his shoulders so much is simple, that $6M signing bonus he got when he was drafted second overall in 2008 comes with expectations mightier than any coal barge or sternwheeler that could ever trudge past PNC Park on the Allegheny.
One can make a claim that when Alvarez was propelled into the big leagues in 2010 to play 95 games, he was rushed a bit — that much is an acceptable view.
But what happened in 2011 was unacceptable as the unquestioned power option of the future hit just four home runs in 74 games and had almost twice as many strikeouts (80) as hits (45) unacceptable.
Last season, Alvarez found a groove at times, but also went through dry stretches, as he hit .244 with a .317 on-base percentage, blasted 30 home runs, 25 doubles but still struck out an alarming 180 times in 149 games.
To wit, Alvarez hit just six of those home runs and batted only .207 against left-handers.
But here’s the thing: He also needs to be trusted by manager Clint Hurdle against left-handers more. Indeed, there might be struggles at times, but how can a lefty power-hitter truly cultivate that power if you have him batting, primarily, against only right-handers?
And the truth is in the numbers: Alvarez got 434 plate appearances against righties last season while only 152 against left-handers.
This 2013 season is enormous for Alvarez, but he needs to be at the plate against everyone; Hurdle can’t continue to shield him against left-handed pitching if he sincerely wants Alvarez to propagate that power.
I think Alvarez is capable of hitting 40 home runs with a .255 average, 35 doubles and a .345 on-base percentage if he gathers confidence throughout the season.
Alvarez grew from the 2011 to the 2012 season, no question.
That growth needs to continue.
Certainly, defense and pitching (especially starting pitching and that 9th inning role) will be paramount in deciding whether the Pirates end a losing-seasons skid at 20 or it stretches into 21.
But, it says here, that the single most important person to stopping the decades-long losing for the Pirates is Pedro Alvarez.
It also says here that Hurdle needs to trust him more.
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Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Writer Colin Dunlap is the featured sports columnist for CBSPittsburgh.com. He can be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.”