After facing astronomical expectations with Pirates, Pedro Alvarez gets fresh start with Orioles

Orioles designated hitter Pedro Alvarez hit a grand slam and drove in five runs Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Orioles designated hitter Pedro Alvarez hit a grand slam and drove in five runs Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays. (Chris OMeara / AP)

Pedro Alvarez's story is not a cautionary tale, because others will endure the same experiences in the future.

Alvarez has gone from being viewed as one-time savior of a then-depressing Pittsburgh Pirates franchise to being without a job, forced to wait out an entire offseason before joining the Orioles well into spring training on a modest one-year deal.

Any player whose promise merits him that type of expectation also earns him a second chance. Alvarez and the Orioles hope the team's warm, welcoming group of fellow second-chancers is the type of environment in which the slugger can jump-start his career.

"My idea of expectation has never changed," Alvarez said. "I hold myself to the highest standard possible, so whatever expectation anyone has of me, believe me, I have a higher one.

"Whether someone expects me to hit x-amount of home runs or whatever it is, I know what I want from myself and I know what I'm capable of. I think a lot of guys in this room have had to live up to some expectation. We're all men here, and I think every year you're able to play this game, you're more and more comfortable in your own skin and you know what you can do."

Alvarez scoffs at the notion he would harbor ill will toward the Pirates, who didn't tender him a contract for 2016 knowing he'd likely earn more than $8million in salary arbitration.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that's because the Pirates gave Alvarez an opportunity and helped him fulfill his dream. Alvarez was the second pick overall in the 2008 draft behind shortstop Tim Beckham, signed out of Vanderbilt to a four-year, $6.4 million contract and made a big leaguer in short order.

Alvarez indeed grew into the middle-of-the-order bat the Pirates envisioned. He hit at least 30 home runs twice, leading the National League with 36 in 2013 and making the All-Star team. That year also showed some of his warts, with an NL-high 186 strikeouts in 152 games and a .233 batting average that's just off his career .236 mark.

Fans, it seemed, wanted more. As time wore on, it became clear that more was desired from Alvarez than he could reasonably be asked to deliver.

"That's what happens when you get drafted really high and have a lot of expectations," longtime Pirates teammate Jordy Mercer said. "We weren't a winning club when we drafted him. I think we just came off a [94-loss] season at the time, and so he was the 'second coming.' He was the guy who was going to change the organization, so he had a lot of pressure from the get-go right on his shoulders."

By the end of 2014, Alvarez's defense at third base sunk to a level that required him to move to first base. In 2015, his defense at first base was such a liability that he was often lifted for a defensive replacement, and among fans there was a constant battle between those who thought his power was worth the defensive problems and those who didn't.

When asked about Alvarez's final year in Pittsburgh, Mercer and infielder Josh Harrison homed in on the fact Alvarez was given a first baseman's mitt in spring training and asked to learn a new position.

"You can ask anybody that's never played a position before, when you get asked to play a different position full time, things are going to get thrown off because your routine is going to be different," Harrison said. "Now, instead of knowing that I've played this position my whole life, now I've got to spend more time at a position I haven't played before. You have to make adjustments on your workload, to understand managing your time all over again."

Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty, Alvarez's past and current teammate who roomed with him at Vanderbilt, put a different spin on it. Alvarez was lifted from 83 of his 124 starts last season, primarily for a defensive replacement.

"He was really only playing five or six innings, and still put up the numbers that he did," Flaherty said. "He still hit 27 homers or whatever it was and played half the game. That's not a terrible year in itself."

Even so, the Pirates spent the beginning of the offseason trying to trade him, and ultimately did not tender him a contract in December.

By all accounts, Alvarez is settling in nicely with the Orioles after signing a $5.75million contract March 10 with $1.25million in incentives.

During spring training, he was among the earliest to get work in, before stretches and batting practice began. Pirates teammates described him as a diligent worker who was a good teammate through a difficult 2015. Mercer said that even back when they were teammates on Team USA during their college days, Alvarez took the most joy out of standing in the batter's box and being a hitter.

Given that the Orioles have Chris Davis, the $161 million man, at first base and blossoming superstar Manny Machado at third base, that's mostly what Alvarez will get to do as the Orioles' primary designated hitter.

Without the weight of a new position on his mind, and combined with an atmosphere in which Alvarez seems comfortable, that could be the best situation possible for a player on a one-year, incentive-laden contract.

When the Orioles announced that contract, Alvarez got a taste of the culture Flaherty had promoted to him all offseason. One by one, his new teammates came into the media room for his news conference. Alvarez braced himself for a prank, but was moved by the fact it was just basic support from men he was only beginning to know.

"I thought it was pretty special," he said. "It's just little things like that that may be overlooked. It's such a stat-driven world now. There's things that get overlooked. There's no stat for team chemistry. There's no sabermetric for that cohesiveness. That's what gets you to win a lot of games."

Whether he needed one or not, the fresh start is one the Orioles hope to benefit from as much as Alvarez does.

"Time will tell," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Everybody deserves a fresh start. Time will tell."



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