CARY, N.C. -- If it's hard to know what winning in baseball sounds like no matter where you are, then it is nearly impossible in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have just clinched their 17th consecutive losing season, a record for American professional team sports. Yet if one listened hard enough then perhaps the faint echoes of success that will finally reverse the fortunes of this floundering franchise could be heard this summer, from Lynchburg, Va., to Altoona, Pa., and most recently from Cary, N.C., to Regensburg, Germany. It is a noise both familiar and unique, one of bat hitting ball, only this time not so much with a crack as an explosion. The man producing this symphony of sound is barely even a man at all. He's a 22-year-old minor league third baseman with the hopes of an entire franchise riding on his broad shoulders and the bat in his hands.
And when Pedro Alvarez has that bat in his hands, what he can do with it sounds like as much a cause for optimism as anything the Pirates have had since the first President Bush was in the White House. When he hits the ball, said Dustin Molleken, who has played with Alvarez at both minor league stops, "it has a different sound than anyone else." And he is right. That sound alone caused several people who were at the Team USA baseball complex last week while Alvarez was taking batting practice to stop and turn around in an effort to find out just who was making all that racket.
The echo from Alvarez's bat can be heard all the way to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates are wrapping up yet another disastrous season but where the future is (relatively speaking) brighter than it has been in some time. That hope is due mostly to Alvarez, a New York native and former All-American at Vanderbilt who pounded high-A and Double-A pitching for a combined 27 home runs and 95 RBIs. He says he found the day-after-day grind of minor league baseball easier than the "boot camp" of college baseball, but even that comfort level and that production were not enough to warrant a promotion to the big leagues when rosters expanded at the start of this month. Instead, his much-anticipated debut will have to wait until at least 2010.
Whenever Alvarez does arrive, he will be accompanied by a level of expectations not seen by a Pirates player since pitcher Kris Benson, the top pick of the 1996 draft who reached the majors in 1999 but has pitched without distinction in an 11-year career. "One guy can't revive a team," said Alvarez. "It takes a total team effort. I just hope I can be a part of it one day if I ever get the chance to get up there."
So does every last Pirates fan and employee, who have made Alvarez the centerpiece of their rebuilding efforts to finally creep above .500, and stay there. The other parts of those rebuilding efforts may be less well-known than a highly publicized player like Alvarez, but they are no less important. The organization has restocked its farm system through a slew of trades over the past two seasons and by an increased emphasis on scouting and player development. This season, they opened a $5 million academy in the Dominican Republic and have traded away 10 big-league veterans since June alone, netting them twice as many minor league players.
"Prospects are valued higher at this point than at any in the history of the game," said Kyle Stark, the Pirates Director of Minor League Development. "We tried to add as many as we could regardless of position. Our goal is to continually have players coming through the system and have a wave behind them. Ultimately that's our goal to make sure we have sustained success."
The first player in that wave is outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who arrived in Pittsburgh from the minor leagues at midseason and has posted a respectable .279 average with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs. Along with Alvarez, the next wave includes pitcher Tim Alderson, acquired from the Giants in a July trade for All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez, Jose Tabata, an outfielder added from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady trade of 2008, and Jeff Clement, once the third overall pick in the draft who came to Pittsburgh from Seattle before the trade deadline in a deal for longtime Pirate fixtures Jack Wilson and Ian Snell.
At the same time the Pirates were becoming the worst of the worst, the best of their best prospects were, physically speaking at least, farther away from Pittsburgh than ever. Alvarez and pitcher Brad Lincoln were in North Carolina over the weekend playing with Team USA before flying to Europe early this week to compete in the bi-annual World Cup, which starts on Thursday in Germany. Yet those two are never far from the minds of both the fans and the top brass in Pittsburgh. Stark acknowledged that they are the top two prospects in the organization, but said that there is not timetable for either to make their big league debuts.
It seems likely that that will come in 2010. Alvarez batted .288 in his first professional season, including a .333/.419/.590 line with 13 home runs in 60 games at Double-A. Lincoln, a 24-year-old righty, had a 2.28 ERA at Double-A and went 6-2 after being promoted to Triple-A. He throws two fastballs, one a four-seam and the other a two-seam, that can get as high as 95 mph, plus a curveball and changeup (he hasn't thrown a slider since he tried it in high school and hurt his arm). He has had Tommy John surgery, and the team wants to make sure he is healthy enough to withstand the rigors of a full big league season. Stark says they also want to see him learn to command all three of his pitches down in the zone with more consistency. Once he proves he can do both of those things, there is a spot waiting for him in the Pirates rotation.
"I look at the other starters [in the organization] and how they're doing," Lincoln said. "We don't talk about it, but it's a competition within a competition. I want to do better than the guys ahead of me."
Lincoln's mindset is exactly what the Pirates had in mind when they began flooding the farm system with prospects this summer. There were three goals with the bevy of trades they made: increase the amount of talent, open up opportunities for players, and create competition.
"We didn't feel there was enough talent in the system to have a successful team in Pittsburgh and sustain one for a serious period of time," Stark said. "We're definitely further along today than we were two years ago. We have a lot more talented players now than there used to be."
The most talented player is Alvarez, but even he has things he needs to work on, specifically his body. General manager Neal Huntington recently said he wants Alvarez to get in better shape physically. Currently listed at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Alvarez knows he needs a rigorous offseason workout routine to get his body to where he can be an everyday third baseman, though he says he's not sure exactly how he will do it, only that he won't take long to get started. "I'm only going to take two weeks off [this winter]," he said. "Then I have to get back to training for next year."
For the Pirates organization, there is never any time off. Trying to reverse almost two decades of losing is a Herculean task and aside from a beautiful ballpark by the Allegheny River, almost everything else is subject to change. In the meantime, they have their past to sustain them. It is a past that includes five World Series titles, Bill Mazeroski's home run and Hall of Famers like Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell, and sainted Roberto Clemente, the most popular player in franchise history whose statue welcomes visitors to PNC Park all summer long.
The Pirates may be a long way from those glory days, but they at least know what they need to do to get there. Of course, some things need more emphasis than others, like Pirates History 101. One minor leaguer said recently, "Every year in spring training they always talk about Stargell, and who was the other big name guy there?"
"Yeah, him. Clemente."
Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done.