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.
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
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
The first player in that wave is outfielder
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
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
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,
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.