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May 15, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Pedro Alvarez and the Ghosts of Pirates Prospects Past

by Pat Lackey

​​​Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Pat Lackey is the writer, editor, chief scientist, and head brewmaster of Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?, a blog that's been chronicling the peaks and valleys of Pittsburgh Pirate fandom since 2005. He has been a grad student for more than half of that time. You can find him on Twitter @whygavs, where he'll be more than happy to talk about pretty much anything, including, but not limited to: baseball, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh baseball, good science fiction, bad science fiction, just fiction in general, beer, making beer, and comic books. No, he has not set a defense date yet.
 

Of all of the countless reasons that Pittsburgh Pirate fans have to bemoan the past 20 years, one of the favorites is the story of how Ryan Howard could've been a Pirate. Nearly 10 years after the fact, Pirates fans have trouble getting their facts straight, and I suspect that the people from outside Pittsburgh who’ve heard about it think the rumored trade was more legend than reality, but we actually have a good account of what happened from a reliable source, this 2007 article by Dejan Kovacevic. In short, the Pirates were shopping Kris Benson as the 2004 trade deadline approached, and the Phillies offered Howard, who was killing the ball in Triple-A at the time and was blocked by Jim Thome in Philadelphia.

The Pirates didn't pull the trigger on the trade, of course, and to be honest, I'm not all that interested in talking about the proposed trade or Howard or what might've happened had Dave Littlefield pulled the trigger on the deal. Instead, I want to use it as a springboard to talk about some other players involved in the trade the Pirates eventually made, both directly and peripherally. The Pirates had a reason for not making that trade in 2004: they had their own gigantic first baseman slugging away in the minor leagues at the time, Brad Eldred. Instead of accepting Howard, they constructed a deal around sending Benson to the Mets for Ty Wigginton. That trade had a second component to it, though, wherein the Pirates sent Jeff Keppinger to the Mets, the Mets sent Justin Huber to the Royals, and the Royals returned Jose Bautista to the Pirates (the Bucs had lost him in the previous winter's Rule 5 draft).

Eldred is 31 now, and he was mostly a baseball afterthought until this spring. He left the Pirates' system after the 2007 season, and his travels brought him to the Tigers, his sixth team in as many years, in 2012. He went crazy in Toledo in April, hitting 15 home runs in the team's first 29 games, earning his first call-up to the big leagues since 2010. That call-up didn't last long, though; he got 17 plate appearances in five games, got into a funny .gif with Jim Leyland, and was released as soon as Delmon Young's suspension ended.

Eldred’s crazy April was nothing new to Pirates fans. In 2004, right around the time the Benson trade was being discussed, Eldred was promoted from Advanced-A to Double-A. In 39 games in Altoona that year, Eldred hit 17 homers, slugged .687, and somehow managed to drive in 60 runs, which impressed a lot more people in 2004 than it would in 2012. That's to say that the Pirates' decision not to trade for Howard based on Eldred's production in the minors wasn't as completely insane at the time as it might seem today; both guys were slightly old for their levels, and both guys struck out a ton. Howard was a better prospect, and choosing Ty Wigginton over Ryan Howard (which is essentially what the trade at the time boiled down to) is the type of decision that made the Dave Littlefield era the disaster for the Pirates that it was, but it wasn't quite as crazy then as it seems now.

Dominating in the minors and then getting demoted after a short stint in the big leagues has been a pattern for Eldred. He got into 55 games with the Pirates in 2005 and 19 in 2007. Since then, he's had 11 with the Rockies in 2010, and then five with the Tigers this year. Eldred has played in 962 minor-league games and hit 242 homers. He's played in 90 big-league games and hit 15 homers. Basically, the Pirates thought enough of the guy to at least partially base their trade deadline strategy around him in 2004, and after 55 games in 2005, they'd decided that they'd seen enough of him that his big-league career was pretty much over.

Eldred's skillset dictated that decision more than anything. His strikeout rate, both for his entire minor-league career and in Triple-A (where he's been since 2005), is over 25 percent. He doesn't walk much, so his minor-league OBP is only .336. Eldred has mauled from Charlotte to Syracuse to Colorado Springs to Fresno to Toledo, but that doesn't make him anything other than Brad Eldred, and being Brad Eldred isn't quite good enough for a big-league job. It's something that everyone's known about him for a long time.

Compare Eldred's big-league career to Bautista's. In 2003, both Eldred and Bautista were fringe prospects a little old for their levels in the lower levels of the Pirates' minor-league system. (They were old for their levels mainly because the Littlefield front office seemed to like to hold back their prospects for reasons no one ever fully understood, but this is not a treatise about the horrors of the Littlefield era in Pittsburgh. If I ever wrote that in full, it'd end up being longer than most PhD theses.) Bautista was 22 years old and playing in Advanced-A ball, hitting .242/.359/.424. Not great, but intriguing enough that the Orioles picked him in that winter's Rule 5 draft. From there, he bounced to the Rays and then the Royals before being traded back to the Pirates. He went back to the minors after his Rule 5 year in 2004, but by 2006 he was back with the Pirates as they tried to find a home for him somewhere in the outfield or at third base. They got him into 400 games and 1500 plate appearances before finally giving up and dumping him to Toronto for Robinzon Diaz. You’ve heard how that worked out.

Brad Eldred got 208 plate appearances to prove himself to the Pirates in 2005. He hit 12 home runs and slugged .458, but 77 strikeouts and a .279 OBP offset those home runs enough that he's never gotten a meaningful chance to play in the big leagues again. Bautista got 1520 plate appearances with the Pirates, and he hit .241/.329/.403. If you just count his time from 2006-2008 (which has a small amount of overlap with his time in Toronto), his OPS (.744) wasn't much different than Eldred's in 2005, but the Pirates gave Bautista plenty of chances to prove himself, and when they were done with him, Toronto was more than happy to take him off of their hands.

There were obvious reasons for this, of course; Bautista had a much better eye at the plate and a much smaller hole in his swing than Eldred did. He played all over the field instead of being anchored to first base like a rock. He was fairly athletic early in his career, and there was some thought that he had defensive value in the outfield or at third base. Really, I think that most people would've chosen the 24-year-old Bautista over the 24-year old-Eldred, and I'm not trying to argue that one got an unfair opportunity compared to the other; instead I think they make an interesting contrast in what sorts of players get the benefit of the doubt after early-career struggles and what sorts of players don't.

The reason I think this is interesting is because of another player who’s currently wearing a Pirates uniform: Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez's 200th game as a Pirate will likely come today, but his career has already had quite a roller-coaster quality to it. In 2012 alone, Alvarez started out with just two hits and one walk in his first 31 plate appearances. Over the 12 games that followed that ugly start, he hit five homers and four doubles to drive a .395/426/.837 line. Then he went 0-for-his-next-18. When you look at Alvarez's career to date, though, it has a very Eldred-like quality to it: .228/.302/.405, 27 homers, and 233 strikeouts in his 198 games and 753 plate appearances (through Sunday).

It's not wholly fair to compare Alvarez to Eldred, though, because Alvarez has a different pedigree than a sixth-round pick from FIU. That's partly why he's getting the chance that Eldred never got. Alvarez was a first-round pick who flew through the minors. He had a couple of stumbling blocks, but no one was really arguing that he was rushed when he made his big-league debut in 2010. At this point, there's plenty of concern about how Alvarez's career has begun, but no one thinks the Pirates should be kicking Alvarez to the curb after 200 games. He dealt with injuries and a year-long slump last season that I don't think anyone thought represented his true talent.  Alvarez's peaks, like the one he's just now coming down from, are much tantalizingly hotter than Eldred's ever were; the differences between the two of them to this point in Alvarez's career may not be seem big, but they do exist.

The question, of course, is just how much that je ne sai quoi is worth in terms of Alvarez's leash. If you want to oversimplify things for the sake of this discussion, Alvarez has mostly started his career in a similar fashion to Eldred, but he's going to get an opportunity to break out of the early-career slump that's on par with the one Bautista got. We have a mountain of data from baseball's long history to tell us what a 25-year-old player with 27 home runs and 35 doubles and 236 strikeouts and 71 walks in his first 758 plate appearances might turn out like, but on an individual level, players can be peskily unique. Jose Bautista is one (extremely large and unlikely to be duplicated) example of that.

But really, how do you know that you have an outlier on your hands? How long is it worth it to keep looking? Those questions are double-edged; they're obvious questions that every single front office has to deal with, but they don't have immediately apparent answers. When you're trying to break out of a perpetual state of rebuilding like the Pirates are, though, the margin of error with these sorts of things is impossibly thin. Eight years after Dave Littlefield turned down Ryan Howard for Kris Benson, it turns out that the biggest mistake related to trading Kris Benson was letting Jose Bautista walk for practically nothing. It's hard to place much blame on the Pirates for that, because no one saw Bautista becoming one of the game's elite power hitters. When it comes to Alvarez, though, the reality is that he'll either hit or he won't hit, and the Pirates have to figure out which one it's going to be before anyone else does. 

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