Among the reasons to be (guardedly) optimistic about the Pirates' future: farm products Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata, all of whom are shy of 25 -- in Walker's case, barely; in Tabata's case, by a lot -- and have held their own in the majors this season. Let's not get too excited about those guys, though. None have played brilliantly, and ... well, let's fisk this comparison:
- While some fan bases prepare for a final month of playoff races, Pittsburgh Pirates fans are nearing the end of the franchise's 18th consecutive losing season. This means the Pirates have been bottom dwellers for the entire life span of most high school seniors. However, we're not here to focus on the past, but rather, the future. Namely, the future of Pedro Alvarez.
After years of misses at the top of the draft, the Pirates selected Alvarez in 2008. The former Vanderbilt teammate of Rays ace David Price is already a regular in the Pittsburgh lineup. Some questions remain about which side of the diamond he'll play down the road, but for now, the 23-year-old the man at the hot corner for the Buccos.
Before signing his pro contract, Alvarez and his agent Scott Boras made plenty of headlines, In the end, though, he made his major league debut with relatively little hype. Despite lacking the media coverage of Jason Heyward (to say nothing of Stephen Strasburg) upon his debut, Alvarez has been one of this year's most productive rookies, coming close to Heyward's level of production.
This is a real stretch. Even leaving aside the raw numbers -- Heyward's played 45 more games than Alvarez -- Heyward has a huge edge in OPS: 827 to 735. Heyward's also three years younger than Alvarez. Essentially, if everything works out for Heyward he'll be in the Hall of Fame someday, and if everything works out for Alvarez he'll play in a couple of All-Star Games.
Even if Alvarez had played more this season, he wouldn't be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. Which is fine, since there are plenty of those without him. In April, Heyward looked like a lock for the award (as much as anyone can look like a lock for anything in April). But then came that lousy June and those three weeks on the DL. Since returning to the Braves' lineup in mid-July, Heyward's been good but not great, which has allowed a few other fellows into the mix. Most notably, Gaby Sanchez has roughly the same OPS as Heyward in more playing time, and Starlin Castro's not far behind while playing shortstop. And of course Buster Posey would trump them all if not for the Giants' odd infatuation with Bengie Molina.
The only two pitchers with a fighting chance are Jaime Garcia and John Axford. Garcia's got the shiny ERA (2.42) but only 11 wins, and I suspect he needs at least 14 to have a shot at beating out the top hitter on the ballot. Axford's got 19 saves, and Andrew Bailey won in the American League last year with only 26 saves. But Bailey pitched 83 innings while Axford is going to top out around 60 innings.
Heyward's going to get extra credit for the spring hype. But the voters, I think, should take long looks at Sanchez, Castro, and Garcia, too.