There was a ton of talk in the offseason of extending 2B Neil Walker and CF Andrew McCutchen following their 2011 seasons. With McCutchen being extended in early March, the Pirates locked up perhaps their first superstar since Barry Bonds walked through the gates of Three Rivers Stadium. While many thought the talk of extending Walker would be the next to surface, following McCutchen, it has died down instead. While not having a terrible year, Walker is not producing at the same rate as he had in his previous two. Instead, the focus has shifted to two players who both posses loads of talent and have had grossly uneven careers: Pedro Alvarez and James McDonald.
Let's start with Alvarez. We all know the story, considered the top talent in the draft in 2008. Came up quickly through the minors. Had a strong rookie campaign. Struggled immensely in his sophomore season. But unlike the 2011 season, 2012 has been Alvarez's rebirth of sorts. Alvarez has shown flashes of dominance at the plate, he is showing increased plate discipline (yes I am aware he is still striking out at a 30% clip), and his defense, while not ideal, is improving. Alvarez is showing more of a willingness to take outside pitches to left and he is starting to show signs of laying off the heavy dosages of breaking balls that were supplied by opposing pitchers.
The Pirates have an interesting dilemma on their hands: what version of Alvarez will be playing baseball two, three, four years down the road? The 2011 or 2012 version? Now, Alvarez is not having a monster breakout season by any means. He has shown periods of complete incompetence at the plate and poor defense. However, we can't forget the hot streaks he has gone on either and his continued development. Would it be wise, following the 2012 season, to attempt to extend Alvarez?
It would definitely be a huge gamble. Alvarez, who is represented by Scott Boras, could garner a huge sum of money if he reaches his potential and sustains it until he becomes a free agent in 2017. He also could garner little more than a minor league deal with an invite to spring training if he never reaches his full potential or can't sustain it. It seems highly unlikely that Alvarez could be had for the money that Jose Tabata was given for his extension (6 years, $14.75 million) but also seems unlikely he would receive the money McCutchen got in the offseason (6 years, $51.5 million). If Alvarez can reach his potential and sustain it, which he has yet to do, the Pirates signing him during or following the 2012 campaign could give them a huge discount on a player that they would have almost no chance of signing in FA. I hate seeing suggested numbers on salaries and extensions but I'd say something along the lines of 6 years, $28-30 million wouldn't be a bad deal for either side.
Next, to James McDonald. McDonald was one of the few surprises of the 2010 campaign. A player who had fallen out of favor with the Dodgers, he was acquired for nothing more than an effective yet worthless-to-a-team-that-wasn't-competing reliever. McDonald had shown flashes of ace-potential since his debut with the Bucs but hadn't seem to put things together until this year. Through mentoring from veteran pitcher AJ Burnett and C Rod Barajas, in addition to aid from Ray Searage, McDonald looks poised to anchor the Pirates rotation for a few years, perhaps being around when Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon reach the majors.
The dilemma with McDonald is not as confusing as is the one with Alvarez. Simply put, McDonald has been average or above average prior to this year and is now showing signs of being a dominant pitcher. McDonald enters his first year of arbitration next year and a deal could perhaps take him through all three years and perhaps buy out one or two years of free agency. If a deal was to look something along the lines of 5 years/$25 million would be fairly suitable, perhaps with a sixth year club option, I think the Pirates would be getting a good deal on a player who is appearing, more and more each start, to be worth the money.
Certainly there are other players who we could discuss extending or not extending but I felt these two players seemed to be ones worth the discussion at this point. There is always a risk when signing players. If Alvarez and McDonald sign and become the bonafide cleanup hitter and ace pitcher, the deal would be a huge success for Huntington and the Pirates, if they sign and fail miserably, the moves become more fodder for casual fans to lambast the organization. It is a tough decision and I think it is a point that should, at least be discussed. Apologies to anyone thinking this was overly long or not filled enough with statistics.