I did an interview earlier this week for Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin. They also recently printed an interview with Jenifer Langosch where they asked some of the same questions, so you can compare the answers.
One thing that might be worth elaborating on here is why I think that of the four young hitters in the Pirates' lineup, Pedro Alvarez is the most likely to improve on his 2010 showing. (At least with the stick. Factor in defense and in gets more complex. Neil Walker was learning second base on the job and could improve substantially on defense in 2011, but I'm skeptical that he has the quickness to improve dramatically. Andrew McCutchen had a -14.4 UZR in 2010, but how much he can improve from that depends on how well that number represents how McCutchen actually played. I'm not convinced he was nearly that bad. So the point is, let's stick with just hitting.)
There's certainly a chance McCutchen breaks out as a hitter this year, but he's already been so good in his first two years that I wouldn't count on it. Walker and Jose Tabata's rookie seasons seem like best-case scenarios. Walker's .296 batting average last year was consistent with the leap forward he took at Indianapolis beginning at the end of the 2009 season, but he struggled to hit for average throughout the minors, so it takes a leap of faith to believe he'll keep it up. Tabata certainly could continue to imrpove as a hitter in 2011, but his 2010 season was near the top end of what we might have expected, given his minor-league performance.
That leaves Alvarez, who last year continued his pattern of struggling in his first exposure to a new level, struggling mightily through his first few weeks in the majors. He pulled things together after that and really put the pedal to the metal in September (posting a .932 OPS from September 1 through the rest of the year), so hopefully that can continue into this season.
The 119 strikeouts he posted, compared to 37 walks, are cause for concern, but those numbers are skewed a bit by that troublesome first month. So what I'm going with here is that he struggled at first because he always does that, and once he figured out how to deal with major league pitching, he hit very well. He shouldn't need that adjustment period this year, and he'll be a year older. Also, as the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, he flew through the minors too quickly for us to even get a clear sense of where his ceiling is, but aside from the strikeouts, there's no reason to think it isn't extremely high. So I'm going with Alvarez as the best breakout candidate among young Pirates hitters. Hopefully the weight-gain issue won't slow him down, literally and figuratively.