This is probably obvious to most of us at this point, but it's important enough that it seems worth posting about -- barring a dramatic turnaround, 2015 will almost certainly be Pedro Alvarez's last season with the Bucs. As a hitter, he's merely adequate, not nearly good enough to compensate for his disastrous defense. He's no longer young, and no longer cheap, and he's leaving the Pirates little choice but to part ways with him after the season ends.
Alvarez has actually slightly improved his offense this season as compared to last -- he's batting .234/.311/.431 this year versus .231/.312/.405 in 2014. His improved walk numbers in the past two seasons, though, haven't been enough to compensate for his lack of power. While Alvarez is clearly still capable of impressive home runs, he's no longer the monster he was in 2013, when he homered so frequently that his characteristically low batting average didn't really matter. As a result, he isn't even really a plus offensive player anymore -- FanGraphs' cumulative Offense statistic rates Alvarez at just 0.3 runs above average this season and 0.0 runs last year.
And that stat only takes into account Alvarez's hitting and baserunning. Alvarez should, of course, be a significantly above average offensive player, because it's just about impossible for him to have value overall if he isn't. His throwing issue at third base has pushed him all the way to the left of the defensive spectrum, and even there, he's bad. UZR rates Alvarez as 5.7 runs below average this season, a figure that actually seems generous, given the depth and the variety of the problems he's had -- with covering the bag, with fielding throws, and so on.
Alvarez's defensive decline has been hard to watch and hard to explain. It's only been two years since he was pretty good at a much more difficult defensive position. He had good range for a player of his size, particularly coming in on balls, along with good hands and a cannon for an arm.
I expected, even back then, that Alvarez would eventually have to move to first, because that's a transition slower, bigger players frequently have to make, but his strong defense in 2013 surprised me, and his rapid descent since then has been even more surprising. The throwing issue last year seemed like it must have been mostly psychological. Now that he doesn't have to throw much, though, I don't know what's going on. He's quickly gone from being a competent defensive third baseman to a player who isn't competent at any position. Most players good enough to handle third base can handle first, of course -- it's the easiest position on the diamond. Now, though, Alvarez is brutal everywhere.
In the back of my mind, I'm used to thinking of Alvarez as a young player who still has upside -- not only because he's a former second overall pick, but because he was the Pirates' first draft pick of an era in which they finally started taking talented players with their top-five draft picks instead of Bryan Bullington and Dan Moskos. The Bucs' selection of Alvarez, who many analysts thought was the best player in the 2008 draft, was a big deal.
That was seven years ago, though, and if Alvarez still seems like a player with untapped potential, that's probably mostly because he hasn't lived up to fans' expectations. He only has one season with 3.0 fWAR, and only three seasons (2010, 2012 and 2013) where he's really been an asset.
Forgetting for a moment what Alvarez represents, then, the obvious conclusion is that his best years are behind him. He can't get any worse defensively. He's cut down on his strikeouts a bit, but he still whiffs a lot and has trouble making contact. His ground ball rate has increased to 54.5 percent this year, ridiculous for a slow runner who's supposed to hit for power. And, of course, he doesn't have the power he once did.
Aging curves aren't always destiny, even for a player whose stats suggest very convincingly that he doesn't have a promising future. But even if we suspect that Alvarez has upside hidden somewhere, there's little time for the Pirates to realize it. He's already eligible for free agency after the 2016 season, and signing him long-term would clearly be ridiculous for the Pirates (probably so ridiculous that Alvarez's agent, Scott Boras, would welcome it). Alvarez already makes $5.75 million this year and will make more next year in his last trip through the arbitration process. His raise next year likely won't be huge, but even paying $7 million or $8 million for a player who's spent two years hovering around replacement level would be way too much.
For the rest of the season, the Bucs' best route might be finding someone to complement Alvarez at first base, rather than replacing him outright. That $5.75 million salary is a sunk cost, and there aren't a ton of terrific first basemen likely to be available. Next offeason, though, Alvarez is an obvious non-tender candidate. That could mean the Pirates hunt for a short-term option while they wait for Josh Bell, who's hitting well in Altoona while learning the position defensively. Bell can't arrive soon enough.