This may sound complicated, but stick with me.
The way the Orioles used Pedro Alvarez in 2016 may have hurt his overall value in this winter’s free-agent market.
The way the Orioles used Alvarez in 2016 may have made him a more attractive option to certain teams in 2017.
And the way the Orioles used Alvarez, given the two concepts above, may make him more likely to return to Baltimore in 2017, especially if they could get him on a similar deal to last winter’s one-year, $5.75 million contract.
Got all that?
Here’s the deal: Orioles manager Buck Showalter kept Alvarez at designated hitter for much of 2016, Alvarez’s first season in the American League.
There were significant questions about Alvarez’s defense at first base and third base during his six seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he really had no opportunity to answer those with the Orioles. He didn’t play first base, with Gold Glove contender Chris Davis handling those duties.
And, with another Gold Glove finalist, Manny Machado, at third base most nights, Alvarez was used at the hot corner basically in emergencies. He logged 53 innings at third base in 2016, had nine chances and committed four errors. Not good.
Obviously, his agent, Scott Boras, is going to market Alvarez as a power bat with experience at both corner infield spots, but that’s a hard sell given his lack of defensive opportunities with the Orioles. So, in one sense, Showalter did Alvarez’s market value no favors.
Yet by using Alvarez almost exclusively at DH, Showalter may have boosted Alvarez’s value to teams with an immediate DH vacancy and power need. Being a capable designated hitter is not an easy task, especially for a 20-something who has been a fielder for all of his career.
Alvarez, however, did a solid job in his initial shot as a DH-only. In 376 plate appearances, he hit 22 homers, drove in 49 RBIs and batted .249, 11 points higher than his career mark. It was his best average since his rookie year in 2010. His .322 on-base percentage also was his best since 2010 and he posted a career-high .504 slugging percentage.
Perhaps, most important for his market value, Alvarez accepted the DH role with no grousing. Even when he was reduced to basically facing right-handers in the final month or so of the season, Alvarez didn’t say a word. He kept working in the batting cage and kept a positive attitude in the clubhouse.
As the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez shouldered lofty expectations in Pittsburgh, and he never quite met them. And, as his career there progressed, Alvarez gained the reputation of being aloof and moody — and not necessarily a team player.
In Baltimore, that couldn’t have been further from reality. It probably helped that Alvarez’s best buddy in baseball and former Vanderbilt University teammate, utilityman Ryan Flaherty, was in the Orioles’ clubhouse to ease the transition from the beginning.
Before the year ended, however, several veteran Orioles, publicly and privately, lauded Alvarez as a teammate and a person. And though he wasn’t particularly chummy with the media, Alvarez was cordial and professional, and made himself available whenever needed. That’s all we ask.
All in all, if there were any questions about how Alvarez would deal with a limited role and a lack of status going into the 2016 season, he passed the tests flawlessly. That, along with his relatively young age (30 in February) and the power he displayed – a career-best home-run per plate appearance (15.3) and a career-tying-low at-bat-per-strikeout rate (3.5) – should make him an enticing DH option for some AL team.
And that some team could be the Orioles again. In fact, there are those in the organization that believe the club has as good of a chance (or better) of re-signing Alvarez than any of its other free agents. Because Alvarez was comfortable in Baltimore, was put in a situation to succeed and offers the club something it still covets: Power.
These Orioles, for good or bad, are built on the longball, especially at Camden Yards. If Wieters, Mark Trumbo and Alvarez go elsewhere, the Orioles will lose 86 homers from a club that led the majors in that category in 2016.
Alvarez will be the most affordable of the trio to retain, and, if Trumbo is gone, it probably opens up the DH slot more for Alvarez. He lost time there once the club obtained Michael Bourn (and Drew Stubbs) to spell Trumbo in right field, forcing the majors’ home run leader to spend more time at DH, somewhat displacing Alvarez.
At the very least, if re-signed Alvarez could share the DH spot next year with right-handed-hitting Trey Mancini if the rookie makes the 2017 team.
That’s another interesting thing about the way Alvarez was used in 2016 that may affect his value this winter. A career .205 hitter versus lefties, Alvarez hit .243 against them in 2016 while also far exceeding his career marks in on-base percentage and slugging percentage versus southpaws. But he also only had 41 plate appearances (37 at-bats) against lefties as Showalter carefully picked Alvarez’s spots.
Teams can view that a couple ways: Either Alvarez is close to being a strict platoon player now or his improvement in limited exposure to lefties could be a sign that he’s advancing in that area.
It was definitely a strange year for Alvarez. He excelled in the summer, batting .290 with 16 homers in June, July and August, but lost playing time in September because the Orioles wanted to upgrade their outfield defense and couldn’t take Trumbo’s bat out of the everyday lineup.
It was all designed to help the Orioles make the playoffs, which they did. But, inadvertently, it affected Alvarez’s usage and maybe, ultimately, his free-agent value.
And that could be a good thing for the Orioles, who believe Alvarez filled a rather valuable role in 2016 – and one they may be seeking to fill again in 2017.