This past offseason was a strange one for a few free agents. Jose Bautista had to re-sign with Toronto because it seemed no one else wanted him. Chris Carter nearly left the country before the Yankees signed him; Matt Wieters wasn’t signed by the Nationals until players had already reported to spring training.
Another free agent who was left dangling in the wind was Pedro Alvarez, who was finally signed with the Orioles and arrived in camp on March 13.
Alvarez is no stranger to arriving late to spring training. The Orioles also waited to sign him until March last year. This time, it’s a minor league deal with incentives if he makes the major league roster. For the Orioles, you can categorize this move as a “welcoming back an old friend” signing, because they know what they are getting in Alvarez and have decided to take another chance on him. It can also be categorized as a “low risk/high reward” signing, just like last season when he rewarded the Orioles with 22 home runs in 376 plate appearances.
But the big question for Baltimore, and for Alvarez, is if he even fits on this roster and where he will play. The Orioles seem to have an overabundance of guys with his exact makeup. Mark Brown of Camden Chat’s immediate reaction to Alvarez’s signing illustrates that point:
“There’s nothing that the Orioles love quite so much as a player who strikes out a lot, hits a bunch of home runs, and should only ever serve as a first baseman or designated hitter. They had three such players on last year’s team and now, with Pedro Alvarez being re-signed to a minor league deal, they have all three of them back in the organization.”
Alvarez hit .249/.322/.504 in 2016 and served mostly as DH, because the few times he managed to play first base were an absolute disaster. In fact, he played first in 12 games, had nine chances and he made four errors. That’s a .556 fielding percentage. So now, the Orioles are trying him out as an outfielder, which is both bold and could also be disastrous considering he is 30 years old and has been used to playing the infield his entire career.
The Orioles got the idea late last season and approached Alvarez with it. Manager Buck Showalter told reporters earlier this week, “I’m going to be surprised if he can’t do it. Pretty athletic, kind of fits his skill set too. He’s got a plus arm, and he’s going to work hard at it. [Vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson] had talked to him a lot about it, kind of similar to [Trey] Mancini. He’s going to work there exclusively, and hopefully we’ll have a feel for it by the time we get toward the end. We’ll have plenty of time.”
The Orioles are not rushing Alvarez either. They want him to take as much time as he needs to get used to playing the outfield. He himself said he appreciates what the Orioles have done for him saying, “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn the position as much as possible. Whenever you try and play a new position, you have to put in a lot of work and the one thing you can’t replicate is game reps. So I’m looking forward to a game opportunity to go out there and just play.”
But just as there are too many DH/first base types on the Orioles, now that Alvarez is testing out right field, there may also be too many outfielders. The Orioles already have Adam Jones, Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith as their starters. They also have Joey Rickard, who could serve as a platoon/bench player. So where could Alvarez go?
Smith, Kim and Alvarez all have issues facing lefties. In limited plate appearances (41) against lefties last season, Alvarez only hit .243/.293/.378 with just 1 home run and 2 doubles. He’s far better against righties, batting .251/.326/.522 with 21 home runs and 18 doubles. He certainly cannot be used as a defensive replacement, because he’s just learning his new position and he won’t take away Mark Trumbo’s job.
The answer to the initial question won’t be answered right away. Alvarez will more than likely start the year down in Triple-A Norfolk so he can get as many reps in the outfield as possible and so the Orioles won’t have to worry about their major league outfield logjam right away. But when he does make it up to the MLB roster, Alvarez’s newfound versatility could give him a leg up over the rest of the lefty DH/first base/outfield types.