On Sunday, the Pirates agreed to terms on a Minor League contract with veteran pitcher Henderson Alvarez, as reported by Robert Murray.
The signing of Alvarez, who is reporting to the Pirates’ satellite camp in Altoona, serves as a sorely needed depth signing for a team that has already used twenty-two different pitchers (plus catcher John Ryan Murphy) to this point in the season. The Pirates have already dealt with their fair share of injuries, especially to their pitching staff. The Bucs entered the season with Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, and Keone Kela on the injured list (although Kela is nearing a return after battling COVID-19), and have since lost Mitch Keller, Nick Burdi, Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz, and Clay Holmes to various injuries.
As for Alvarez, he is trying to return to the Majors for the first time since 2017. He made his way onto the Milwaukee Milkmen of the Independent League this season (a roster also featuring former Pirate A.J. Schugel) after unsuccessfully bouncing around multiple MLB organizations. After being signed by the Blue Jays as an international free agent in 2006, he debuted with Toronto in 2011 and was a key piece of a massive trade between the Blue Jays and Marlins following the 2012 season.
Alvarez enjoyed a brilliant but brief career in Miami. His career highlight came on the final day of the 2013 regular season when he out-pitched Justin Verlander and no-hit the Tigers. His success continued into the 2014 season, where he started 30 games, pitching to a 2.65 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and a 140 ERA+. That year, he made his only All-Star team and also received NL Cy Young votes. However, multiple shoulder injuries have held Alvarez, still just 30 years old, to seven Major League games since the start of 2015.
Alvarez has never been a strikeout pitcher (career 4.7 K/9, 12.5% K rate), but when he was at his best, he was able to use his sinker/slider combo very effectively to limit hard contact and induce ground balls. Pre-shoulder issues, he was averaging 94-95 MPH with both his 4-seamer and his sinker. But after his shoulder problems surfaced, he was averaging 91 MPH with his fastball and topping out at 95 MPH. It appears that his shoulder is back to full strength, as Alvarez himself shared the velocity chart from his start with the Milkmen on Twitter, showing him hitting 98 MPH with his fastball:
Alvarez now faces the tall task of making the jump from the Independent League back to the Majors. An article written by Jeff Zimmerman for The Hardball Times in 2016 details the challenges players face trying to make that jump and how they performed, on average, after switching back to affiliated ball (check out that article here). Among the players specifically mentioned in that article as making the jump to the Majors is John Holdzkom, whom Pirates fans may remember for his nine dominant innings in September of 2014 to help the Pirates to a playoff berth.
One player that Alvarez compares favorably to is current Twins starter Rich Hill, whose dominant showing with the Long Island Ducks in 2015 helped him return to the Majors. Hill similarly dealt with injuries and traveled around the Majors (you may not remember Hill pitching for the Orioles, Indians, Angels, or Yankees, let alone all of them) before switching over to the Independent League, and he has been a very effective pitcher since coming back to the Major Leagues, so it’s plausible to think that Alvarez could use this opportunity with the Pirates to revive his MLB career.
Even if Alvarez is relegated to bullpen duty with the Bucs, assuming he works his way back to the Majors, his presence would surely be welcome in a bullpen that has largely been led by the likes of Richard Rodriguez, Dovydas Neverauskas, Nik Turley, Geoff Hartlieb, and Miguel Del Pozo so far this season. Hopefully, the addition of Alvarez will be a bright spot in what has been an absolutely dreadful season for the Pirates so far.
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