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02/27/12 2:57 PM EST

Alvarez aims to rise to the occasion for Bucs

Third baseman in position to be difference-maker this season

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Spring optimism around here seems to come with a qualifier. Baseball insiders and fans alike take in the Pirates and opine, "A lot of good signs, yes, but that middle of the lineup ... where will the power come from?"

They then all figuratively glance toward third base, where The Answer and The Hope intersect.

Pedro Alvarez is frequently cited as the Bucs' game-changer, their difference-maker. The others can carry them to the hump. Alvarez is the one who can take them over it.

The billing comes with the legacy: Alvarez, Dominican-born and New York City-raised, was the second player taken in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. Twenty-one months after becoming a pro, Alvarez was in the Pirates' lineup and producing like a vet, or at least like the prodigy he actually was.

Following a forgettable 2011 in which he somehow became a symbol of the Pirates' skid out of a title run, Alvarez is regarded as a major piece of making the 2012 contention stick.

No one will come out and say so, to avoid placing unfair weight on the 25-year-old's shoulders, and because that would fly in the face of the team concept.

As second baseman Neil Walker said, "We're all equally important, although how he profiles in terms of his ability to hit homers probably just gives him a little more value in terms of projections."

Still, everyone leaves the impression they should be wearing bibs when they discuss Alvarez, they drool so much.

"Pedro is in much better shape than he was last year. He's in the best shape I've seen since August of '09," said general manager Neal Huntington. "He's peaking physically."

"His swing looks great -- so compact," Walker said. "I think he'll have a great year for us."

"His swing is really connected. Unleashed," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's swinging through balls, using the big part of the field. He's in about as good a place, physically and mentally, as I've seen him."

Admittedly, that was not saying much because Hurdle, starting his second season at the Pirates' helm, has only seen Alvarez in a very bad place.

Reeled a month into the 2011 season by tightness of the right quad muscle, Alvarez eventually went on the disabled list with that injury, and with his .208 average, on May 20. Between recovery, rehab and extra time at Triple-A Indianapolis, he did not make his return appearance with the Pirates until July 25 -- their last day, as it turned out, atop the National League Central standings.

So talk about adding insult to injury: As the Bucs faded, Alvarez hit .173 to the wire (around another detour to Indianapolis), with twice as many strikeouts (38) as hits and two homers and nine RBIs in 38 games, and the fans let him hear about it.

"Yeah, everybody seemed to focus on him. It was very unfair, very unjust," Walker said. "Offensively, none of us were doing anything. No reason he should've gotten the brunt of it from the fans."

No worries, Alvarez said lightly.

"Last year was tough, injuries- and performance-wise," he said. "The fans in Pittsburgh are the best in baseball. They're loyal -- we got a taste of that last year. All they ask for is to have everyone give their all every single play. Then we can fire on all cylinders, and they'll be happy about it.

"It's just a matter of playing hard, and with dedication. It's a great sports town. Football and hockey have been doing well, and it's about time we gave them something good to cheer for."

Alvarez committed his offseason to giving them that, to at least giving them back the young third baseman they'd seen in 2010. From his big league debut on June 16, Alvarez hit 16 homers and drove in 64 runs in the season's final 95 games, while batting .256. To that end, he spent the winter in Southern California, under the close supervision of agent Scott Boras, following a nutritious diet and focusing workouts on "flexibility, agility, core-strength exercises."

"And," he said, "on getting into a good state of mind, too, where I could just come in and go out there to keep learning and progressing every day.

"When you play the game at this level, you have a skill-set most people don't have. It becomes a matter of staying on top of your game, of polishing everything you have, fine-tuning it all, everything you can use to your advantage to succeed in this game."

"He will be a very productive Major League hitter," Huntington said. "We're looking forward to seeing that this year."

It is merely a quirk, of course, but Alvarez's lost season coincided with the disappearance of an idol who now is back on the Major League scene. Growing up in the same New York neighborhood and sharing the same nationality, he couldn't help being a huge fan of Manny Ramirez.

That Pirates No. 24 on Alvarez's back didn't just happen. That was Ramirez's lifelong number, until he landed in Los Angeles in mid-2008 and wound up in No. 99.

"Everyone around there idolized Manny, including myself," Alvarez said of his neighborhood. "To this day, he is one of my favorite players, and one of the best hitters ever. Where he came from, this is a big deal."

Ramirez is in the Phoenix camp of the Oakland A's, hoping to at least duplicate the feat of Sammy Sosa, who had sat out the 2006 season then resurfaced in '07 with a 21-homer, 92-RBI season for the Rangers.

Alvarez likes his chances.

"Guys like that don't forget how to be good, and he'll show up pretty well. It's like riding a bike," said Alvarez, preparing to put his own metal to the pedal.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.