Monday, February 29, 2016

Anthony Alford: The Best is Yet to Come

@BaseballBetsy Photo
     18 months ago, the brain trust of the Blue Jays, led by then-GM Alex Anthopoulos, made the five-hour trek from Toronto to Lansing.
    The purpose of their trip was more than just to scout Toronto prospects toiling for the local entry in the Midwest League, the Low-A Lugnuts.  Anthopoulos and his cadre of senior execs had a contract extension offer in hand for Anthony Alford, who had just been promoted to Lansing a week earlier.

    Alford was one of the top high school baseball and football recruits in the nation.  Baseball America offered this scouting report in the spring of 2012:

Alford, a two-sport athlete, has committed to Southern Mississippi for both baseball and football. He's teammates in baseball with Garren Berry, son of USM baseball coach Scott Berry. And the Golden Eagles have a new football coach, Ellis Johnson, who has hired Alford's prep football coach onto his staff. In April Alford indicated he plans to go to college and play both sports. That's too bad, because many scouts considered Alford one of the class' elite athletes. Big and fast at 6 feet, 200 pounds, he was the Magnolia State's football player of the year as a quarterback and chose Southern Miss over such football powers as Louisiana State and Nebraska. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,700 as a senior, accounting for 44 touchdowns, but he's at least as intriguing on the diamond, where he's a 70 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale with power potential, too. He helped Petal High win back-to-back state 6-A championships before the team lost in the third round this spring, as Alford batted .483 with four homers.
   Scared off by the college commitment, Alford, who was considered a first-round pick in terms of talent, tumbled out of the top two rounds.  The Blue Jays, who had six picks in the first 100 thanks to letting free agents like Jose Molina, Jon Rauch, and Frank Francisco walk, decided to take a flyer with their seventh in Alford, joining 1st round pick and fellow Mississippian DJ Davis.

   Toronto was willing to wait on Alford, whose first pro summer was limited to 20 GCL plate appearances before heading off to begin his college football career.  His first season at Southern Miss was a bust, off and on the field.  He was one of four quarterbacks who stumbled their way to an 0-12 season, which cost Head Coach Elliott Johnson his job.  In October, Alford's mother was arrested after getting into an altercation with fans who were loudly berating her son's play during a one-sided loss.  This was not the first time mom had encountered trouble while watching her son play.  Alford's parents both had their issues with illegal drugs, and Anthony Alford Sr was arrested for selling Oxycodone in late 2013.
   After the dismal football season was over, Alford was involved in an on-campus incident, and was charged with assault, which was later reduced to conspiracy to possess a firearm, and hindering prosecution.  The incident, however, spelled the end of Alford's career with Southern Miss, and he left campus.  In the New Year, he signed on with Ole Miss, and attended spring practice, delaying his 2013 baseball season until June, and limiting his second pro campaign to 28 PAs.

    Throughout this, the Blue Jays were patient with Alford.  There certainly are two sides to every story, and the club was willing to believe that there were mitigating circumstances in the Southern Miss incident, and they were still committed to being patient with him.
     By 2014, however, that patience was beginning to wear thin.
    Alford had to sit out the 2013 college football season, according to NCAA transfer rules, and there was talk throughout baseball that his development was being limited by football, and the gap between Alford and his peers was growing.  Likely mindful of this, the Blue Jays assigned him to short-season Bluefield for a taste of "under the lights" play, and while the fans in Vancouver were full of anticipation of having Alford spend time at the next level with the Canadians, the Blue Jays skipped him to Lansing after only 9 Appy League games.
   His time in Michigan was brief, but Alford's speed and power combo had jaws dropping, posting a .320/.480/.480 line with 4 steals in only 5 games.  At the end of what proved to be his only week in Lansing, Alford and Anthopoulos sat down to discuss his extension.  Alford admitted that AA made it extremely hard to say no to a deal that likely involved more money than his $750K signing bonus, as well as an invitation to spring training the following year, but Alford did just that.  To top things off, he left Lansing shortly after to get married back home.
   The Blue Jays were likely less than impressed, but were not ready to cut ties with Alford just yet.

   It's hard for Canadians to understand the grasp football has on young men in places like Alabama, Texas, or Mississippi.  When you're the state player of the year, accolades from other sports are nice, but they're just distractions.  The expectation is that you will suit up for the Crimson Tide, or Longhorns, or Rebels, and do your hometown and state proud before setting off for a career in the NFL.  If you grow up without a lot, the path of riches probably seems to be paved with five yard markers and goalposts.  Such was the pressure on Alford to play football.  But somewhere along the line, he began to realize that his football dream was fading.  Maybe it was getting married, and recognizing that he will have to be a provider one day.  Perhaps it was reading the writing on the wall after being removed from Ole Miss' starting lineup after a failed season at QB with Southern. It may have been the forehead-smacking moment of revelation when Alford realized that he wanted to play baseball all along, and the Blue Jays were waving a good pile of cash in front of him to do so. Whatever it was, Alford shocked many when he gave up on football a month into the season (after saying that, "Even if I made $100 million from baseball, I'd still regret not giving football a shot,") and agreed to the Blue Jays offer.
   For the Blue Jays, the challenge was now how to make up for that lost development time.  He was able to squeeze in the last two weeks of Instructional League play, but Toronto was ready to accelerate Alford's timetable now that he had committed full time to baseball.  Even though they knew he likely would struggle, they shipped Alford and his new bride off to Australia, to play for Canberra of the ABL.  Along for the ride was Blue Jays minor league instructor Kenny Graham, who was Alford's GCL Manager, and is widely regarded as one of the best teachers in the organization. Graham served as Canberra's 3rd Base coach, but his main job was to tutor Alford in the fine points of baseball instruction he had missed.
   What ensued was a crash course in pitch recognition.  For many elite athletes, they are able to play the game up to a certain level on the strength of their physical talents alone.  Few can reach the top relying solely upon their tools, and in baseball, where the battle between pitcher and hitter is at the epicenter of the game, the ability to have a plan, and be able to make adjustments, becomes crucial.
   And Alford failed quite spectacularly at that down under.  By his own admission, he became too eager, and could not sit on the fastball as he had his whole baseball life up until that point.  "It's like they pitch you backwards," he said of the veteran Aussie League pitchers,who rarely threw Alford a hittable fastball, forcing him to chase pitcher's pitches.  Rather than being patient after facing adversity for the first time in his pro career, Alford tried harder, and saw more and more breaking pitches just off the plate as a result.  He finished the season with a line of .207/.327/.319, and struck out in over a quarter of his at bats.
   If there was a glimmer of hope in that time in the ABL, it was in the quality of the at bats Alford was getting.  He still was in too many pitcher's counts, and making weak contact as a result, but he was seeing more and more pitches per at bat as the season progressed.  His 12% walk rate was not great for a lead off hitter, but was a considerable improvement over his previous total, and was offering evidence of his improving ability to make that critical split-second decision about where the pitch was heading, and what kind of pitch it was as it came out of the pitcher's hand.  At the end of January of 2015, he came home upbeat, eager to put the lessons he learned when stateside play resumed a few months later.
  Alford had a few weeks of down time in February (about the longest stretch since he was drafted), and then late in the month headed to Florida with Davis.  Alford was a bit wide-eyed in his first big league camp, but learned a great deal from just watching players like Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista.  Sent back to Lansing to resume his pro career, Alford wasted little time demonstrating the benefits of his time spent in Australia.  Alford became adept at working the count, and hitting the ball to all fields.  While the strikeouts were still on the high side, he had become much more proficient at getting on base, and with his speed at the top of the lineup, he became quite a distraction to opposition pitching.
   Alford reached base in his first 27 games with the Lugnuts, and by the time he was promoted to High A Dunedin in mid-June, had only failed to reach base in a game four times, posting a line of .293/.418/.394  In the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Alford didn't miss a beat, getting on base at a .380 clip, becoming the league's 8th-ranked process in just a half a season.
   But it wasn't just the numbers that were turning heads.  It was Alford's leadership skills and baseball IQ that wowed scouts.  It wasn't unexpected that his performance would progerss rapidly once he focussed solely on baseball, but it was all the other facets of his game that were just as impressive.  Which, to someone who has watched him and corresponded with him for a while, is not surprising.  Alford is a quality individual, and a natural born leader.  Talk to the people he grew up with, be it teammates or coaches, and they all rave about his maturity and leadership skills.  Given his upbringing, and the spotlight that has been on him since a very young age, and it would be understandable if Alford had a chip on his shoulder.  But he doesn't.  He is very engaging, polite, and accommodating.  The demands on his time will become greater as he nears the majors, but Alford still has time to tell a blogger who is making the trip to spring training next month that he looks forward to meeting him.  He was invited to be part of a mentoring group for kids in his hometown, and he explained his involvement in articulate and passionate terms.  

   Despite they hype and the progress he made last year, there is still room for growth in Alford's game. While he barrels up balls, he still doesn't have a lot of loft in his swing, so his power has yet to materialize. Despite the increase in walks, Alford still struck out a lot for a top of the order batter (23% of the time), and even though he was a high school quarterback, his arm grades as slightly below average.  Scouts feel that the power is coming, however, and a slight adjustment to his swing path might create more pop.  That K-BB differential came down drastically last year, and there's every indication that the trend will continue, and Alford's speeds and good reads help to compensate for whatever shortcomings his arm might possess.
He faces the biggest jump of his career this year with the jump to AA, where he will be facing pitchers more like the ones he saw in Australia - ones with command of their secondary pitches, and have a plan when they're on the mound.  He may begin the season at Dunedin, as the Bue Jays have shown a preference for starting a prospect off at the level they finished the previous season in the case of half-seasons.  Just the same, he will be at New Hampshire sooner rather than later, and may find himself in Buffalo by season's end.   The scouting media has certainly taken notice.  Alford was ranked the 44th top prospect by Baseball Prospectus, 42nd by MLB Pipeline, and 25th by BA.
   There is no need to rush Alford, and his minor league apprenticeship may not be quite complete, but there's everything in his physical tools and makeup to suggest that he's the real deal.  He profiles as that on-base machine/speed threat that's ideal in the leadoff spot.  Alford should be patrolling Centrefield at the Rogers Centre for years to come.

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