Toronto Blue Jays OF prospect Anthony Alford burst onto the top prospect scene in 2015 with a breakout season at two levels which landed him on most Top 100 prospect lists.
After fully committing to baseball after giving up on college football the previous fall, the raw (just over 100 PAs in three prior pro seasons since being drafted in 2012) but toolsy outfielder showed an ability to get on base, game-changing speed, and great range in the outfield.
Poised to rise even higher on those lists, Alford's 2016 season was dealt a serious blow when he was injured in a home plate collision on Opening Day, and even though he was back on the field a month later, he never really recovered.
One month into his first season at AA, however, and Alford is quickly regaining much of his former status.
After going 1-3 on Friday with a double, walk, and a run scored, he is 2nd in the Eastern League in hitting, and is near the top of many offensive categories in sporting a .397/.472/.556 line.
After returning to play in May of last year, he suffered a concussion in an outfield collision, and missed several more weeks. Upon his return, his timing was off, and he struggled at the plate. His 2016 stats may have been heavily influenced by his slow start, but his second half of the season was a different story, which we noted last fall:
After a .200/.277/.256 first half, Alford was finally healthy by July, and turned things around, posting a .257/.381/.449 line. Alford's 117 strikeouts have to be a concern to the organization, although his K rate was 37% in the first half, when he was in and out of the lineup, and only 25% in the second, when he was a fixture atop the D-Jays' batting order. The 7 Home Runs he hit in the 2nd half hint at some developing powerThere are several factors which have likely contributed to Alford's ascent this season, dating back to spring training. In his 3rd MLB training camp, he finally became more comfortable (he admitted to being wide-eyed in his first one, but was very impressed by the work ethic of the likes of Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson), and with the Blue Jays opting to rest their core players and bring them in gradually, Alford received a great deal of work this spring, which no doubt helped hone his pitch-recognition skills and helped to give him a jump start on the season. A conversation he had with Blue Jays outfield instructor Hall-of-Famer Tim Raines helped, too:
"Being blessed to be able to talk to a Hall of Famer and just pick his brain about the stuff he struggled with and the things that helped him along in his career, it made my level of expectation higher. It gives me something more to strive for."
Being healthy has no doubt been another important factor in Alford's hot start. Consistency and reps are important to any player; for one still learning the game, being in the lineup every day is probably much more so. To make up for lost development time, Alford was sent to the Arizona Fall League last October, a showcase for some of the game's top prospects. He impressed many during his time there. The time spent facing advanced pitching appears to have paid off in spades this spring, as he continues to work deep into counts and use the whole field:
An overlooked aspect to Alford's success this spring may be the protection he's receiving from 1B Ryan McBroom in the New Hampshire batting order. Primarily a lead off hitter prior to this season, Alford has been shifted to the 3rd spot in the lineup, and you have to wonder if the hulking presence of McBroom in the on deck circle has helped Alford get a better selection of pitches to choose from.
The gap between A and AA is considered to be the biggest in the minor leagues. Hitters and Pitches at AA can no longer get by on the strength of their physical talents alone. For many, "having a plan," is the key to their reaching and succeeding at that level: Pitchers come to understand that they can no longer simply blow the ball by hitters, and Hitters have to realize that they can't sit back and wait to hammer mistakes like they could at the lower levels of the game. Pitchers at AA are better at upsetting the timing of hitters, whether it's through better fastball command, or more effective secondary pitches. What has to be most encouraging to the Blue Jays organization about Alford's start is that he's putting the ball in play at a greater rate than ever before. After striking out about 25% of the time through his first several minor league seasons, Alford has cut that down to about 15%. Making contact and using his speed puts tremendous pressure on opposing defences - even though he's stolen 7 bases already, that's the game-changing aspect of his speed. On any ball that finds a gap between fielders, he's a legitimate threat for extra bases.
Added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster last fall in order to keep him from being exposed in the Rule 5 draft, there might be a temptation to rush Alford's timetable at this point. It's worth keeping in mind that this is only his third full season, and he missed considerable time last year. The Blue Jays will likely be content to keep him at New Hampshire for at least a half season with a possible promotion to AAA Buffalo, but with the team facing the prospect of a tear down after a slow start, it's not out of the realm of possibility to see him patrolling centrefield at the Rogers Centre sometime in 2018.
Regular readers of this space likely know that I've written more about Alford than any other Blue Jays prospect. As one who works with young people in my day job, I find his story to be very inspiring. That someone who has faced the struggles at a young age he has, and has a prodigious athletic gift can remain so humble and accommodating demonstrates great character.
Here are just a few of the things I've written about him in the past, if you're interested in learning more about his story: