Top Blue Jays prospect Alford talks less to learn more

Jeff Blair and Hazel Mae discuss the pitching of Aaron Sanchez and whether or not he’s a starter or member of the bullpen.

Sitting in the training room at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium one afternoon, Anthony Alford saw Jose Bautista and asked the all-star right-fielder how often he takes swings in the batting cage. In the clubhouse, he picked the brains of Domonic Brown and Devon Travis, and discussed defending the outfield with Kevin Pillar. Even when Alford wasn’t an active participant, he soaked up every bit of knowledge he came across during his time in camp with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Seeing what adjustments they had to make, what was the difference in going from this level to the next level, so I know what to prepare for. I feel like that’s way more important than the mechanical part, your swing,” says the 21-year-old centre-fielder widely regarded as the club’s top prospect. “I sat in the cage and listened to Josh Donaldson talk to some people.

“I just listen a lot and talk less. That’s where most of my learning is coming at.”

That learning should serve Alford well in minor-league camp after the Blue Jays over the weekend reassigned him and fellow prospects Rowdy Tellez, Richard Urena, Roemon Fields, Danny Jansen, Jon Berti, Matt Dean and Taylor Cole plus depth players Ben Rowen, Scott Copeland and Pat McCoy.

Alford’s next destination isn’t yet clear – the Blue Jays could challenge him with double-A New Hampshire or give him some more time at single-A Dunedin, where he slashed .302/.380/.444 in 57 games to close out 2015. Wherever he starts, he’ll be looking to pick up right where he left off, making up for the time he lost while playing college football.

A third-round pick signed for $750,000 in 2012 – he would have gone far higher if not for his commitment to play quarterback at Southern Mississippi – Alford made only 110 plate appearances in the minor leagues plus 152 more in Australia from his draft year through 2014.

It was during that year, after playing the ’14 season as a defensive back at Ole Miss, that he fully committed to baseball. His progress last year was staggering. Alford slashed .293/.418/.394 over 50 games at low-A Lansing before his promotion to Dunedin. He was among the players the Detroit Tigers initially sought in return for David Price last summer.

Beyond the numbers, Blue Jays development staff praised his leadership and marvelled at the quality of his at-bats. Challenged to bat leadoff, Alford took an early season conversation with Kenny Graham, the organization’s lower levels hitting co-ordinator who at the time was Lansing’s hitting coach, to heart.

“He was talking to me about the role of a leadoff hitter, what your job is and what your team expects of you as a leadoff hitter,” he recalls. “I kept that in my mind and continued to work the count my first at-bat, see what pitches they have. If they showed me all their pitches in my first at-bat, I felt like I had a really high chance to succeed the rest of the game.”

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The change was significant because “beforehand I was more aggressive, I was more of an ambush hitter, it was like hit or miss for me, I wasn’t really into working the count,” continues Alford. “I’ve always had good pitch recognition and I’ve always been patient as far as waiting on my pitch, but I really focused on it, and learned how to work the count and be a good leadoff hitter.

“Whatever my role was, I wanted to be the best doing that.”

By season’s end, Alford was fully cognizant of how far he’d come in a short time, producing against players who’d taken steady reps on a daily basis over multiple years. He’d also come face-to-face with some of the tricks the grind of a five-month minor-league season can play on the mind.

“Sometimes I could be coming off a 4-for-4 day and then I feel like I can’t really see the ball the next few games,” he says. “When I was struggling, it was mainly when I was getting greedy and trying to rush, work too fast. Whenever I stay within myself, that’s when I have the most success.”

The grind on the body was far easier for Alford to cope with.

Despite playing in 107 games last year, he says his seasons playing football took more of a toll on him, as it might only take one full practice for the physical attrition to begin.

“I was banged up every now and again, but that’s just football – you play through that,” Alford says. “That helped me in baseball, it kept me on the field because I had a football mentality as far as, I might be sore but I’m going to play through this, where someone else might go to the training room.

“I just feel like you don’t have to run through the training room all the time. If it’s something serious, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, but if it’s something you can play through – and I know my body, I know myself – I know what I can and can’t play through.”

It’s the other stuff Alford is still trying to lock down, and his willingness to draw from others bodes well for his chances to adapt and improve.

During the off-season, he’d sometimes workout in Mississippi and run into Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who rather than swinging in the winter, focuses on improving his speed and strength. The takeaway? “You can swing your body into shape,” says Alford, “but you can swing your mind out of shape, if that makes sense.”

Last year, Alford struck the right balance between the two, and he’s looking everywhere for ways to keep it that way in 2016.