TAMPA – It feels like Anthony Alford has been on the cusp of a breakthrough for a while now, even as a star-crossed mix of injury, bad timing, misfortune and underperformance has kept him from gaining a big-league foothold.
In 2017, there was the broken hamate bone in his left wrist suffered while fouling off a Neftali Feliz pitch, in the at-bat right after he collected his first hit with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The next year, a right hamstring strain suffered at the end of a strong spring training sidelined him to start the season and he never steadied his legs beneath him, struggling through two brief stints in the majors and grinding through the rest of the campaign at triple-A Buffalo.
Last season, the Blue Jays brought Alford to Toronto for opening day but activated Rowdy Tellez instead, and he let the situation eat away at him as he chased hits but found struggle at Buffalo, producing little in the sporadic big-league playing time he did get.
Now, the tantalizing centre-fielder is in a make or break camp with the Blue Jays as he’s out of options, meaning he can’t be sent to the minor-leagues without first clearing waivers. A talent-poor organization — Baltimore Orioles, looking in your direction — is sure to claim him, which would be a sad outcome for one of the club’s top prospects of the past decade.
That’s why manager Charlie Montoyo intends to give him ample opportunity this spring, in the hopes his abundant talent at long last emerges consistently. In Saturday’s 2-1 Grapefruit League win over the New York Yankees, Alford made a strong first impression, lining a single to centre in the seventh inning, promptly stealing second and third ahead of a Forrest Wall walk, and then swiping home when Luis Avilan attempted to pick off Wall at first base.
The entire sequence showcased how dynamic a player Alford can be.
"I was telling (bench coach) Dave Hudgens, if his approach is good at the plate, he could be a great weapon for us," said Montoyo. "He can pinch-run. He can play centre. He’s got speed. That was a good example of what we think he can do. He’s got the tools to be that guy, so we’re hoping he becomes that and he plays like he did (Saturday). That was great to see. He’ll be a great weapon for us, for sure. That’s a fact."
Small caveat there — if he makes the team.
Barring injury, the Blue Jays are realistically looking at five players — Alford, fellow outfielder Derek Fisher, utilitymen Joe Panik and Brandon Drury, and first baseman Rowdy Tellez – for four bench spots.
Fisher, like Alford, is out of options but seems more assured of a roster spot as things stand, although the Blue Jays could certainly carry both. Doing so would pit Drury against Tellez for the final roster spot, since Panik will have to play his way off the club, and there’s a strong internal push for Tellez and his imposing left-handed power.
Drury has options but could also be cleared out since Panik is going to need a 40-man roster spot, as will reliever A.J. Cole, who is also expected on the roster. However it lines up, a lot of juggling looms for the Blue Jays, who are probably going to have to part with someone they like.
Alford knows the math, even if he’s trying not to think about it.
"Obviously I want to be a Blue Jay, so there are times those thoughts creep in," he said. "But I have to find a way to block those out and just go out there and perform and really just take it one pitch at a time and one at-bat at a time and one game at a time. And just have fun at the end of the day."
From experience, Alford knows what happens if he doesn’t approach the game that way.
While the stakes are high, he understands the only real competition he can control is the one with himself, to ensure the best player he can be comes out every day.
"I feel like as long as I’m confident, I’m relaxed and playing, I put my talents up there with anybody. But it’s just got to come out. It won’t be if I’m stressing or putting unnecessary pressure on myself," said Alford. "A perfect example was like last year when I went up, went down, went up, went down at the beginning of the season and I sucked all of April. It was because I felt like I had to perform to get back to the big leagues when no one said that. I was telling myself that. That’s an example of unnecessary pressure.
"When May came around it was like, I don’t really care what happens, I don’t want to look back and regret the season because I’m stressed from putting pressure on myself. That’s when I started to play well."
The Blue Jays, too, must be wary of ending up with regrets.
Alford was a third-round pick in 2012, his path to the majors extended by a couple of years playing college football at the beginning of his career. He’s been around for a long time, and this may be his moment, if not with the Blue Jays then with another club.
"I feel like they pretty much have seen me, they’ve seen me grow up pretty much," Alford said of the Blue Jays. "I mean, I’ve been in this organization since I was 17 years old, so I feel like they’ve kind of seen me improve and progress over the years and I feel like they’ve seen everything. It’s just a matter of letting it all come out at the big-league level."
There’s a job in the bullpen for the taking for Canadian right-hander Jordan Romano, who threw a clean inning featuring the type of eye-opening velocity that earned him some time in the big-leagues last year. He struck out Gio Urshela before getting fly outs from Mike Ford and Clint Frazier.
"It was good to see Romano throwing 98, 97," said Montoyo. "That’s the arm we saw when he first came in when we saw him against Boston. That’s what I’m hoping, to see him bounce back like that. I’m really happy to see that, him throwing hard. If he throws like that, he’s going to be another weapon for us. Of course, he’s fighting for a job. That was great to see. I’m really happy about that."
Old-friend alert: lefty J.A. Happ, seeking to bounce back from a mediocre 2019, threw two perfect innings, striking out three batters. And catcher Josh Thole entered the game in the sixth inning and went 0-for-2. He’s a non-roster invitee… Andy Burns opened the scoring with an RBI double in the sixth inning… The Blue Jays wore black armbands to honour the late Tony Fernandez. The Yankees held a moment of silence for Fernandez, who played for them in 1995.