Devon White doing his best to push Blue Jays’ Anthony Alford

Anthony Alford attempts to make a diving catch in a spring training game (Chris O'Meara/AP)

BUFFALO — Devon White has high standards. The Buffalo Bisons baserunning and outfield coach admires the talent that’s dripping from pupil Anthony Alford, yet doesn’t think the centre-fielder is close to being a finished product.

“Personally, from what I’ve seen, he needs work in centre field,” White says of Alford’s defence before a recent Bisons game. “He can play it all his life, but there’s a way to play it where you can see the natural jump and everything. He needs a little bit of help in doing that and that comes from reps.

“He needs more reps in centre field.”

Alford, 23, is the Toronto Blue Jays’ most promising outfield prospect. Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline rank him as the No. 3 player in the organization’s farm system and he made good on such evaluations with his tantalizing play this past spring training. However, despite Alford’s plus bat and borderline-elite speed, the fact remains that he’s still acclimating to baseball — this will be just his fourth season since he gave up football.

That’s all well and good, but White wants more and Alford knows it.

“He can be a little more critical, because what his expectations are, against my expectations — in my fourth year in the minors — are probably different,” says Alford. “I can probably raise those expectations if I’m trying to be as good of a defender as he was back in the day. He’s just trying to help me take my game up a notch.”

Alford is keenly aware of White’s storied major-league career. He rings off his mentor’s accolades like devotee from a monastery repeating a mantra: 17 years in the big leagues, seven Gold Gloves, three World Series rings (two of which came in Toronto).

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It’s good fortune for the Blue Jays that White, who was the Bisons hitting coach last season, is with the triple-A club at the same time as Alford, helping the prospect transition from raw to prepared.

“He obviously has a lot of knowledge he can share,” says Alford. “He’s been helping me out a lot defensively. Just the mental part of it, how to get better at reading people’s swings. Taking control in the outfield, setting up the outfield how I want it.”

Before each game, the two mull over scouting reports on the opposing team’s hitters and determine Alford’s defensive positioning. The relationship is a work in progress simply because they haven’t had much time together this season; Alford has played just nine games at triple-A, due to a right hamstring strain that required a rehab stint in advanced-A Dunedin.

He’s healthy now and Thursday’s game against the Syracuse Chiefs offered an honest depiction of his progress in the field. Alford made two exceptional plays, sandwiched between a mistake.

In the second inning, he tracked down a fly ball smashed to the deepest part of Coca-Cola Field, just in front of the 404-foot sign in centre field. It was an example of Alford reading the ball well and using his speed to cover a large expanse. Then, in the sixth, Alford outdid himself by making a running, over-the-shoulder catch in deep centre that ended with his back facing the infield. Think something along the lines of Jim Edmonds.

In between those catches, during the third frame, he took a debatable route to a drive hit into right-centre field and watched as the ball fell just a few feet to his left, allowing the runner to reach second base.

Bisons manager Bobby Meacham says his coaching staff is careful in its defensive instruction to players. In many cases, they prefer not to overtly point out mistakes to perpetrators because they don’t want direction to be misconstrued with blame. He recalls a recent example when Bisons outfielder Roemon Fields dove for a ball and missed. There were two outs and he wasn’t able to keep the ball in front of him, gifting a double to the opposition’s lead-footed catcher.

Meacham says White used it as a teachable moment for Alford, who was seated in the dugout watching the play. “I said to Devo, ‘Make sure he knows,’” says Meacham. “Stuff like that, they never experience it unless they see it happen to somebody else. … Once [Alford] saw it happen, he can go, ‘OK, now I saw it happen. Another hit scores the runner, whereas it would have taken two hits to score him.’ That’s the kind of thing he needs to continue to learn from Devon White.”

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The manager has tremendous respect for White, whom he played against in the 1980s. Not only was White an excellent defender with a cannon arm, he was also an astute basestealer. He swiped 346 career bags and averaged 31 stolen bases from 1987 to 1993.

“You have to have the instinct and the knack for it,” says White, noting good speed doesn’t necessarily foster a strong base thief. “The biggest part of it is instinct. That can come by just working over and over and seeing a little bit of things that different pitchers might do.”

When it comes to Alford, White commends his “explosive first step,” but admits that overall, there’s work to be done.

“I personally think he has a long way because he hasn’t been in the game as long,” says White. “He has got to get more reps. … You can’t just make him a base stealer if he’s not a base stealer.

“I have to find out what kind of player he’s going to be and go from there.”

White picked up baserunning tidbits from Lou Brock and contemporary Rickey Henderson over the years. His defensive mentor was former Angels teammate Gary Pettis. Knowledge was passed down to him from history’s best, and now he’s trying to do the same for Alford.

Even though at times it sounds like tough love.

“He’s my guy,” says Alford. “He just wants to see me be the best I can be. He’s going to hold me accountable. He’s not going to let me slack off. If he sees something wrong, he’s going to tell me. He’s going to be honest with me.

“But most of all, he wants to see me be the best I can be.”

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