Blue Jays’ Alford trying to take advantage of every opportunity

Toronto Blue Jays' Anthony Alford slides safely onto third base on a single by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Julio Cortez/AP)

NEW YORK — This is unscientific, but approximately 100 per cent of MLB athletes played shortstop when they were kids and Anthony Alford’s no different. Growing up in Mississippi, he didn’t have a home team to cheer for, so he gravitated towards the New York Yankees because he loved watching Derek Jeter compete. Playing shortstop through little league and his freshman year of high school, Alford dreamed of manning the position at Yankee Stadium someday, just like his favourite player did for two decades.

But in his sophomore year, something funny happened: Alford forgot how to throw to first. He figures it had something to do with playing quarterback and the different throwing motions the two sports require. The balls that once sailed perfectly out of his hand from the six-hole were suddenly ending up all over the place.

“Little case of the yips,” he says. “I got messed up mentally. I could field really good — I had crazy range as a shortstop. And I could make all the hard throws — that wasn’t a problem. It was the routine throws where I had time to think about it. I’d one-hop first base. I’d spike it. So, the coach gave me the boot and put me in the outfield.”

Which is where Alford finally got to live his dream — or at least a version of it — Friday night in the Bronx, leading off for the Toronto Blue Jays and playing left in his first game at Yankee Stadium. He probably wishes it went better, as he went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in a 4-3 Blue Jays win over the Yankees.

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Good results or bad, Alford was just happy to be out there. It was his first start in two weeks as he’s spent the majority of his September call-up serving as either a late-game defensive replacement or pinch-hitter. It’s impossible to stay sharp when playing so infrequently, and Alford’s been doing his best, taking regular reps against a high-velocity pitching machine. But it only does so much.

“Nothing can really get you ready for a live arm, you know?” he said before the game. “It’s not the same as when you’re up there getting a feel for the strike zone, getting to trust your eyes. It’s been tough. But it’s just something that I have to work through.”

The really tough thing is not knowing when he’ll get the opportunity again. He probably wouldn’t have even gotten Friday’s start if not for a confluence of circumstances, including everyday left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., needing a game off his feet as he returns from a quad injury, leadoff hitter Bo Bichette out of the lineup with a concussion, and the Yankees starting a left-hander, JA Happ.

“You know what? That’s baseball. Somebody gets hurt, and now somebody gets an opportunity. I’m giving Anthony a chance. We’ll see what he can do against a lefty,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said before the game. “He has the tools to be a good big-league player.”

Yes, he’s always had the tools. The raw power, the speed, the sheer athleticism that has allowed him to play in both NCAA Division 1 football and MLB. The problem has always been bringing them all together to fulfill the potential that led to him being named a top-100 MLB prospect three years running. And staying healthy.

He’s done neither this season. He’s battled oblique and groin injuries, and, after starting the year in a deep funk, ultimately hit .259/.343/.411 at triple-A with only seven homers in 76 games. That homer total is noticeably low considering his bat speed and raw power, and the fact home runs were up nearly 60 per cent across triple-A this season thanks to the introduction of MLB’s supercharged baseballs at the level.

“With my season, negatives would definitely be the oblique and the groin. But I think there’s some positives,” he says. “Especially with starting really bad in April, and then seeing the next few months what I was able to do, the adjustments I was able to make within the season and find success with. I think that was a positive learning experience for me.”

He certainly had his moments. Alford was hitting .308/.392/.465 over a 42-game stretch through May and June before getting hurt — a familiar occurrence in his young career — and missing more than a month. He returned from a brief rehab assignment in August and immediately put up an eight-game hit streak. But he ran out of season to work with and he now owns a .700 OPS over 749 plate appearances at triple-A since making his debut at the level in 2017. The average OPS for an MLB outfielder this season is .778.

But Alford’s hot streaks have been so blistering, and his raw tools are so real, that the question remains: with health and consistent playing time, could he be that average MLB outfielder? Could he be even better? Despite spending time in the majors every season since 2017, Alford’s appeared in only 28 games. He’s yet to accumulate 50 big-league plate appearances. Wherever his true talent level may be, he hasn’t been given much runway to reach it.

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Even this month, with Alford out of options next spring and the Blue Jays using their remaining games purely to evaluate young talent, he’s barely played. That says one thing about the length of Toronto’s outfield depth chart, and another about where Alford resides on it.

And he has no illusions about this. He entered this month expecting his playing time to be infrequent. He admits he was surprised when he arrived at Yankee Stadium Friday and saw his name atop the lineup card. He knows what his lack of playing time says about where he stands. And he’s of course aware that being out of options next spring puts his future with the organization in some question.

“I can’t say I haven’t thought about it,” Alford says. “But I can’t focus on it too much. Right now, I’m just trying to get through this year and focus on having a good off-season and preparing myself the best I can for next year.”

Part of that off-season will likely include a trip to the Carribean to play winterball. It was Alford’s idea — partly to make up for the time he missed this season, partly because he simply wants to keep playing. He’s had preliminary discussions with his agent and the Blue Jays about it, and the club’s on board. He played in Mexico after the 2017 season and he’d be happy to return, but where he’d really like to play is the Dominican Republic, which would offer a higher level of competition.

That would allow the 25-year-old to play consistently, continue making adjustments, and maybe even show what he’s capable of. Many will be interested to see it. MLB rosters will expand to 26 next season, so it’s feasible that the Blue Jays could carry Alford to begin 2020 if he’s playing well. It’s also imaginable that Toronto could use him as part of a package to acquire pitching this winter. Or he could be put on waivers at the end of spring training and either end up back in the minors or with a fresh start in a different organization. His potential outcomes are many. And he doesn’t know when, or where, his opportunities will come.

Which is why he’s relishing every chance he gets these days to play the game he loves at a high level. It’s part of the winterball idea, too. Alford loved his time in Mexico, and the six weeks he spent playing in Australia as a 19-year-old. Being exposed to different cultures and atmospheres opened his eyes. He feels like it’s made him a better teammate, a better person.

“Going over there, I get to know what the Latin guys feel like when they come over here,” Alford says. “It’s tough when they don’t speak English. But I went to Mexico and I feel like they really showed me a lot of love. Even though I didn’t speak Spanish, they made sure I really enjoyed my time over there.

“You definitely get to understand their situation a lot more. A lot of guys think that the Latin players come over here and they stick together because they just want to be around other Latin guys. But I definitely understand why they do it. Because it’s pretty cool having someone who speaks the same language as you and being able to spend time with them. You don’t feel as isolated, you know?”

These are the experiences he says he’ll remember when he looks back on it all someday. Not that September when he was out of options and barely playing. Not whatever his triple-A OPS was. He’ll remember that warm Australian climate; the raucous atmosphere at Mexican games. He’ll remember finally getting to play at Yankee Stadium like he always dreamed he would. Sure, he wasn’t standing at shortstop. But he was pretty close.

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