Time for Blue Jays to find out what they have in Anthony Alford

Toronto Blue Jays' Anthony Alford rounds the bases after his two-run home run off Philadelphia Phillies' Seth McGarry during the second inning of a spring training baseball game Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Dunedin, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

TORONTO — So, what exactly are the Toronto Blue Jays doing with Anthony Alford?

It was less than a week ago that Alford arrived in Toronto believing he was going to be a part of the Blue Jays’ opening day roster, only to end up a last-minute omission in favour of Rowdy Tellez. Monday, he was announced as a member of the Buffalo Bisons roster instead. But by Tuesday evening, he was jogging out to centre field at Rogers Centre, beneath one of the hotel rooms he stayed in on opening day, having been recalled to the majors and immediately inserted into Toronto’s lineup.

Tuesday’s trade of centre fielder Kevin Pillar appeared to open up an opportunity for the 24-year-old to finally see consistent major-league playing time. The Blue Jays needed an outfielder, Alford was the obvious internal candidate, and Toronto GM Ross Atkins was about to sit on a podium at Rogers Centre and talk about the club’s goal of “creating opportunity for some of our younger players.”

But about two hours after Pillar’s trade was announced, the Blue Jays completed another one with the San Diego Padres, acquiring Socrates Brito, a speedy, left-handed hitting outfielder with intriguing tools and strong Triple-A numbers, who has nevertheless been both placed on outright waivers and designated for assignment by separate teams within the last week.

Brito’s out of options. Alford isn’t. The Blue Jays clearly like Brito’s potential and want to see if they can extract more out of the 26-year-old than the Arizona Diamondbacks could. The easy move would be to option Alford back to Buffalo whenever Brito reports. That way, Alford gets regular playing time while the Blue Jays figure out what they have in Brito without exposing him to waivers. But when asked Tuesday what this all means for Alford, Atkins deferred.

“We’ll see. We’ll work through that today. We haven’t had the opportunity to talk to the major-league staff about that. We have to sit down and talk about what it means for him,” Atkins said. “I will say that Anthony has worked very, very hard to put himself in this position to be ready to come up for these opportunities. And hopefully he’ll make the most of it.”

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Tuesday’s opportunity, in a 2-1 Blue Jays loss to the Baltimore Orioles, was not made the most of. Alford struck out on four pitches in the second, grounded out on the second pitch he saw in the fifth, and drove a fly ball into the centre fielder’s glove just shy of the warning track in the seventh. Not the first time he’s gone 0-for-3. Won’t be the last.

But will it be the last time Blue Jays fans see Alford at Rogers Centre for the foreseeable future? Is he off to frigid Buffalo, fitted for a Bisons uniform, while the older, less-heralded Brito eats up the playing time created by Pillar’s departure? Don’t the Blue Jays want to take this opportunity to gauge just what they have in Alford, a player who was regarded as a top-50 MLB prospect only three seasons ago? Is it not his time?

It’s been a long time coming. A first-round talent who fell to the third round due to signability concerns, Alford was drafted seven years ago this June, agreeing to terms with the Blue Jays — the club gave him a $750,000 bonus — on the condition that he could continue pursuing his football career at the University of Southern Mississippi.

It was a unique arrangement, but Alford was uniquely talented. Only a supremely gifted athlete could put themselves in a position to choose between playing NCAA Div. 1 football or a professional baseball career. And thanks to Toronto’s willingness to accept risk, Alford got to do both.

And so, after playing only five Gulf Coast League games, Alford went off to lead Southern Mississippi in touchdowns, passing yardage and rushing attempts as a dual-threat quarterback. And after taking nearly all of 2013 off awaiting a transfer to Ole Miss, he did it all over again in 2014, playing just 14 mid-summer baseball games before heading off to play safety and return punts for the Rebels.

That fall, Alford decided his clearest path to playing at the height of professional sports was through baseball, and shut down his football career for good. He went off to Australia to play winter ball and gain any experience he could. But even after that, he had only 269 plate appearances — less than a half-season’s worth — under his belt three years into his career.

And yet, it speaks to Alford’s uncommon ability that he was able to put up a .298/.398/.421 line in his first full season as a professional ballplayer, finishing the year in high-A and earning an invitation to major-league camp the following spring. Then Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was an immediate fan, saying at the time, “our guys say he’s made more strides in one season than anybody they’ve ever seen.”

But then the injuries began. First it was his right knee, hurt in a slide in his first game of the 2016 season. Then, after returning from a month-long absence, it was a concussion, suffered during a scary outfield collision that saw Alford stretchered off the field. In 2017, he fractured the hamate in his left wrist only eight plate appearances into his first big-league call-up. That sidelined him for nearly two months.

Alford’s 2018 began with a right hamstring strain, but once he recovered he was finally able to remain healthy and play for an extended period, setting a career high in games played with 112 before a mid-September call-up to the majors. The unusual timing of the call-up — 38 members of Toronto’s 40-man roster were with the Blue Jays earlier in the month — looked a lot like a bit of service time jiu-jitsu meant to prevent the possibility of Alford qualifying as a Super Two player and becoming eligible for four trips through arbitration. But that’s neither here nor there.

Through that long, complicated journey, some of Alford’s prospect shine has worn off. This season was the first in which he wasn’t a consensus top-100 MLB prospect, falling from as high as the 40’s and 50’s to a complete omission on lists across the industry. His injuries and lack of playing time are one reason. His production when healthy is another.

Alford has never quite replicated the formula that let him be so successful in that first stint after he left football. Last season was the closest thing to a full year he’s had since — and he finished it with a relatively pedestrian .240/.312/.344 line at triple-A before going 2-for-19 during his brief September spell with Toronto.

Is Alford a busted prospect? Far from it. Is he incapable of channelling his immense athleticism into success at the major-league level? Of course not. Is it a little tricky to gauge just what he’s going to be as a big-leaguer going forward due to the time he’s missed and the extreme variance in the professional sample he’s thus far provided? Absolutely.

So, perhaps it’s time for the Blue Jays to find out. When you trade your longest-tenured player and publicly state you did so in order to open up opportunity for younger ones, it’s a little bizarre to not see a prospect of Alford’s calibre be a beneficiary. Particularly considering he fields the same position as that long-serving player you just jettisoned.

So, what are the Blue Jays doing with Anthony Alford? We’ll see. Maybe they can keep him in the majors by optioning Sean Reid-Foley — who could cede his next start to Thomas Pannone or Sam Gaviglio — while opening up outfield playing time for both Alford and Brito by giving Teoscar Hernandez starts at designated hitter. Or maybe the Blue Jays choose the simplest route and send Alford back to triple-A, where he can be guaranteed every day at-bats in that frosty outfield off the one-ninety.

That would make it two very brief trips to Toronto for Alford in the last week. At least this time he got into a game.

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