If there is one thing to be learned from covering minor league prospects for over half a decade, it’s that teams that are patient with their top hopefuls are usually rewarded. Progress is not always measured in a straight line. Injuries can disrupt the timeline. Players who have never had an extended experience with failure often need the adversity of such periods in order to reach their potential.
Teams that don’t rush prospects, or give up on them when their development stalls, are often the ones reaping the benefits of productive farm systems. Simply put, development takes time.
And the Blue Jays are about to watch a player they’ve been patient with for five years embark on what should be a long and successful career in the form of OF Anthony Alford.
A two-time high school football player of the year in his native Mississippi, Alford’s stock in the 2012 draft dropped due to his college football aspirations. The Blue Jays under GM Alex Anthopoulos and Amateur Scouting Director Brian Parker were not afraid to gamble on draft day, and waved a $750K contract and an agreement to let him continue to play football at him to convince him to sign. Baseball America gave this pre-draft assessment:
Alford, a two-sport athlete, has committed to Southern Mississippi for both baseball and football. He’s teammates in baseball with Garren Berry, son of USM baseball coach Scott Berry. And the Golden Eagles have a new football coach, Ellis Johnson, who has hired Alford’s prep football coach onto his staff. In April Alford indicated he plans to go to college and play both sports. That’s too bad, because many scouts considered Alford one of the class’ elite athletes. Big and fast at 6 feet, 200 pounds, he was the Magnolia State’s football player of the year as a quarterback and chose Southern Miss over such football powers as Louisiana State and Nebraska. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,700 as a senior, accounting for 44 touchdowns, but he’s at least as intriguing on the diamond, where he’s a 70 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale with power potential, too. He helped Patal High win back-to-back state 6-A championships before the team lost in the third round this spring, as Alford batted .483 with four homers.
By 2014, many team might have been tempted to give up on Alford. An off-field incident cost him his scholarship to Southern Miss, and he had played all of 11 games in his first two pro seasons because of his football obligations. But the Blue Jays were not about to cash their chips. Anthopoulos made the drive to Lansing in mid-July, where Alford had teased in a 9-game Midwest League stint with the Lugnuts, with a contract extension in hand. The catch was that Alford would have to give up football, but after transferring to Ole Miss and sitting out a transfer rule year, he said no, thanks. To top things off, Alford left shortly after that meeting in order to get married before the football season started.
The Blue Jays were not thrilled with Alford’s decision, but they chose to remain patient with a player who had amassed just over 100 plate appearances in three minor league seasons, even though many of his peers had surpassed him in development.
But their patience was about to be rewarded. Alford lost his starting position in Ole Miss’ defensive backfield (he had originally gone to Southern Miss as a Quarterback), and perhaps he had some serious second thoughts about spurning the Blue Jays’ offer. Alford did admit later that as a football player growing up in a football-mad state, he felt incredible pressure to commit to the gridiron. In late September of 2014, he gave up on football, and reported to the Blue Jays Instructional League camp. A stint in the Aussie Baseball League that winter gave him a crash course in pitch recognition (“it’s like they pitch you backwards,” he said of the veteran ABL pitchers), which in turn led to a breakout 2015.
2016 was a sideways year for Alford. A knee injury cost him a month, and shortly after he returned, an OF collision with teammate Richard Urena had him out for another. Time in the Arizona Fall League did help restore much of his former prospect lustre, but concerns did begin to crop up about his durability (Alford tore his ACL in high school).
2017 saw Alford pick up right where he left off in the fall, and after a torrid .356/.427/.507 April at AA, he made his MLB debut in May. A broken hamate bone a week into that debut put him on the shelf once more, and with the team all but out of pennant contention when Alford returned in July, he was sent back to New Hampshire for more seasoning.
At first glance, there is no mistaking Alford for an athlete. Time in the weight room during his football days is evident. More importantly, he’s one of the highest make up players in the system. This in spite of the fact that his difficult upbringing and prodigious athletic talent from an early age might have given him ample reason to behave otherwise. Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim found many good things to say about Alford:
Anthony has a difference-making set of physical tools, and an even more impressive make up. His work ethic, aptitude, and competitive drive to get better every day are strong reasons as to why he’s seen such a positive development gains in the relatively short time he’s devoted to baseball. He was at home training when the opportunity in Mexico came up, he reported to the Mattick (Blue Jays minor league complex) for a week to step up his prep with our High Performance and Player Development personnel, and now he’s off to a great start (.457/.444/.629 over his first 8 games) with Jalisco.
There is so much to like about Alford’s game. After concerns about the swing-and-miss element to his offence, he cut his K rate to a respectable 15.4% this year. He works the count, and uses the whole field effectively, so the Blue Jays will live with the strikeouts: Alford gets on base, where his speed becomes a weapon. In the outfield, he can play all three positions, but perhaps is in his element in CF, where his speed and ability to read and track balls allow him to cover a tremendous amount of ground. His speed allows him to out run many of his mistakes, but his routes have been improving in terms of consistency as he’s gained more experience. Alford’s arm has been rated as fringe-average, but he makes up for that relative weakness with his accuracy and ability to unload the ball quickly.
But let’s consult some experts, starting with Bobby DeMuro who wrote in baseballcensus.com:
Alford has everything you could want from a rangy, athletic center fielder of the future: exceptional speed combined with good instincts on the bases, good range and aggressive, hard-charging routes in the outfield, and even some sneaky power in his bat that could turn into 20 home run-level production in the big leagues if things all go in a best-case scenario. His speed is plus, he’ll thrive in center field, and he’ll wreak havoc on the base paths. He can mix it with good raw power, the product of great bat speed and an athletic swing that lets him hit the ball to all fields with authority; right-center, in particular, is a very good power alley for him let alone the pull side.
Benjamin Chase of calltothepen.com makes an interesting comp:
Physically, Alford’s build and natural athleticism make him a very difficult player to find a comp for, but in skills and general size measurements, the guy who strikes me as the upside play for Alford is Andrew McCutchen.
One critique of Alford’s swing that has cropped up in a few reports is a relative lack of loft in it, which some suggest might lead to a future as a doubles/triples hitter. He has hit only 21 Home Runs in over 1200 minor league PAs, and while he has started to tap into his power, a 47% ground ball rate, coupled with a 33.5% flyball rate at AA suggest that the 20+ HRs projections may be hard for him to attain. His speed certainly helps put pressure on the defence on any balls he hits on the ground or into the gaps. He shows on this stand up triple he hit in Mexico this week that maybe the loft is coming:
— Fan Charro ⚾️ (@FanCharro) November 29, 2017
Alford will be in competition for a major league job this spring, although he may need a little more time at AAA. If he can stay healthy, he should reach his potential ceiling of a player with a power-speed combo, top of the order hitter who can be an occasional all-star. It’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he replaces Kevin Pillar in CF before long.