The major league baseball season has been underway for a few days now, but the minor leaguers have been patiently waiting for their turn. That all changes tomorrow when all the full-season affiliates finally take the field for real. For the Blue Jays, all eyes (that aren’t trained on Tampa Bay) will be on top prospect Anthony Alford. The Dunedin outfielder opened a lot of eyes last year when he hit .298/.398/.421 across two levels, despite having only accrued 110 plate appearances over the previous three seasons.
I had the chance to catch up with Alford during spring training to get the story of how he got here and what he’s looking to do going forward.
For those of you who are unaware, the reason Alford had played so few games is because, after high school, he played football in college, but baseball for the Jays during the school offseason. It was a scenario that Alford himself never saw unfolding. “I didn’t expect it all,” said Alford. “I was so sold on just playing football and baseball in college for three years and then weighing my options to see what I was going to do.”
Unlike other teams who’d passed on Alford because of his commitment to football, the Blue Jays gave him the chance to do both, with the condition that he decide on a sport by the end of his junior year. Football didn’t start off so well for the man from Columbia, Mississippi. He started as a freshman QB for the University of Southern Mississippi, but the team went 0-12. This probably led some Jays fans to believe that Alford was going to give up on football and join the Jays minor league ranks on a permanent basis. However, it wasn’t so. Alford turned down a contract offer from the Blue Jays and transferred to Ole Miss, which is one of the elite football programs in the SEC (NCAA’s best football conference).
Two years later, with Alford playing strong safety, Ole Miss was ranked in the top three in the entire country and getting ready to host rival Alabama. Suddenly, without warning, Alford dropped football entirely and announced he was ready to pursue his baseball career full time. The thought of giving it all up would in that moment would have been unthinkable for most, but for Alford it was the only decision. “I had to do what was best for my future. I hated that I had to do it at that time, but I had to do what was best for my wife, myself and my family,” said Alford, “I had to come down here to instructs so I could go to winterball.”
He took off to Australia in order to get some some regular at-bats. In the span of a couple weeks, Alford went from being a starter on one of the best college football programs in the USA to playing baseball halfway around the world. It may seem like an impossible transition to you, but it wasn’t for the young outfielder:
“It was hard, but at the same time that’s what I’ve done my whole life. I played football, then I’d go straight to basketball. Then when baseball season would get there I’d have 1.5-2 weeks to get ready for baseball. So I’ve always just done it. Just prepared really quickly before I go into a baseball season. I thought it was a really good experience going to that country and just seeing a different part of the world. It was different off the field, but on the field it was very similar, and that’s what was important.”
He didn’t hit that well in Australia, putting up a meager line of .200/.315/.316 in 152 PAs, but that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was getting back into baseball full time. Still, when he got back to the USA to play minor league ball for Lansing, he never expected to move up so quickly, but he did have the right mentality:
“I just said I’m going to go out there and…take what I learned in Australia and put it into the upcoming season. And that’s what I did. I learned a lot about myself and my strengths and weaknesses. And now I’m just going to build off that.”
After “picking the brains” of players in big league camp and seeing how the Jays stars “go about their business,” it was time to start putting in full-time work:
“It’s reps, reps, reps. I had under 100 ABs before last year. So the biggest thing for me is reps and it’s the only way I’m going to get better. [Older pitchers] are around the plate more and their balls have more movement. And they have better secondary pitches. I’ll be able to adjust once I get more reps. I’m hitting with a leg kick (note: A true Blue Jay) and I need to get consistent with it, so I need consistent ABs. That’s the biggest thing.”
As far as changes to his approach go, don’t look for much in the upcoming season from the star prospect. The home run totals weren’t high, but the team isn’t worried about that. When asked about the subject, Alford had this to say:
“The guys in the organization know I have power. I’m just trying to establish myself and build on what I know by strengthening my weaknesses and building my strengths. We haven’t really talked about mechanics or changing my approach. I feel like I have a really good approach. We haven’t really worried about the power. I feel like they know it’s going to come and I know it’s going to come.”
The Blue Jays are clearly high on the Columbia native, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to keep putting in work, especially on the defensive end. Even though he’s a natural center fielder, Alford has been working out at all three outfield spots. When asked why, Alford said,
“It’s important for all outfielders to learn to play all the positions because you could be a CF your whole life, but if you’re in the Pirates organization and you get called up, you think they’re going to move Andrew McCutchen? No, you’re going to have to learn to play another position. Or with us for example, Kevin Pillar is established in CF and could have won gold glove last year. He’s an awesome CF. So it’s better to be prepared for everything.”
“If helping the team is me…playing the ninth inning on defense, I feel like you just gotta know how to handle any role so you can do what’s needed to get the team a win.”
He also knows not to get bogged down in what he can’t control. While it’s certainly true that by this time next year he could be an injury away from a major league role, Alford isn’t letting that get into his thinking.
“I feel like people mess up and they get caught up in that. If I start trying to play GM I’ll stop focusing on what I should be focusing on. It’s not my job to say ‘oh this guy, his contract is about to be up.’ or ‘this guy is hurt. Who are they going to call up next?’ When you get caught up in that, that’s when everything starts going downhill.”
He doesn’t pay attention to what he can’t control. When the subject of prospect rankings came up, Alford noted that, “it’s an honour that people think that way about me, but at the same time it’s just an outsider opinion. That’s why you can’t really get caught up on that. You’ve got a guy like Rowdy Tellez who is probably one of the most gifted hitters I’ve ever played with. You’ve got Conner Greene who is a gifted pitcher…there are other people in this organization that could easily be the number one prospect.”
Not only is Alford a really smart guy who’s acutely aware of what he does and doesn’t need to focus on, but he’s the type of person who will throw compliments towards his teammates with no provocation. When you combine the raw talent, the work ethic, and the willingness to do what it takes to get better, you usually end up with a really good player. Add in a good teammate, and you end up with someone special.
Anthony Alford is going to head to Dunedin, but people there shouldn’t get to used to seeing him, as he won’t be around for long. He’s got the skills and the attitude to the be up in the majors shortly, and I firmly believe he’s going to do great things. It’s only a question of when.
Lead Photo: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports