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To say that the Texas Rangers need a catcher would be an understatement. They had Mike Napoli for a couple of years but he left via free agency after the 2012 season. The Rangers signed A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal for the 2013 season, and despite the .297 OBP, he actually filled his role relatively well.
This year, though, has been a different story. The hopes that J.P. Arencibia would resurrect what he was back in 2011 (which still wasn’t very good) have been all but squashed. Chris Gimenez has a career .317 slugging percentage, not quite passable for a 31-year-old journeyman catcher. Robinson Chirinos has been a nice surprise with a .251/.283/.457 slash line in 191 plate appearances this year. I say “nice surprise” because that’s about average and the Rangers getting even slightly above league-average production from a catcher (Chirinos is 15th out of 34 catchers with at least 45 games behind the plate with a .741 OPS) should be considered a bonus right now.
Enter Jorge Alfaro.
Alfaro was signed out of Colombia as a 16-year-old by the Rangers back in 2009 and started in the organization as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League. Since then, it’s been a steady rise for the young right-handed catcher. In 2011, he was promoted to Low-A, then to A-ball in 2012, then a cup of coffee in High-A in 2013 before playing there for the 2014 season to date.
Let’s take a step back before we continue forward here.
Ask just about any general manager or manager in baseball and they will say that developing a catcher behind the plate will be more important than developing the catcher at the plate. In that sense, Alfaro putting up a career .262/.325/.429 slash line in the Minors so far isn’t a bad thing. Reminder: Alfaro turned 21-years-old a month ago.
Let’s put that age into context for catchers. Matt Wieters was drafted as a 21-year-old coming out of college in 2009 and spent a year and a half in the Minors before finally getting the call to the Orioles in late May of 2009 as a 23-year-old. Carlos Santana was signed as a 19-year-old free agent in 2005 out of the Dominican Republic and didn’t make his debut in the MLB for five years as a 24-year-old. Buster Posey had three years in college and 172 games in the minor leagues before becoming an MLB regular. Even the great Joe Mauer, through a mix of injury and development time, needed four years to become an MLB regular after being drafted out of high school. In other words, even the elite of the elite need their time to develop their game at the plate and behind the plate.
Alfaro is racking up the development time, and he needs every bit of it. Since getting to Rookie ball in 2010, Alfaro has 359 games and 1459 plate appearances. That’s despite the fact he still hasn’t managed to get to Double-A (yet). What he turns into behind the plate, that’s up in the air for now.
What Alfaro can bring to the field today is unbelievable athleticism. From a piece on Alfaro by Mike Newman of FanGraphs:
From a physical standpoint, Alfaro is unique compared to catchers scouted previously. It’s easy to laud the athleticism of lean, explosive backstops like Christian Bethancourt or Travis d’Arnaud. But when a catcher is built like a tank, one assumes physical strength will be his only asset. Not true in Alfaro’s case as I pulled multiple 4.05 home-to-first time from video – Impressive speed for an outfielder – Unheard of for a catcher.
For a reference point of that 4.05 home-to-first time, from another FanGraphs piece (this one by Jeff Sullivan), Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock (the guy who stole 57 bases in 239 games in Double-A/Triple-A over 2011 and 2012) was at at an even 4.00. In other words, the athleticism/speed that Alfaro possesses is centerfield speed behind the plate. It’s probably why Alfaro has 21 steals in his last 186 minor league games.
Something else Alfaro does a lot of his strike out. For all the tools he possesses (a very strong arm, very good speed, the potential of huge power), Alfaro does not have a very good approach at the plate. Over his last 82 games at High-A, Alfaro has 85 strikeouts to 23 walks. For his minor league career, he has 388 strikeouts to just 78 walks in 359 games.
The strikeouts are a problem. He has a minor league career strikeout rate of 26.6-percent. There’s no need to look any further than George Springer (.235) and Jon Singleton (.168) to see guys who have high career minor league strikeout rates and are struggling to maintain anywhere close to a passable fantasy baseball average.
The walks are also a problem. For those in OBP leagues, someone like Santana has been passable even with .230-.260 averages because he walks so often, he’s been consistently above league average in OBP (and that includes this year). Alfaro, with his strikeout and walk rates, isn’t a guy who can help in leagues with different setups. Until his approach changes, he’ll be a drag on averages/percentages. Not to mention how high-K/low-BB guys don’t have a high probability of MLB success, period.
I wouldn’t have given much thought to Alfaro for 2014 had A) the Rangers been playoff contenders as expected in the preseason and B) the catcher position been filled miraculously. Chirinos is doing OK but how long that will last is very uncertain. The Rangers also have the second-worst record in the American League at time of writing.
Alfaro won’t appear in 2014 before September and that’s if at all. If he does get the call, all people should be looking for is a power-hitting catcher who might be able to put together two hot weeks. Until he makes adjustments, his approach at the plate won’t mean a lot of sustained success at the MLB level as a 21-year-old, 23-year-old, 25-year-old, it doesn’t matter. For those struggling at the catcher position in a couple of months, keep an eye on the call-ups. If he does get a look this year, it’s a complete shot in the dark with a high likelihood of failure, but the low probability of a 10-15 day hot streak might be worth the addition.
I would be geared more for him for 2015 and beyond. With his tools, if he can put together a good approach, there is a high power ceiling here with speed to add to his fantasy value. Not to mention there aren’t many (read: None) players blocking him from getting to the MLB as a catcher.
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