The hopes of this year’s Toronto Blue Jays rest largely on the performance of the team’s mid-rotation starters. One of those expected to play a major role is 21-year old right-hander Henderson Alvarez. Let’s take a look at the path he’s taken to Toronto and what we can likely expect from him this year and beyond.
Henderson Alvarez was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent from Venezuela in 2006. He made his debut in 2007 in the Dominican Summer League as a 17-year old, going 1-2, 5.61 with a 20/8 SO/BB ratio in 25.2 IP. He was obviously raw and also very hittable posting a 12.6 H/9 but showed a decent strikeout rate and overall command.
The Jays moved him to their rookie-level Gulf Coast affiliate in 2008 where he made 11 starts and had a line of 1-4, 5.63 with a 34/6 SO/BB rate in 46.1 IP. His hit rate was again high (12.2H/9) but defense in the lower minors is often unrefined and since Alvarez’s best pitch was a power sinker, there was hope the hits would diminish in front of better fielders. Again note the impressive command. His above-average velocity also attracted notice but some questioned whether Alvarez could develop the rest of his repertoire enough to keep hitters from keying on the fastball.
He broke through in 2009 at low-A Lansing, starting 23 games for a 9-6, 3.47 line, with a 92/19 SO/BB ratio in 124.1 IP. He continued to show excellent downward movement on his fastball, resulting in a good ground-ball rate of 51.4%. He allowed only home run. Over his first three seasons (196.1 IP) opposing hitters had only taken him deep 4 times. Lansing plays as a pitcher’s park but the numbers were still impressive and Alvarez was still a teenager. Reports also showed very good development of the changeup. These strides and his ability to translate them across the increased workload boosted optimism about his overall ceiling and potential to stay a starter long-term.
Toronto advanced him to High-A Dunedin in 2010 and he held his own going 8-7, 4.33 with a 78/27 SO/BB in 112.1 IP earning a selection to the Futures Game. His control slipped slightly but many attributed it to a greater focus on the development of a curveball. The pitch was unreliable at this point and many wondered if he could pass the AA test without a more effective breaking ball. He faded badly down the stretch with an ERA of 6.00 after the All-Star Break. Further concerns about his slight build and a delivery that some labeled high-effort led some to project him as a future reliever at this point. But the organization insisted he would keep starting until he proved he couldn’t.
The Jays’ confidence paid off in 2011. After beginning the year with a stint on the disabled list and a couple of subsequent rehab starts in Dunedin, Alvarez advanced to AA New Hampshire and delivered an 8-4, 2.86 line with a 66/17 SO/IP rate in 88 IP and again appeared in the Futures Game. New Hampshire clocked Alvarez’s velocity at a new height – sitting close to 96 MPH and even touching 101 at times. His strikeout rate slipped but the control remained excellent. By now he was also throwing a curve and slider – though both were still seen as fringy. Even as mere ‘show-me’ pitches, the breaking balls were able to induce weaker contact off the sinker. The Blue Jays called him up in August and he made 10 starts, going 1-3, 3.53 with a 40/8 SO/BB in 63.2 IP, at one point reeling off 14 straight shutout innings. He showed impressive athleticism and fields his position well. This as one of the youngest players in the league. He lost his rookie eligibility and enters 2012 as the Blue Jays likely 4th starter.
It’s important to remember that Alvarez will still only be 21 on Opening Day. With his raw ability and deep reluctance to give up walks there is a lot to be excited about here and the debate about his upside continues. Alvarez showed last year that his fastball-changeup combination is strong enough to position him as a starter moving forward. Whether he is a third (or fourth) man or something more depends on further refinements to his breaking pitches. In 2012, 71% of Alvarez’s pitches were fastballs. That’s incredibly hard to sustain multiple times through a major league order. Without adjustments, experienced lineups will exploit his lack of another out pitch in his second tour of the league. This will be the key to his season. Alvarez will also have to throw more quality strikes this year to keep his hit rate manageable and the prevent the ball from leaving the yard. This will likely come with experience and all reports on his willingness to work with the coaching staff are exemplary.
Toronto will give Alvarez every opportunity to seize a starter’s spot and run with it so that he can develop at the major league level. I take an optimistic view on Alvarez. While I expect he will battle inconsistency at times I also think he’ll contribute 25+ starts and establish himself as a capable third man behind Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. That would make him either a future cornerstone of the Jays rotation – or a very valuable trade chip.
Henderson Alvarez, SP
04/18/90 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-1 WT: 195
Signed: By Toronto as an amateur free agent October 17, 2006.
Contract Status: Eligible for arbitration in 2016.
Service Time: 0.051