March 19, 2012
Jays pumped about Alvarez
By MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency
DUNEDIN, FLA. - In baseball, teams usually only go as far as their starting rotations take them and in this matter the Blue Jays are no different than the rest.
Of all the question marks surrounding the 2012 Jays and how they will ultimately fare this season the highest degree of concern is the rotation.
To be polite the Jays rotation is a work in progress but to be blunt it is something of a minefield as behind Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow an ocean of uncertainty can be found.
One of the three question marks the Jays will likely break camp with — Henderson Alvarez — was on the mound Monday at their minor-league complex in a triple-A game against the Yankees’ team from Scranton. Over four innings he was mostly overpowering as he held the Yankees’ farm team to three hits, no runs, didn’t walk a batter and struck out three. Of the 15 batters he faced, nine hit ground balls.
He also threw 53 pitches, 39 for strikes, and put a pretty good smile on the face of pitching coach Bruce Walton who lights up every time he talks about the right-hander from Venezuela who will turn all of 22 on April 18.
The other two question marks on the rotation are lefty Brett Cecil who has yet to show that he can win throwing 97-98 m.p.h. and right-hander Dustin McGowan who has not pitched in the big leagues since 2008 due to a variety of shoulder injuries and surgeries.
But here’s a bet I’d take to the bank. At the end of the season, the youngster from Venezuela will show more victories than the other two and will cement himself into the rotation for years to come.
There is no limit to his upside as right now, without any further development, he has the two most sought after qualities of pitching prospects anywhere — terrific command of his fastball and a high grade changeup.
Actually make that two changeups as on Monday he was mixing in a ‘soft’ change to compliment his ‘hard’ change. According to Walton, one comes in at 86 with the ‘soft’ change at 83 and has more of a tumbling-out-of-the-strike-zone action.
“He tries to downward plane with it but at times it will cut a little bit,” Walton said of his hard change. “Then he’ll throw one a little softer, just the deception of the slower one to strike guys out, that bounces a little bit, that he’ll put in the dirt. So he has a good feel for his changeup. It’s just not one pitch. He throws it a couple of different ways.”
This is the refining process that is occurring at every major league camp with every young pitcher, the polishing of the hard edges. What makes Alvarez stand out from so many of the others is what he brings to the table — the ability to throw strikes and induce ground balls.
That’s been his strength in the minor leagues and will continue to be what keeps him in the major leagues.
“His strength is going seven to eight innings within his pitch count,” Walton said of what Jays fans will likely see in his outings. “He has a great ability to put the ball on the ground. You see it here, you see it everywhere he pitches. He’s going to get 10 to 12 ground balls a night. That’s his style of pitching.
“And we all know that pitching up in the Rogers Centre (with it’s soft AstroTurf) when we have a starting pitcher that can out the ball on the ground it’s a pretty easy night for us. The ability to put the ball on the ground at the Rogers Centre is a big plus for us and Henderson does that very well.”
Last season Alvarez got a taste of the big leagues as he made 10 starts, the first one Aug. 10. He pitched far better than his record of 1-3 would indicate as over 63 2/3 innings he allowed just 64 hits. The numbers that jump off the page, though, are his walks-strikeout ratio as he walked just eight batters while striking out 40.
He pounds strikes and doesn’t beat himself. Now he’s adding more weapons.
Walton also sees an added maturity that the taste of the big leagues brought.
“Obviously he’s very confident, coming in and pitching those games for us last year and coming into camp he’s more comfortable,” Walton said. “This year he’s pretty much business-like right now, he knows he’s got a chance to break with the team, knows he’s going to help the team. He’s really working on things out there.”
Even though nobody has yet told him he is breaking with the team he must know he will be in the middle of the rotation.
“If you talk to him he’s pretty confident that he’s making the club,” Walton said. “That will shake out here in the next couple of weeks.”