Yesterday, it was announced that the Texas Rangers promoted two of their top prospects, catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nomar Mazara, to Double-A Frisco. Both players arrive in the upper minors with plenty of hype and plenty of youth–Alfaro turned 21 in June, while Mazara is just three months and change past his nineteenth birthday.
From a superficial, looking-at-the-numbers perspective, one might say that both promotions are premature, or at least aggressive. Mazara is just 19 and is being skipped over High-A after hitting a good, but hardly Troutian .264/.358/.470 in Low-A Hickory. Alfaro was at least playing at High-A Myrtle Beach, but he was just hitting .261/.318/.440 and allowed 18 passed balls in 75 games caught.
Of course, current production is far from the full picture of supremely talented players competing against others that are often older. Having seen both play extensively in both 2013 and the 2014 seasons, here I’ll offer some thoughts on Texas’ bold move in promoting this duo, as well as their futures beyond Frisco.
It is extremely easy to focus on what Jorge Alfaro can do, because very few baseball players at any level can do it. He can hit a baseball 450 feet, run from the right-handed batter’s box to first base in less than 4.1 seconds, and register elite pop times from behind the plate. Even if you’re being cautious in grading his tools, you have to assign him at least 65 power, 55 speed, and a 70 arm. I’m not sure there’s another catcher in baseball who can boast those three numbers on his scouting report. Throw in well-above-average bat speed and a good work ethic, and you have a prospect whom it’s easy to rave about.
It is also extremely easy to focus on what Jorge Alfaro can’t do, which consists of exactly two things. First off, he struggles with his receiving, as the passed ball issue indicates. Eighteen miscues in 75 games is actually slightly better than Alfaro’s 2013 mark of 28 in 86 contests, and I’ve written before about how passed ball issues tend to go away as players get into their mid-twenties, but calling Alfaro’s glovework a work in progress is probably an understatement right now. He has a good motor behind the plate, but he’s otherwise very raw both in terms of his receiving and blocking skills. Further, despite an arm that some grade out at the top of the scouting scale, he’s caught just 26% of basestealers this year, further emblematic of the technique issues that prevent his immense raw talent from consistently shining through.
The second issue is his approach. Alfaro has never walked more than seven percent of the time at any minor league stop, nor has he struck out less than twenty-two percent of the time. This year, he had a 100/23 K/BB in High-A in 100 games (22.9% K, 5.3% BB), with both the strikeout and walk rates coming in slightly lower than 2013. Watching Alfaro live, it’s readily apparent what causes this–he’s usually unable to lay off breaking stuff in the dirt, and his long swing leads to some swing-and-miss in the zone as well.
The reality of Jorge Alfaro, though, is that one has to consider both the extreme positives and the significant negatives. He doesn’t get a pass on the issues just because of his ability to light up a stopwatch; likewise, calling a uniquely gifted 21-year-old a future bust because of current rawness in a couple of areas is far too extreme a reaction.
Given where Alfaro is developmentally, his promotion is a bold move. It’s not like his Myrtle Beach season numbers belie some sort of late jump–he hit .230/.288/.370 in July with four walks and twenty-seven strikeouts. Double-A pitchers will likely quickly figure out his inability to control the strike zone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his strikeout rate is at or above 30% at that level the rest of the way; further, the defensive issues (he was the only catcher in his High-A league with more than ten PBs) will further stick out in comparison to his league-mates.
In a certain context, though, that’s what makes the move make sense. Putting Alfaro in a position where his natural talent won’t allow him to post a .343 wOBA without improving his selectivity and where his defense doesn’t cut it might provide an extra impetus for him to eradicate those issues as effectively as possible. The team is likely betting that Alfaro has the sort of positive makeup that will allow him to grow from struggling rather than shrink from it. It’s certainly an interesting bet, and time will tell how it plays out in both the short and long term.
Regardless of how Alfaro fares in August, he will likely end the season projecting as an interesting major league catcher a few years down the line, if not necessarily the star some envision. It’s pretty tough to be a star without controlling the strike zone to at least a league-average extent, and both the eye test and Alfaro’s track record point toward even future 3/1 K/BB ratios being highly unlikely for the Colombian backstop. Below-average walk rates, high strikeout rates, big raw power, and receiving issues point in the direction of a Welington Castillo/Miguel Olivo/J.P. Arencibia/Wilin Rosario future, and Alfaro should at least get to that level, but his athletic promise suggests he might be able to rise into the Yan Gomes echelon of players if he can continue to make steady improvements. While he’s always been very young for his levels, he actually may end up as something of a late bloomer like Gomes, with the bat taking off once the defense locks into place. If you keep expectations realistic (read: not Ivan Rodriguez, Part II), Alfaro has a chance to deliver on them.
Mazara’s a different sort of beast. He’s far from an athletic marvel–even with a skinny 6’4″, 195-pound body, he has just ten steals in almost three hundred professional games; he’s limited to the outfield corners defensively, and he’ll likely never have better than average impact even at those positions. The bulk of his value is tied up in his bat, but even there, his production (career .252/.343/.428) doesn’t really jump out, even when one considers his extreme youth for his levels. Hitting .264/.358/.470 as a 19-year-old in Low-A is nice and all, but given Mazara’s athletic limitations, it doesn’t exactly scream “on track to reach the major leagues late the next season.”
The production never has really meshed with the eye test on Mazara, though, at least not until recently (more on that in a moment). I was consistently impressed with his approach last year, as (unlike many of the other players on a star-studded 2013 Hickory team, including Alfaro) he often got himself in deep counts and didn’t expand the zone or look foolish at the plate. At 18, he hadn’t quite figured out the other half of the package–doing damage on the pitches worth hitting–yet, but you could see it coming. I spent the offseason telling anyone who would listen that Mazara was going to hit .290 with power upon repeating Hickory and that he’d get promoted to High-A in June and keep hitting.
Then Mazara came out and hit .211/.282/.313 through the middle of May. Even then, he still looked good in the box in most of my viewings, seeming to just miss positive results in his at-bats (hard hits foul or at fielders, borderline called third strikes, etc.). I didn’t have a good answer for why he was struggling statistically, so I wrote it off as a small-sample fluke. And sure enough, since the middle of May, he’s hit .295/.399/.562, finally putting up the numbers it seemed like he was inches away from attaining for the previous year-plus.
Despite his mature approach at the plate, plus raw power, and feel for hitting, Mazara draws mixed reviews from scouts–he seems to be a “love him or hate him” guy. His defense in right field can help color the evaluations one way or the other. In 2013, Mazara looked lost defensively, struggling badly with his reads and routes and showing very little range. More experienced and comfortable with his body this season, he now grades out as a fringe-average right fielder who may be able to get to average in time. He flashes a plus arm, but it’s wildly inconsistent–he’s prone to air-mail throws to home plate back to the backstop, and he gets himself in trouble trying to show off his arm strength in general, leading to inconsistent accuracy and trajectory. That issue is quite common in players Mazara’s age (though typically more obviously manifested in infielders), and shouldn’t be a major concern in the long run. Some scouts have also questioned his effort level on defense and on the bases, and he does rarely appear to be at a full sprint on a baseball field; whether one attributes this to a lack of desire or just another facet of his measured approach to the game is a personal judgment call. Given that the Rangers are jumping a teenaged Mazara to Double-A (over touted High-A outfielders Nick Williams and Lewis Brinson, among others), it doesn’t seem that they’re concerned about any makeup problems.
What should we expect from Mazara in Double-A? Well, don’t expect him to fare well against left-handed pitchers. While he does an admirable job of controlling the zone against righthanders, his fellow southpaws can get him to chase breaking stuff running off the plate, and that gives Mazara massive platoon splits. This year, he’s at .283/.386/.524 against righties (61/48 K/BB) and just .214/.279/.330 against lefties (38/9 K/BB). The advanced breaking pitches of Double-A southpaws will be very tough for Mazara to handle at this stage of his development, and figuring out how to battle them in the long term will be key to establishing himself as a consistently tough out against the game’s best pitchers. Further, as with Alfaro, moving to a higher level will make Mazara look worse on defense compared to his peers.
But he’s got a shot to hang in there against righthanded pitchers in Double-A right now, which is why (or at least a big reason why) the Rangers made the move. His production probably will slink back toward where it was in Hickory last year, but if Mazara can hit .236/.310/.382 in the Texas League a few months after his nineteenth birthday, that’s a big positive, not any sort of negative.
Because he’s not really a potential five-tool type like Alfaro, Mazara’s future will be more negatively impacted if one of his purported strengths falls short of its projection. He can’t afford to turn out as a .245 hitter or just a 12-15 homer guy, nor a bottom-of-the-barrel defensive outfielder. I am a firm believer, however, in his ability to end up as a plus hitter with plus power and enough defense to make him more than worth playing, something like a .275/.350/.475 player with -5 run defense in an outfield corner. Mazara’s record $4.95 million signing bonus in 2011 may still inspire shakes of the head from some, but he’s in excellent position to be more than worth it in the long run.
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