photo: Eliezer Alvarez (Springfield Cardinals FANatic Photos)
If there’s one prospect in the Cardinals organization, overlooked and overshadowed by his peers, Double-A Springfield second baseman Eliezer Alvarez fits the bill.
Entering his first full season at Low-A Peoria last year, Alvarez, then-21, showed he was ready for the challenge, especially after being named a postseason all-star in the Appalachian League with the Johnson City Cardinals a year prior.
Except for Alvarez’s teammates and higher-rated prospects, Edmundo Sosa (shortstop) and Magneuris Sierra (center fielder) garnered the same accolade, pushing him to the backburner.
Based on his strong performance at Johnson City, the Santiago, Dominican native made the two-level leap with his peers to the Midwest League, and all three flourished in their first taste of 140-games.
Once again, though, Alvarez, who ranked among the MWL leaders in most of the major offensive categories, was overlooked as he saw his double-play partner Sosa promoted to High-A Palm Beach by July and Sierra claimed a postseason all-star nod by season’s end.
The table wasn’t completely bare as the Chiefs named Alvarez their 2016 team MVP as part of their annual internal team awards in an on field ceremony in September.
“Dude’s a special guy,” 2016 Peoria hitting coach Jobel Jimenez said last fall. “This guy has made a big improvement. One of the best hitters in the organization. Actually was one of the best hitters in the Midwest League.”
New challenge without familiar faces
To avoid being exposed to opposing organizations to the Rule 5 draft come the final day of Winter Meetings in December, the Cardinals added the three Peoria standouts to their 40-man roster in November.
And all three scored invitations to their first big-league spring training camps a few months later as well.
“It was a really good experience for me,” Alvarez said through translator Jimenez. “Learning from the guys in the big leagues. I enjoyed it a lot, but at the same time, I was trying to learn from those guys.”
Alvarez was cut from camp from on March 13 and spent the vast majority of minor league spring training with the Double-A club and according to his manager had an “okay” spring.
That’s said, the now-22-year-old was assigned to Springfield, making the proverbial jump over High-A to start 2017 and has officially been put on the fast track.
“I’m proud of the decision the Cardinals made,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be in Double-A. As soon as I knew the situation, I felt good, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
For the time since 2014 at the Cardinals lowest U.S. affiliate in Gulf Coast League, Alvarez will play at a level without Sosa and Sierra on the diamond or in the clubhouse.
“I felt really good about working with those guys (coming up through the system),” Alvarez said. “Now that I’m alone in this league it feels weird, but at the same time, it’s good to have the opportunity I have right now.”
Jimenez said two factors were involved in allowing Alvarez to make the jump as opposed to his peers.
“Maybe the position he played,” the Springfield hitting coach said. “I know he’s a guy that needs to work more defensively. He’s a little bit more mature than Sosa and Sierra. His bat has moved him up this quick.
“His hitting is a step ahead of most guys. I think that’s why he’s here.”
So far through the first couple of weeks in the Texas League with Springfield, manager Johnny Rodriguez has taken a very cautious approach to help Alvarez acclimate both offensively and defensively.
Particularly at a level which not only features eight teams but a league with pitchers that possess multiple pitches to throw in counts coupled with better pitchability.
“This is a different world,” Rodriguez said, who described Alvarez as a raw, tools-up player . “The guys know what your weaknesses are. They’re more experienced. They know how to find your holes.”
Offensively, Rodriguez has hit Alvarez mostly down in the order in the eight-hole to get a feel of Double-A first before hitting the ground running as the season progresses.
“It’s another guy we have to take baby steps with,” the skipper added. “Little by little and be patient. For his age, he’s 22, but mentally he’s younger. So I’d say it’s a good thing for him. That way he’s only worried about one spot. That way he can get his head. Usually when they don’t hit. When you’re struggling, just play second base.
“Right now defensively is what I’m more worried about. He wants to make the routine play. So he needs to adjust so he can slow down the game,” Rodriguez concluded.
Through 12 games, the left-handed hitter has a .263 batting average (10-for-39) with a RBI double, five walks, and three stolen bases for Springfield.
He also has two multi-hit games, too.
Alvarez listed two differences about the Texas League versus the Midwest League last year.
“The speed of the game is really fast,” he said through translator Jimenez. “The pitchers are more consistent in the strike zone. They got more control over their pitches. That’s what I’m trying to learn and make adjustments.”
Headlining his skill-set is Alvarez’s bat, a simplified left-handed stroke with average bat speed that produces leverage and strength, giving him average raw power. He has quick hands and strong wrists and rarely gets cheated by a fastball or off balance within his swing.
He commands the strike zone well, using the whole field with power and has proven to make consistent hard contact. While he’s not a pull-hitter, Alvarez likes to slash the ball to center to left-center field gap.
That swing produced a fourth-best average of .323 in the Midwest League last year, finishing with 36 doubles (second), a .404 on-base percentage (second) and a .476 slugging percentage (third).
“He will get plenty of chances to start at his level,” Jimenez said. “For sure, he needs to learn about this level. Understand the pitchers and pitch selection. He’s one of the guys that will have to make adjustments.
“At the beginning, it will be tough for him. I’m sure he can make adjustments and start to do the things he did last year in Peoria.”
One of the bigger improvements last year for Alvarez was his handling of same-sided pitchers. The lefty hitter boasted an impressive .347 average against southpaws in 98 at-bats for Peoria.
“It was tough for him last year, and he was struggling against lefty pitchers (at the start of the season),” Jimenez said. “He started doing drills, hitting curveballs off the machines and stayed focused. Stayed left-center gap and left-field.
“Tried to let the ball come deep in the strike zone. He’s got quick hands, but he does need to stay a little more on his feet. Stayed focused hitting the ball more middle away. That’s why he did a tremendous job last year against lefties.”
According to scouts, Alvarez’s hole is poor plate coverage with his swing up and in. That’s an area he will need to refine to adjust against Texas League pitchers, who are apt to exploit it.
“Sometimes he’s jumping too much,” his hitting coach said. “Sometimes he tries to do too much, and that will leave a hole a little middle-in. He’s been working on staying more inside the ball and use more middle of the field, especially against right-handed pitchers.”
With making a big jump to a new level, Alvarez will likely see his strikeout rate rise as it has so far into the young season. Last year, he struck out 96 times and recorded 53 free passes.
“It depends on how concentrated he is,” Jimenez said. “Like I said, he started to struggle last year, but as soon as he made the adjustment, it was pretty easy (cutting down the strikeouts) to him.”
At second baseman, Alvarez, who models his game after Robinson Cano, defense will be the main point of emphasis in 2017 as he committed 27 errors last year with Peoria.
According to Baseball America, the errors were as a result of “laying back on ground balls instead of charging for the best hop.”
In the spring, the right-handed thrower benefited from working extensively with the Cardinals former third base coach and minor league fielding guru Jose Oquendo.
“Basically, I worked more on my footwork with him,” Alvarez said. “Try to get quick to the ball, but at the same time, under control. Try to know the speed of the ball and try to get quick to it, but under control to make good throws.”
With Springfield, the club has Alvarez working to improve his backhand which so far he has shown flashes of progression with a handful of smooth utilizing it.
“He’s getting better on defense with his backhand,” Rodriguez said. “That’s where he struggled – with his backhand. He’s made nice plays and has got a plus-plus arm. I’ll say an 80-arm pretty much.”
When asked what he considers the toughest area of his game, Alvarez said succinctly his defense.
“I need to be more consistent (with my defense),” he added. “Every day on the field taking ground balls and same way taking ground balls to translate all that to the game.”
He projects as an average defender with fast hands, quick first step, and average-to-above-average arm and accuracy.
“I’m working to be consistent defensively,” Alvarez said. “I’m making adjustments to be consistent in both areas (offensively and defensively). At this point, I need to do both to be in the big-leagues.”
Base stealing ability
The last remaining of his five tools, speed.
On the base paths, Alvarez ran wild as he paced the Midwest League last year with a league-best 36 swipes in 51 attempts. He was successful 69 percent of the time he got the green light, and there’s no reason those numbers shouldn’t dwindle.
“To steal bases you need to stay on base,” he said. “I haven’t been caught very often. As soon as I get on base, I try to work on my jumps and try to steal.”
While his bat is his carrying tool, Alvarez receives 65 to 70 grades for his speed, per scouts.
Like most base stealers, he needs to learn to harness it better to become prolific in the craft of theft.
Jimenez thinks his base stealing will get better if his performance at the plate improves.
“First of all, he needs to stay more on base,” his first base coach said. “He has been working on pitch selection which is good. He needs to focus more on his on-base percentage. He’s still working on his jumps in the game.
“This level is different. Pitchers have more of an idea how to hold runners. They are more quick to home plate. Those things he needs to understand and work more in counts to get better chances to steal bases.”
No longer overlooked
After skipping a level entirely, Alvarez is on the radar on track to contribute at St. Louis at some point in the next few years.
In the meantime, he’s still learning the game like handling left-handed pitchers or mastering the backhand on defense and to speak the English language with assistance from his coaches Jimenez and Rodriguez along the way.
Alvarez has the right frame of mind.
“I feel really good about where I’m at right now,” he said. “I’m feeling good. I’m going to adjust and try to do my best to be myself no matter what they try to do to me.”
Jimenez, who was with Alvarez last year, is looking forward to work alongside him for another season.
“He’s still working,” he said. “He’s still learning because he’s a young guy. We will see for the first half. He’s going to show some improvements. He needs to stay healthy.
“If he’s healthy, no doubt, he will make some improvements and grow a little more defensively.”
He’s got plenty of goals to boot.
“I’m going to work hard this year in all phases,” Alvarez said. “Mentally. Physically. I want to work hard to send a message to the people in the organization that I’m prepared for the next level.
“Even to be in the big-leagues.”