This was probably not the name you were expecting to see at the number six slot in this countdown. As we get closer to the top of the this list, the divide between places grows smaller and smaller, and more difficult to calculate, as well as more subjective. What tools exactly are worth more than others? What is the exact difference between an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old? When, and how much, should proximity to the major league club factor in? The no. 5 and 6 spots, in particular, could even be written as 5a and 5b. The arbitrator between A and B, in this case, is as simple as age.
Jorge Alfaro is one of Texas’ best known prospects, and with good reason. The 20-year-old catching prospect has an incredible arm, impressive power, above-average athleticism for his position, and years still in front of him to try to put these tools together. He’s been in the Rangers’ farm system since 2010, when he signed for a $1.3 million bonus, and played full seasons with the Dominican Summer League Rangers (2010), the short-season Spokane Indians (2011), and the low-A Hickory Crawdads (2012) before starting back in low-A to begin 2013.
Offensively, Alfaro looks like he could become an above average hitter, with a nice compact swing and the kind of power that has prognosticators projecting 25+ homers as a mature major-leaguer, as well as the running capability to be an actual threat on the bases. That potential production, from a catcher, is only seen rarely, even if the catcher isn’t the best defensively. However, as with most prospects, there are downsides to discuss.
One of the less cheerful things regarding his bat is the offensive similarities between his 2012 and 2013 seasons. In 2012, Alfaro hit .261/.320/.430 in 74 games with the Crawdads, not terrible numbers, but neither the average nor the on base expected of a prospect of his status. In his 104 games with the ‘Dads in 2013, he hit a slightly improved, .258/.338/.452. When a hitter is repeating a level, especially one at which he played a fairly significant number of games, a larger amount of improvement is usually desired. The drop in batting average could be attributed to an injury he suffered midway through the season, as well as a larger sample size of games, but it’s still not an encouraging trend for someone spending a second year with a team.
The increase in OBP and SLG are both heartening, but the OBP is tempered by Alfaro’s elevated hit-by-pitch numbers - he was hit 18 times in Hickory last season, and missed a month after one of those pitches broke his hand. While HBPs are a skill, and one way to increase on-base-percentage, catchers take enough abuse that a possible decrease in HBP when he faces better pitching wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. As far as park factors go, the home park of the Hickory Crawdads tends to favor right-handed batters, especially where home runs are concerned. According to StatCorner, L.P. Frans Stadium gave up 49% more homers to right-handed batters than a neutral South Atlantic League park, across the last three years.
There’s no use in prevaricating when talking about Alfaro’s defense: He allowed more passed balls in his 86 games at catcher in low-A this season than 19 of the other 29 teams had in ~140 games. His 26 PBs were second for the low-A lead after the Phillies’ Chace Numata, who allowed 28 in 90 games. While “passed ball” isnt exactly a hugely predictive or accurate statistic, it does point to the defensive struggles that are clearly visible on tape or in person. Alfaro has a tendency to mishandle pitches, even pitches in the zone, at a much higher rate than even other 20-year-old low-A catcher. While Alfaro has developed into a catcher from the very raw prospect he was when he signed, he still has an extremely long way to go before he could be considered to have even an average glove.
Where he makes up for this, though, is his arm. Alfaro caught 36% of potential base-stealers, and with glove refinement, the sheer strength of his arm could put this number up into the ridiculous range. This, in fact, was the area in which he has made significant improvements in the last few seasons. With the Rangers hiring Pudge Rodriguez last season to work with the minor leaguers across the organization, Alfaro has a chance to get even better instruction than previously, and the results should hopefully begin to appear in 2014.
Alfaro does also spend time at first (17 of his 104 games in Hickory, with 6 games at DH) and he acquits himself quite well there. He does have the additional positional advantage over, say, a first-base-only prospect like Ronald Guzman, in that Alfaro will be a better catcher even on his worst days than Guzman would be anywhere but first.
2013 was Alfaro’s first full season, despite playing 2012 with the Crawdads and so his numbers should be considered as such. Alfaro also played 19 games with the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League, and put up far better numbers offensively in that short span than he had all year (.386/.438/.500), suggesting that the grind of a full minor league season didn’t exhaust him. Of course, Arizona Fall League statistics aren’t always the best predictor of the future, as Carson Cistulli wrote back in November for Fangraphs.
If for some reason Alfaro can’t stick at catcher (an unlikely proposition), a solution would be to convert him to third base, which he played as an amateur. He has the athleticism, and the arm, to play there professionally, and if the contact and power tools ever sync up he would hit well for that position. And while Alfaro’s been in the system for four years, he’s still only going to turn 21 on June 11th of this year, so he’s not “running out of time” to prove himself at his current position.
Alfaro will most likely spend the majority of 2014 with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. If he hits extremely well in the reputed pitchers-paradise that is that park, he might see a mid-season promotion to double-A Frisco, but a full year to figure out his offensive approach and shore up his defensive weaknesses wouldn’t hurt his future potential. Catchers, in general, tend to develop more slowly than other positions, in part due to the amount of time needed to improve the defensive side. If everything goes right, Alfaro could provide immense value for the major league club down the line, and that’s nothing that hasn’t been said before. That value is not likely to appear in the next year, and most likely won’t materialize until 2016. Catchers, in general, tend to develop more slowly than other positions, in part due to the amount of time needed to improve the defensive side.
Kate Morrison is a recent Baylor graduate currently working as a freelance writer. She likes minor league ballparks, music and the nickname 'Roogie.' That last one will be explained in due time. You can follow her on Twitter at @unlikelyfanatic.