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Will this be the year Alford breaks out?

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MLB: Game Two-Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the topic of prospects. As a diehard Pirates fan coming of age in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it was fun following the big-league club, but it was just as much fun for me to look beyond Three Rivers Stadium to the bushes – places like Salem, Va., Gastonia, N.C., Waterbury, Conn. and Charleston, W.Va. — to see how players like Richie Zisk and Rennie Stennett were developing down on the farm.

That morphed into an opportunity to cover actual prospects during a stint at a newspaper in California’s Central Valley, a stint that happened to come at a time when the home team trotted out players with names like McGwire and Canseco. I remember McGwire scuffling during his introduction to pro ball in 1984; skeptics said he couldn’t adjust to the wooden bat. He found his footing the next year and two years later he unloaded 49 bombs on big league pitching as a rookie. We now know what might have fueled that power, but back then, he was just Big Mac – one of the Bash Brothers.

One of the fun parts of that job was talking to Oakland A’s player development types when they’d make their way down through town to check on their latest prized prospects. They were cautious in their assessments – at least to us slugs in the media – but they made it clear certain guys would likely play a major role in Oakland someday.

Some of those guys, though, never made much of an impact. Take Stan Hilton, for example. The A’s did — in the first round in 1983. But he never reached the big leagues. And that’s part of the fun of the whole prospect guessing game. I’ve applauded Ben Cherington for his approach to rebuilding the Pirates – shipping off his big league assets for as much as he can get in the way of prospects. Some of those prospects are more intriguing than others, and while I certainly have my hopes up, who knows how many of them – if any – will someday become major assets for the Pirates.

A perfect example of one-never-knows when it comes to prospects could find himself roaming center field at PNC Park this season. Five years ago – almost to the day — MLB.com was touting one Anthony Alford as the Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 2 prospect, describing him as a five-tool player “who could move through the system relatively quickly with an eye on breaking through to the Majors in 2017.” Baseball America ranked him the 25th best overall prospect in the game and the Blue Jays’ top prospect, calling him a “polished offensive player with potential star tools.”

Alford did reach Toronto in 2017 – for all of eight at-bats in four games – and he came to the plate just 21 times in 2018. In 2019 he managed only 28 big-league at-bats for the Blue Jays. Last year, he was with Toronto for 13 games – and 16 at-bats – before being released and picked up by the Pirates. His 2020 tenure with Pittsburgh was short-lived; he appeared in only five games before fracturing his right arm in a collision with the outfield wall at PNC Park.

It seems like injuries have dogged Alford for his entire professional career. After those glowing reports in February 2016, the former college football player injured his knee on Opening Day that year, then suffered a concussion in mid-season after an on-field collision with a teammate while playing in the high-A Florida State League. He was still considered a major prospect heading into 2017, and after getting off to a hot start at New Hampshire of the Class AA Eastern League – an .867 OPS in 123 at-bats over 33 games – he went up to Toronto, only to break his right wrist five days later. He returned to New Hampshire in late July, where he hit .295 with an .803 OPS in 122 at-bats before finishing the season with 12 at-bats at Triple-A Buffalo.

Baseball America remained high on him heading into 2018, saying that his ability to get on base and his plus defensive skills at a premium position “give him the potential to be an above-average regular.” But his stock – at least in the eyes of that publication – “tumbled” that season, in part due to yet another injury – this time a back injury. After starting the season in the Florida State League, he was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo for 10 games, then moved to Toronto for a week before returning to Buffalo, where he hit .250 with a .686 OPS in 336 at-bats. Alford homered five times, stole 16 bases in 21 attempts and struck out 96 times while drawing 28 walks. Things got a little better in 2019, when he batted .259 with a .754 OPS in 282 at-bats, but his prospect status nosedived, as he was ranked the Blue Jays’ 25th best prospect at the start of the 2020 season and No. 27 by mid-season.

So, what are we to make of today’s version of Anthony Alford? Now 26 – he’ll turn 27 in late July – Alford is being given a shot at the Pirates’ everyday center field job. But it’s no guarantee that Alford will flourish in that role, given his spotty track record and his injury history. FanGraphs is not particular high on his hit tool, giving him a grade of 35 on a 20-80 scale. His game power and arm check in at 40 while his raw power is at 60 and his overall future value is pegged at 35. According to FanGraphs’ own material, that would put him somewhere between a 4-A player and a bench player in the big leagues.

But maybe this will be the year Alford stays healthy – and breaks out. It’s possible – and dare I saw probable – that the Pirates will sign an actual major league outfielder between now and Opening Day, but despite all of Alford’s past problems, I’d like to see Cherington and Derek Shelton run Alford out to center on a regular basis until at least Memorial Day, unless it’s simply clear that he’s overmatched. No Pirates fans are happy about the state of the team heading into the 2021 season, but one good thing about a year like this is that you can give players like Alford a true shot – something he’s never had, for a variety of reasons – to see if he can finally tap that potential that made him such a highly regarded prospect four or five years ago.