Name: R.J. Alvarez
Height/Weight: 6’2’’, 215
How Acquired: Acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres in Dec. 2014
It wasn’t an easy first season for R.J. Alvarez in the Oakland A’s organization. After a strong spring, the right-hander struggled in the big leagues and then spent the year yo-yoing between MLB and Triple-A. Can he regain the form that made him a coveted prospect going into the 2015 season?
Alvarez has had an unsettling past two seasons, from a stability perspective. The 2012 third-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels spent the first two-and-a-half years of his professional career working up the ladder of the Angels’ farm system. However, a trade at the deadline in 2014 took Alvarez’s career on a whole different arc.
Alvarez was one of four well-regarded prospects sent by the Angels to the San Diego Padres in exchange for former A’s closer Huston Street and relief prospect Trevor Gott. Alvarez was pitching for the Double-A Arkansas Travelers of the Texas League at the time of the deal. He remained in the Texas League after the trade, for a time, pitching for the San Antonio Missions before earning a September call-up with the Padres.
R.J. Alvarez Stats
Alvarez’s 2014 season was spectacular. In 43.1 innings in Double-A, he posted a 1.25 ERA and a 61:13 K:BB. Opposing batters hit .192 against him and he didn’t allow a homerun. In eight innings with the Padres, Alvarez walked five, but he allowed only three hits, struck-out nine and posted a 1.13 ERA.
The A’s liked what they saw from Alvarez and targeted him in a deal that December. He was one of two players the A’s acquired (Jesse Hahn was the other) for catcher Derek Norris and prospect Seth Streich. Going into the 2015 season, we ranked Alvarez as the A’s 11th-best prospect.
The A’s entered spring training with a veteran-led bullpen, but an injury to closer Sean Doolittle and the struggles of veteran set-up man Ryan Cook created openings in the A’s bullpen. Alvarez won an Opening Day roster spot and spent the first three weeks of the season with the A’s. He allowed eight earned runs in six innings and was sent to Triple-A Nashville on April 22nd. The A’s brought Alvarez back on May 2nd but sent him down again on May 8th. He would receive one more brief call-up to Oakland in late July before spending nearly all of August in Nashville and receiving a September call-up after the minor league season was over.
Alvarez got off to a bit of a slow start with the Sounds after being sent down in April, but he was on a roll when a right forearm strain shut him down for three weeks starting in late June. The injury required rest -- not surgery -- and he returned to the mound on July 10. Alvarez had a similar injury in 2014, missing a few weeks that time, as well.
Even with the three missed weeks, Alvarez still logged 52 appearances between Triple-A and the big leagues in 2015. He amassed 55 combined innings, a career-high as a pro. His other numbers were down across the board compared to where they were in 2014, however. In Triple-A, Alvarez posted a 4.11 ERA and a 41:17 K:BB in 35 innings. His K-rate was 26.3% and his BB-rate was 10.9%. In the big leagues, Alvarez’s ERA was 9.90 and he had a 23:13 K:BB rate. Alvarez allowed just two homeruns with the Sounds, but he allowed seven in only 20 innings with the A’s. Three of the homeruns were allowed to Roughned Odor, the Texas Rangers' middle infielder.
Alvarez’s velocity was down slightly in 2015 and could be a sign he didn’t have his best stuff for most of the season. He also struggled against left-handers in both the major leagues (.450 BAA) and in Triple-A (.315 BAA), which hurt his ability to get through innings cleanly (especially in the big leagues). Alvarez has been a fastball-slider pitcher since turning pro and both are swing-and-miss offerings. However, he does have a change-up and may need to use that pitch more frequently against left-handers to keep them honest, or add another off-speed pitch (like a cutter). His command has always been a weakness, with a career walk-rate of more than four per nine innings. However, his better than 12 strike-outs per nine innings helps to mitigate that weakness.
Alvarez has the fastball-slider combination to be a big league closer, but Alvarez will need to improve his command to be trusted in the ninth inning. When he is throwing well, Alvarez's fastball sits in the mid-90s and can touch 97. He isn't afraid to throw it to both sides of the plate and he gets some late movement with the pitch. His slider is a wipeout slider that he can throw for a strike or start in the strike-zone and get a hitter to chase it. The change-up is just a "show them something" offering right now. Alvarez has a high effort delivery. The forearm strains the past two seasons are a concern given that players who struggle with forearm strains sometimes end up needing Tommy John surgery. It will be something to continue to monitor next season.
Despite the disappointing season, Alvarez is still one of the top relief arms in the A’s system and could play a big role in the A’s bullpen as soon as the 2016 season. With the A’s adding so many veteran relievers this off-season, Oakland won’t need to rush Alvarez back to the big leagues, but he should see time with the A's at some point in 2016.