Alfonzo, 27, has had a long, tough journey to the majors. Alfonzo bounced around the minors for over 10 seasons, including jumping to the independent leagues, before finding a home.
Alfonzo was signed as a 17 year old out of Venezuela by the St. Louis Cardinals. He performed well, slowly working up the ranks and opening eyes in New Jersey of the New York-Pennsylvania League, batting .326 and starting to show some of the prodigious power that he has flashed thoughout his career. He was moved to full-season ball in 2000, and was having another good year until he was sent to Milwaukee’s system to help complete the 1999 trade for Fernando Vina.
The trade seemed to changed things, and he struggled a bit for two seasons in Beloit of the Midwest league, but his power began too show as he hit 14 home runs and 28 doubles in 2001, his second year there. As he neared his free agent year at the end of the 2002 season, the Brewers pushed him to AA, where his stats failed to impress. He was let go, and after failing to impress the Chicago Cubs in spring training the next season, he played 2003 with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. He returned to the minors after signing a free agent contract with Florida, working in the High-A Florida State League and putting up solid numbers, including 18 home runs.
It was after that season that his career turned for the better. He played under Dave Machemer in winter ball in Venezuela. Machemer, who was the coach of the AA Norwich Navigators (as they were known then) in the San Francisco Giants organization was so impressed with the 25 year old catcher that he recommended that the Giant sign him. They did, and once again Alfonzo was in High-A with the San Jose Giant. He was a key part of the team that dominated the first half, batting .357/.410/.638 with 13 home runs in 196 at bats, and h e earned a promotion to AA Norwich to play with Machemer, where he responded by playing .312/.354/.517 ball with another 9 home runs in 176 at bats. He made his Triple-A debut late in the season, where he was 4 for 14 with 1 home run in Fresno.
He performed strongly enough that the Giants added him to their 40 man roster to protect him in the Rule 5 draft. He was given a chance to play a lot in Spring Training with the big league team, and responded by batting .303 (10 for 33) with 2 home runs. But that was where the good times ended.
Alfonzo went back to Fresno, where he began to have some struggles. In late April, his grandfather passed away back in Venezuela, and his batting average began a nose-dive from .294 down to .189. He called up Machemer, and made it known that he wanted to return to AA, and when the regular catcher at the renamed Connecticut Defenders, Justin Knoedler, was promoted to the majors, the Giants granted Alfonzo’s wish. Alfonzo spent 20 games with Connecticut and was on the way to turning around his year when the call came.
Alfonzo’s calling card is simple: pure power. His 23 home runs over 3 levels in 2005 was his most in a season, but he had reached double figures twice before in 9 other minor league seasons and also usually put up good secondary power numbers. He can hit with power to all fields, and showed an ability to pull the ball hard in spring training.
The downside is that he only gets average contact and strikes out a lot, though he’s shown better patience in recent times. When he does make contact, it’s usually solid and clean. He does do a good job of centering on mistake pitches. He’s a big guy, but has solid athleticism, and runs better than you might expect. However, he has just 21 career stolen bases in 11 seasons for a reason.
Again, Alfonzo’s calling card is power hitting, so defense is sometimes an afterthought to him. He has shown improvement since joining the Giants organization, however. But he is slow to get down and block balls, and has problems setting targets for pitchers a lot of the time. He can also be run on. He isn’t a detriment on defense, but it will never be a strength.
Alfonzo probably isn’t up for more than a cup of coffee, but his power continues to open eyes. Unless he finds someway to drastically improve his defense, he won’t have a higher ceiling than being a major league backup. However, connecting for a home run to take the league for his first major league hit is one way to make a case to get that backup job someday.
Sometimes, you need to look in unorthodox places to find talented young arms.
That’s what happened with Jonathan Sanchez, 23. Sanchez played at NAIA’s Ohio Dominican College, a power in one of college baseball’s secondary leagues. But where other teams saw a player with rough mechanics, a Giant scout saw a player with fixable flaws. So in 2003, the Giants drafted him in the 27th round.
Sanchez worked in both the rookie league and the Short-Season Northwest League, putting up solid but unimpressive numbers, particularly a 4.84 ERA with Salem-Keizer where he walked 19 in 22.1 innings (despite 34 K’s). But Sanchez began opening some eyes in winter ball. He didn’t play much in Puerto Rico, but when he did, he wowed scouts as he worked in relief with cleaner mechanics, a blazing fastball (92-94 MPH) for a lefty, and an improved slider.
Sanchez was moved up to full season ball in Low-A Augusta, and things started off badly. His velocity barely touched 90 and he got roughed up early. But when he settled down, his velocity returned and things went the other way. Although he finished with an unspectacular 4.08 ERA in 25 starts, he led the South Atlantic League with 166 strikeouts and walked just 39, dropping his walkrate from over 7.5 every 9 innings in Salem-Keizer to just 2.79 every 9 in 2005.
Sanchez then went to High-A San Jose for the playoffs, where he won both of his starts.
Suddenly, Sanchez was the hot name on everyone’s lips, as power southpaws don’t come along often. But even some of his biggest fans were shocked when the Giants pushed him over High-A in 2006 and he started the season in AA Connecticut’s rotation. All seemed well as Sanchez had 3 sterling starts, with just a 0.55 ERA. He gave up just 7 hits in 16.1 innings, with 23 strikeouts and 6 walks. But then, surprise came about again, and the Giants moved him to the bullpen.
The move reminded many of an ill-fated sudden move of Merkin Valdez to the bullpen in AA in 2004, with the major league team’s bullpen in disarray. While fans were shocked and unhappy, the Giants responded that the move was to ‘evaluate him,’ and also mentioned that the Giants were concerned about his innings after he had pitched in the previous winter league as well. They also said the move could be very short term.
It wasn’t, though Sanchez gave up 3 runs on 2 hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in his first outing in relief, only getting 2 outs. However, Sanchez settled down and adjusted to the role, and in 13 games (10 relief appearances) had a 1.15 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 9 walks in 31.1 innings, giving up just 14 hits. That sealed the deal, and Sanchez came to the bigs as a reliever.
Sanchez’s biggest tool remains his fastball, which usually sits at 93-95 with some movement on it. He uses it as his out pitch, and it works well in that regard with some obviously high strikeout numbers both in A-Ball and AA.
He also comes with a slider that for now sits in the 78-80 MPH range. The slider showed its biggest development in the winter of 2004, but Sanchez is still learning how to use it to help set up his fastball. It’s a good slider, but it’s not good enough or dependable enough for a regular strikeout pitch, yet.
Sanchez has also been working on a changeup, but especially in relief he gets very few chances to show it or evaluate it.
Sanchez’s biggest problem is that his motion is still fairly high maintenance, even after being cleaned up by the Giants coaching staff. When he gets out of whack, his velocity can drop precipitously, and his fastball becomes batting practice.
There’s a lot of upside in Sanchez, the question is only where. Sanchez surprised a lot of people with how he played in Connecticut after being pushed, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. While he was in the majors, Knoedler (who caught Sanchez in April at Connecticut) said “He has a good fastball. He could locate it better, but Double-A hitters chase that rising fastball. Good, disciplined hitters will lay off of it.”
His ability to control the fastball, and to turn his slider and changeup into better pitches, will determine just where his future is. His move to the bullpen wasn’t as unprecedented as some observers thought, since he had been working exclusively in relief in the Winter Leagues, and he could live with just the fastball and a decent slider there. But the Giants would have to give him another chance in the rotation in the minors for him to try and grow beyond the relief role.
This call-up is just temporary, and once Tim Worrell is back, Sanchez will return to AA. But Sanchez has the potential to make the Giants scouting staff look awfully smart to have found a guy like this that could be drafted in the 27th round.
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