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Newberg Report: Alfaro poised behind plate

Newberg Report: Alfaro poised behind plate

Newberg Report: Alfaro poised behind plate
Part 21 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Rangers' Minor League system.

The Rangers were uncharacteristically quiet when the July 2010 international amateur signing period opened up. Some suggested that the franchise's financial situation during the protracted sale process had handcuffed the club from participating meaningfully in Latin America.

Two points were overlooked. First, by midseason Texas was poised to return to the postseason for the first time in 11 years, and the front office decided it was better off reallocating some of what had been budgeted for the international market toward big league trade acquisitions. Second, the club had already made a significant splash in January, signing 16-year-old Jorge Alfaro for an eye-opening $1.3 million.

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Alfaro had been eligible to sign in July 2009 but had gotten little exposure in his homeland of Colombia, a country from which only 10 players have ever reached the Major Leagues. A shortstop-third baseman at the time, he had the chance to sign for a reported $300,000 until the club that had floated the offer got cold feet.

The teenager then left home for a land 1,000 miles away, crossing the Caribbean and arriving in the Dominican Republic, where noted coach/trainer/buscone Enrique Soto decided to take him off the market in an effort to boost his value -- by seeing if the 6-foot-2 athlete with the elite throwing arm could handle himself behind the plate.

Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
No. 1 starter: Martin Perez
No. 2 starter: David Perez
No. 3 starter: Neil Ramirez
No. 4 starter: Cody Buckel
No.5 starter: Luke Jackson
Long reliever: Barret Loux
Right-on-right: Johan Yan
Left-on-left: Joseph Ortiz
7th-inn. reliever: Justin Grimm
RH setup: Roman Mendez
LH setup: Robbie Ross
Closer: Tanner Scheppers
Catcher: Jorge Alfaro
First baseman: Chris Davis
Second baseman: Luis Sardinas
Shortstop: Jurickson Profar
Third baseman: Mike Olt
Left fielder: Engel Beltre
Center fielder: Leonys Martin
Right fielder: Nomar Mazara
Designated hitter: Ronald Guzman
Backup catcher: Kellin Deglan
Utility IFer: Leury Garcia
Corner IFer: Christian Villanueva
Fourth outfielder: Jordan Akins

The Rangers had seen him as an infielder in the spring. They saw him again as a catcher in the fall. Some clubs had backed off altogether on Alfaro, whose initial work at catcher was understandably crude. Texas was inspired.

"I saw Jorge first in a tryout in the Dominican and loved him," said senior special assistant to the GM Don Welke. "It was one of those 'Who in the heck is this kid?' moments." Welke and Rangers international scout Rodolfo Rosario watched Alfaro the next day, too, and then the day after that, and another day after that one. The Rangers then offered him $1.3 million to start his pro career. He accepted.

While his ability to stay behind the plate was purely projection and possibly debatable, there was little question about Alfaro's offensive potential from the start. A right-handed hitter, he's extraordinarily strong, flashing raw power to all fields. If the bat develops as the Rangers believe it could, there's enough there to play on a corner. If Alfaro's able to stay behind the plate, however, there's a real chance that he could become an elite run producer for the position.

"Jorge has tremendous raw ability," said senior director of player development Scott Servais, who caught in the big leagues for 11 years. "He's a true five-tool player." Servais has worked with him on the finer points of catching. So have Rangers Minor League field coordinator Mike Micucci, who caught in his own Minor LOeague career, and the organization's Dominican catching instructor Ryley Westman, who just a few years ago was an independent league catcher himself.

Alfaro has also worked on his defense with the Rangers' Arizona League manager Hector Ortiz, a former big league catcher, but only during Fall Instructional League, Spring Training, and extended spring -- because the Rangers made the aggressive decision to assign Alfaro to Spokane of the short-season Class A Northwest League to make his stateside debut this season, skipping the Arizona League altogether. In spite of his struggles in 2010 against other teenagers in the Dominican Summer League (.221 batting average, little power, and 48 strikeouts in 172 at-bats) and his inexperience at his new position, Texas opted to challenge Alfaro by sending him, days after his 18th birthday, to a league full of college draftees.

Offensively, Alfaro has rewarded Texas for the bold move. The second-youngest player in the 14-team league (next to teammate Rougned Odor), he's hitting .301 with a .490 slugging percentage that would be fourth-highest in the circuit if his 164 plate appearances qualified. But he has struck out 52 times while drawing only three unintentional walks -- just one since the season's fourth game -- reminding us that for all his considerable talent, the approach remains very raw.

As for his developing defense, the evidence of tools translating to results, unsurprisingly, hasn't come as quickly. Though his arm strength (with regular sub-2.00 pop times to second base) ranks alongside his power at the plate as his premier tool, he's thrown out only 15 of 69 opponents attempting to steal. He's committed 10 errors and has been tagged with a dozen passed balls.

Servais notes that Alfaro is making strides with his receiving and game-calling, but points out that the Rangers are looking for him "to take the next step in many of the intangible areas" required at the position, something that the club will focus on when he reports to Surprise later this month for Fall Instructional League and then again in Spring Training.

There's a long process ahead, but Alfaro is a talent that's worth plenty of patience. No position in baseball is as nuanced as catcher, and as Welke puts it, Alfaro is "just learning how to catch, and is just a baby. A baby with tons of potential."

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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