José Alvarado pitched in just nine games last season as injuries slowed him for a second straight season. He was electric in 2018, but another disappointing season pushed that success even further away.
The 6-foot-2 pitcher weighed nearly 300 pounds, had fallen out of favor in Tampa Bay, and his career seemed to be dimming.
“I looked in the mirror after the season and said, ‘OK, this is the perfect time for me to lose the weight because I need to compete next year,’ ” Alvarado said.
He decided to stay in Florida over the offseason instead of returning home to Venezuela. Alvarado paid for his own strength and conditioning program, a decision he said was for him and his family.
The Rays traded him in December to the Phillies as part of a three-team deal that seemed rather insignificant when it happened. But that was before Alvarado showed up to spring training weighing nearly 50 pounds less than he did last season.
“My stomach looked terrible,” Alvarado said. “But now I’m feeling great.”
The trade -- which cost the Phillies left-hander Garret Cleavinger -- might be remembered as one of the key offseason moves thanks to Alvarado’s work this winter. The slimmed-down pitcher has been electric this spring, mirroring the left-hander who dazzled three years ago and not the one who was ineffective the last two seasons.
Alvarado has thrown 100 mph with such frequency this spring that it is almost expected. He has not allowed a run in five spring appearances and has allowed just three baserunners. His sinker -- Alvarado’s preferred fastball -- has been dominant.
But it’s not just the speed that sets the pitch apart.
“It’s not really the number that’s so crazy, but especially with Alvarado, it’s the movement on it,” said catcher Jeff Mathis. “It’s 100, 101 and that sinker is taking off late as it’s coming to the plate. I’m definitely taking some deep breaths and trying to square it up as best I can.”
Alvarado is already locked into a key role in the team’s rebuilt bullpen, but he might leave Florida as the closer. He spent time as a closer in Tampa Bay and the likely presence of two other left-handed relievers -- JoJo Romero and Tony Watson -- could give the Phillies the possibility of saving Alvarado for the ninth instead of using him for matchups.
“I prepare the same every day,” Alvarado said. “I don’t know what role the manager will give me, but I’m ready for everything. If they call me after the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth, I’m ready, man. I focus on competing in the game and that’s it.”
They have three options to close games -- Héctor Neris, Archie Bradley and Alvarado -- but Joe Girardi has said that determining who pitches the ninth is not yet “on our forefront of decisions that we have to make.” Fair enough. The Phillies still have to determine who starts in center field, solidify their starting rotation, pick their bench players, and finalize the last spots in the bullpen.
All three of their ninth-inning options have looked good this spring. Neris is the incumbent, Bradley is the big-ticket acquisition, and Alvarado is the talk of camp. Girardi, when he gets around to picking a closer, has three solid choices.
“It’s as advertised, for sure. It’s electric stuff,” Mathis said of Alvarado. “The ball is coming in hard. It’s not straight. It’s moving.”
Alvarado, with Mathis behind the plate, struck out the side on Wednesday. His sinker maxed out at 100.3 mph, and he mixed in a slider and curveball. It’s still spring training, but the Phillies are already excited about what Alvarado can do this season.
“I’ve been so impressed by his work ethic,” Girardi said. “He’s talking about how he lost all the weight, I see him every morning. He’s training. He’s running. He’s making sure he does everything. His stuff has been electric. His curveball has been a big weapon for him and that is a guy who’s throwing 100 with a 92 mph slider, and his curveball has been a weapon for him, too. I’m impressed by him. Really impressed by him. It’s fun to just sit back and watch.”
Alvarado was one of Tampa Bay’s top relievers in 2018, posting a 2.39 ERA in 70 games. He was regularly employed in high-leverage spots, earned seven saves, and was just 23 years old. Alvarado’s future was bright on a team usually stacked with premier arms.
But he missed a month in 2019 with an oblique strain, returned from the injured list and injured his elbow two weeks later. He missed time last season with shoulder inflammation and was dropped from the team’s roster when the Rays reached the World Series.
Two years earlier, Alvarado was one of their top late-inning options. Last October, there was no place for him. And then he was traded. Perhaps it was what Alvarado needed.
When he looks in the mirror this spring, he sees a much different pitcher.
“Nothing is easy,” Alvarado said. “... I knew my situation and my problem. Now it’s a new year. I focused every day and continued to work.”