Jorge Alfaro hits a grand slam, but his progress behind the plate is the key
The catcher will open the season in the majors. The Phillies are confident in his hitting ability, but his defense will be the work in progress.
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jorge Alfaro took his first swing of spring on Saturday and watched his grand slam sail into left field. It was quite the start for Alfaro, who is practically assured of opening the season in the major leagues. But the majority of focus this spring will not be on the catcher's bat but his work behind the plate.
The Phillies have little question about Alfaro's ability to hit. He is built like a slugger and produced last season when he was promoted. His defense, as displayed last season, requires some seasoning. He has worked this spring on his positioning and receiving and the way he transfers the ball so he can optimize his powerful arm. It is the little things. But Alfaro cannot be sent to triple A because he is out of minor-league options. His development will take place in the majors.
"I was working on that in the offseason in winter ball in Colombia and tried to get better on that," said Alfaro, who went 2 for 2 with a walk in a 9-6 victory over the Baltimore Orioles at Spectrum Field. "I feel better behind the plate and I just want to keep working and learning."
Alfaro is working this spring with the Dusty Wathan, Craig Driver, and Bob Stumpo, who oversee the catching staff in various roles. Wathan was Alfaro's double-A and triple-A manager before being promoted this winter to the major-league staff. The two have a great rapport. Alfaro worked with Stumpo last season in his time in the big leagues and Driver, who joined the organization this offseason, has been instrumental in introducing a deeper use of analytics.
"They have everything," Alfaro said of the information available. "We didn't have that in the minor leagues and you have a lot of information here on hitters and all that. It helps you prepare for the game and prepare for the season. It helps me a lot. I'm trying to learn from [Cameron] Rupp and [Andrew]Knapp because they had the whole year in the big leagues. I'm trying to learn from them and do the best I can."
Alfaro is less than five weeks away from beginning his life as a major-leaguer. He was there for parts of the last two seasons, but both trips came because another player was injured. This time it will be earned. And there is plenty of time to prepare before the season begins. Saturday offered some promise.
"He's already done a great job and this is a big credit to Dusty, to Stump and Craig Driver," Kapler said. "They've been working tirelessly on keeping balls in the zone and getting pitches at the edges. His receiving has already gotten a ton better. He's really focusing his attention on being prepared for every pitch. You don't just see it out in the game. You see it in his bullpen sessions so his practice sessions have been vastly improved. We're going to keep working with him. He's got a ways to go, but so does everybody. I don't think we need to single him out for being unprepared. He's absolutely prepared to be our catcher in Philadelphia."
Will Middlebrooks was carted off the field after suffering a serious left ankle injury in the eighth inning when he collided in shallow left field with Andrew Pullin. The 29-year-old Middlebrooks, who has played parts of six major-league seasons, is in camp on a minor-league deal and competing for a spot on the bench as a utility infielder. Kapler consoled Middlebrooks while he was being treated on the field. It was an emotional moment, the manager said.
"A ton of hard work leads up to that moment, giving everything he has on that play, which is what we ask from our players to do," Kapler said. "The promise we make to fans in Philadelphia is that we're going to play like that. We're going to sacrifice our bodies for that kind of moment in a spring-training game. That's exactly what he did. It's really tough. I felt for Will in that moment. We're all pulling really hard.
"It was kind of one of those balls that's in between," a visibly shaken Pullin said. "I was running hard and I didn't hear him call it and I didn't call it because I wasn't sure if I could get to it. At the last minute I slid for it. I'm not sure if he called it."
Zach Eflin threw 38 pitches in his first start of spring and said he felt "amazing" thanks to the muscle he regained in his legs following the two knee surgeries he had at the end of the 2016 season. He's in the mix for the final rotation spot. … Aaron Nola will make his first start of spring on Sunday when the Phillies host the Yankees.