Blue Jays free agent reunion tour: Henderson Alvarez?


The Blue Jays will have increased free agent options with the recent wave on non-tendered players, including an old friend in Henderson Alvarez

Wednesday’s MLB non-tender deadline saw an influx of names to free agency, many of whom come with a greater upside than the Blue Jays lone contribution of Josh Thole. One of the more prominent newcomers to the open market is 25-year old Henderson Alvarez, the former top Blue Jays prospect that was included in the Miami Marlins deal.

Alvarez was projected to earn $4 million in arbitration this offseason and is not due for for free agency until 2018, so unless his shoulder was entirely removed during a recent surgery to repair his torn labrum, it’s a curious move by the Marlins. Then again, it’s the Marlins.

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He managed just four unsuccessful starts in 2015 before landing on the disabled list in May with what was originally diagnosed as shoulder inflamation. Alvarez eventually went under the knife later in the summer after being assessed by Dr. James Andrews, and the initial estimate was that he’d remain on the shelf into the summer of 2016. More recent reports, like this one from Jon Heyman earlier in November, indicate that Alvarez could be cleared to begin throwing on December 1st, potentially allowing him to return close to opening day.

That’s the shoulder story, so let’s circle back around to the pitcher. Alvarez was originally signed as a 16-year old arm by the Blue Jays all the way back in 2006, with J.P. Ricciardi still at the helm. More importantly, Tony LaCava was the Blue Jays assistant to the general manager at the time.

By the end of the 2009 minor league season, Alvarez had risen to Baseball America’s fifth-ranked prospect in the organization while earning the Best Changeup and Best Control tools. After an impressive first look in the MLB, Alvarez gave the Blue Jays 187.1 innings over 31 starts in 2012 and, despite a 4.85 ERA, flashed long-term rotation potential.

After jumping to Miami, things began to click. Alvarez would post a 1.8 WAR over 17 starts in 2013, then enjoy his breakout season with an All Star campaign in 2014. In that age-24 season, Alvarez pitched to a 2.65 ERA over 187.0 innings with a 1.235 WHIP. He did experience a ~1 MPH dip in fastball velocity that season, however, before another 1.5 MPH dropped off the pitch in his limited 2015 action.

If we’re speaking in terms of raw potential ceiling, it’s difficult to equal Alvarez. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs had an excellent profile of Alvarez in February, prior to his injury. In the analysis, Sullivan parallels the great similarities between the arsenals of Alvarez and King Felix Hernandez. The primary separating factor continues to be the changeup, which Alvarez has yet to consistently establish at the MLB level.

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“A year ago, I was talking to a major leaguer, and when we somehow got to the topic of Henderson Alvarez, the player remarked that Alvarez seemed like he was one little tweak away from becoming a superstar,” he writes. And that’s dead on. If Alvarez is able to rebound fully from this shoulder procedure, the line between average and outstanding is very thin for him. The same can be said for a hundred power arms littered about the minor leagues, of course, but regardless.

What remains baffling about Alvarez is his inability to create strikeouts. With a fastball that can jump into the high-90s when his shoulder is right and impressive velocity throughout his arsenal, Alvarez has still yet to manage the 7.5+ K/9 numbers that one might expect. Instead, his MLB career average rests at 4.7. His career minor league numbers don’t tell a significantly different story, either, with an average of 6.5 K/9.

Much of his hitter and base-runner management comes from a great ability to produce ground ball outs, with the potential to put up a GB% of 54-58% each season. That profiles well in the Rogers Centre, of course, while his career 0.86 HR/9 isn’t terribly daunting.

Next: A look at some potential bullpen targets with closer's experience

Without the past link to the Toronto Blue Jays, especially to general manager Tony LaCava, Henderson would logically be treated as just another free agent arm. There should be a higher-than-average interest level, however, especially after the years of hands-on experience that many within the organization have with Alvarez. Perhaps that helps, perhaps that hurts. By no means will Alvarez be taking a bargain-bin “make good” contract, but on a one-year salary, he shouldn’t be outside of Toronto’s comfort zone positionally.

Health is clearly the make-or-break factor here, but if the organization is confident that Alvarez can return to 100%, the timeline shouldn’t be all that worrisome. One of the benefits of having an arm like Jesse Chavez is that he can fill the fifth rotation spot fairly effectively should Toronto need to buy time for a pitcher to stretch out or return from injury.

So have your say! Despite the risk, are you hoping for the Blue Jays to add Alvarez alongside J.A. Happ for the Rotation Reunion Tour?