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Blanchette: Indians’ Alfaro gives scouts plenty to smile about

Age is the great MacGuffin of minor league baseball, driving the plot of each prospect until the necessary payoff at the upper end: Can he play or not? The younger the player, the more uncertainty in how his current tools project at a big-league level and, so, the greater the intrigue – and, if there’s a price tag attached, the risk. Few organizations seem to court that risk as much as the Texas Rangers, and by extension their Northwest League affiliate in Spokane. A year ago, the Indians had callow teens – either No. 1 draft picks or big-bonus free agents – in the crucial up-the-middle positions. This season, five teenage pitchers have had multiple starts, and 17-year-old Rougned Odor has made a solid impression at second base. And then there’s the big catch: Jorge Alfaro. The 18-year-old from Colombia has shown everything the Rangers expected when they signed him for $1.3 million at the age of 16: a power stroke, a cannon arm, exceptional speed. Also inconsistency – in his plate discipline, his throwing, his still-raw catching skills, his approach. In the prospect business, Alfaro is the whole package. “He really has so much to offer,” said Ryley Westman, a catching coach in the Rangers’ system. “But even more than most players, he has such a big learning curve that it’s going to take work – and patience.” Yet there’s already some payoff. Alfaro leads the Indians in batting average (.324) and slugging percentage (.505), and is second in home runs (four). And if nothing else, his teammates can thank him for an extra chance or two to impress Rangers director of player development Scott Servais, who planned to increase his trips to Spokane this season. “It might have been a stretch to put (Alfaro) at this level,” admitted Servais, himself a former major league catcher, “but since I was one of the ones behind it, I want to see if he can survive.” It’s not as if the Rangers haven’t tried this before. Late in 2009, they promoted 18-year-old catcher Tomas Telis – another 16-year-old signee, but from Venezuela – to Spokane, where he hit .400 with two homers in seven games. Last year, Kellin Deglan – the 22nd overall pick in the draft – spent the last half of the season behind the plate here. They share the position at Class A Hickory this season. “It’s a little different, though,” pointed out hitting coach Josue Perez. “Deglan speaks the language. And he’s been a catcher forever.” Not so with Jorge Alfaro. He grew up in Sincelejo, Colombia, which he called “a small town nobody even knows” though it’s home to 220,000 people. In baseball-rich Latin America, his country is something of an outpost – only 10 Colombians have reached the big leagues, the most notable being World Series good-luck charm Edgar Renteria. This also makes him – despite the scouting reports and the outsized signing bonus – a bit of a long shot. So does this: “I just started catching right before I signed,” he said, with Perez serving as translator. “I’d been a shortstop until then.” That explains Alfaro’s un-catcher speed – Westman said he’s been clocked at 4.15 seconds from home to first. It also explains the OJT feel of both this season and last, when he struggled at the plate (.221) and behind it in the Dominican Summer League. “I think this year I’ve tried to think less about myself and how I’m doing,” he said, “and more about helping the team.” Still, certain struggles continue. He’s walked just three times, struck out 33. After throwing out 32 percent of base stealers in the DSL, he’s nailed just nine of 50 with Spokane. And surely his inexperience, added to the youth of the pitching staff’s, has contributed to the Indians’ 5.19 earned run average. But, oh, those tools. On scouting’s 20-to-80 scale, Alfaro is already considered “an 80 arm,” according to Westman and figures to be a 70 as a power hitter. At the moment, all his other skills project to 50-plus, though those will be recalculated almost daily. Westman likes it all now: “His work ethic gets better every day, he’s confident, a leader, he has soft hands. He can be a difference maker on both sides of the ball.” He already has been – most notably on July 16, when his pinch-hit home run in the ninth beat Everett. But there are other nights when the 18-year-old with halting English and the college-grad pitcher can have trouble staying on the same page. “That’s going to happen,” Servais said. “Of course, as soon as he hits a double off the wall to drive in two runs, they all seem to communicate a lot better.”