The crown jewel of the Dodgers’ 2015 international class, Yadier Alvarez made his long-anticipated professional debut in 2016 and looked to meet everyone’s lofty expectations. Long known for his considerable arm strength but also his limited exposure to game action, Alvarez showed more polish than expected in mowing down hitters at the Low-A level. While his elite velocity will give him a large margin of error, Alvarez still has gaps to fill in his game before his future major league role can be better defined.
Alvarez did receive consideration for the top spot in the rankings on the back of the highest ceiling grade in the system. However, Alvarez’s risk score was low for a top-20 prospect given his still lacking professional exposure (just 59⅓ innings last year, and only 39⅓ of those coming at a full-season level) and distance from the major leagues. Given his age, stuff, athleticism, and upside, you can make the case that Alvarez is one of the few pitchers on the farm across baseball that could reach No. 1 status. However, there’s also concern (though diminishing) that he might end up a late-inning arm.
Alvarez’s trademark might be the ease at which he can deliver elite velocity and stuff. He’s still very lean and gangly, but Alvarez has better control over his arm action and is more consistent with his release point. Alvarez’ delivery is simple and he keeps a consistent, smooth cadence and balance point. If I have a critique, he will occasionally fall off to the first base side and pull his fastball or flatten his slider in doing so.
Alvarez’s fastball is easy plus and could be a future double-plus pitch at the big league level. He primarily pitched over shorter stints, capping at five innings four times in fourteen total appearances, so his velocity range may be elevated, but upper nineties is upper nineties. He pitches out of a higher slot, so he doesn’t have much arm side life, but he has plenty of deception from his smooth, easy arm action making the fastball look like it’s exploding out of hand. He can dominate with the pitch in the upper part of the zone.
Alvarez’s fastball control looks better than he’s given credit for elsewhere. He’s around the zone fairly consistently and has the athleticism and body control to repeat his mechanics and throw strikes. I would expect his command to improve as he matures and logs more professional innings (again, just over 59 thrown).
While his fastball is a strikeout pitch in its own right, the breaking ball also flashes plus potential. I’ve seen it called a curveball but the pitch has more slider shape and speed on film. The pitch has a hard, short 11-to-5 break that is tough to pick up out of hand. He will lose his release point on his breaking ball still, and like everything else, just needs more work in game situations.
Alvarez has a changeup to meet the conventional starter three-pitch mix. It’s fairly firm but will show more arm-side life than his fastball, but like the breaking ball, Alvarez needs to show more feel for the pitch. At peak, the change up could easily be an average or better pitch given his arm strength.
Though he’s only thrown 39 innings in full-season ball, I would expect that Alvarez has shown enough to start the 2017 in High-A, where he will also benefit from better weather and better competition to further fine tune his command. Short season and Low-A were not much of a challenge for Alvarez, and at some point some adversity would be beneficial for him (as it would for any elite level prospect).
The biggest unanswered question remaining is Alvarez’s durability and stamina. Ideally, Alvarez should pitch closer to 100 innings this year and work into the fifth inning a little more often, offering more answers to the resiliency of his stuff and arm over a full season. Given his limited workload, he’s probably further from the big leagues than his dominance at the lower levels suggest.
It’s conceivable that Alvarez could still finish 2017 in Double A, but a realistic big league ETA might be 2019, giving him two-plus years to prove durability and stamina in the rotation. Though he isn’t particularly close to helping the big league team, his potential makes him almost untradeable at this point. That in itself makes him a limited asset at this point, but the Dodgers have plenty of upper-level talent to move in a deal and the Dodgers can afford taking on the risk of retaining him.
Though the Cuban market hasn’t been especially fruitful in the last couple of seasons, Alvarez has given no indication that his high price tag wasn’t worth it. Should he dominate again in 2017 he will quickly close the gap between risk and ceiling, and climb both this ranking and comprehensive minor league lists. The tools are there for Alvarez to be the top prospect in baseball at this time next season, but everyone would be more comfortable with their assessments with more consistent innings.