Ask around, and you’ll be hard pressed to find many folks who considered 2016 to be a monumental success. Cincinnati Reds farmhand Zach Vincej just might be one of those few, however, as the former 37th round pick out of Pepperdine University is fresh off the best year of his professional career, having taken home a Minor League Gold Glove for his sparkling work at SS for AA Pensacola. He topped that off with a scintillating performance in the Arizona Fall League, one that had him flirting with a potential triple crown and had notable prospect writers taking notice.
Vincej has certainly generated ample buzz, and the 25 year old even landed a non-roster invite to Goodyear, AZ to join the Reds for their big league camp once spring training rolls around. But while what he has accomplished of late is certainly something worthy of being hyped, it’s a guy who is actually five full months younger than Vincej who probably deserves just as much anticipation - Arismendy Alcantara.
Claimed by the Reds off waivers from the Oakland A’s back in October, Alcantara has a 40-man roster spot to his name and years of expectations still on his shoulders, but while he’s one of just a handful of new additions Cincinnati has brought in this offseason, there’s been little to no fanfare surrounding him. That’s a first for him, really, as he first became a universal Top 100 prospect prior to the 2014 season and made his big league debut with the Chicago Cubs that very year. He bumbled his way through 300 PA in 70 G and posted just a .621 OPS, but the then 22 year old’s skillset and success at AAA that year (.307/.353/.537 in 366 PA) had him all the way up to the 33rd best prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball America in their mid-year update.
Those initial struggles didn’t do much to dampen his prospect star in the eyes of most, something the grizzled scouts of Paul Daugherty’s dreams and the modern projection systems both agreed. Despite his lack of walks (just 17) paired with a proclivity to strikeout (93) in his first crack at the big leagues, Dan Szymborksi’s ZiPS projections for him were extremely promising, suggesting the toolsy 23 year old had legit 20/20 skills (projected 19 HR and 25 SB in 645 PA). That system, of course, accounted for his BB/K flaws, projecting him for just a 6.2% walk rate and 26.5% K rate, but paired with his plus defense in the middle infield, he projected as a 2.4 zWAR player - better even than his direct peer and competition, Javier Baez (2.2 zWAR).
This will seem like I’m getting sidetracked a bit, but it’s an aspect of player development that’s vitally important to consider, especially in Alcantara’s case. In fact, it’s pretty much the reason Alcantara is with the Reds in the first place.
Signed as an international free agent when he was just 16 years old in 2008, Alcantara made his professional debut at just 17 years old, at which point the Cubs’ ability to be patient with his development was essentially voided. Such is the nature of the development of many international prospects who sign so young, since teams are only able to keep control of those guys in the minors for a maximum of 7 years after they’ve signed before they must either be on the big league roster or will become eligible to be minor league free agents. It’s something Reds fans watched in earnest with the likes of Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran, two talented international signees who were tasked with being full-fledged big leaguers by age 23 or again on the free market for all others to sign.
Sign early, debut as a professional early, become eligible to be picked in the Rule 5 Draft early, get protected from the Rule 5 Draft by being added to the 40-man roster early, burn options early, and get bounced from your original organization early. In essence, it's a fast-track for only a certain subset of players, and it subtly builds in a frustrating caveat: players in this type of contract situation are not afforded the ability to struggle. Or, rather, the teams that initially sign these players aren't afforded the patience to both allow these players to struggle and keep them in their organization.
Alcantara's continued struggles in limited big league action in 2015 then put him behind the 8 ball, so to speak, since he was being passed by other prospects on the pecking order while also burning options, MLB teams' precious chances to stash players in the minors to marinate. On his last option in 2016, firmly behind other middle infielders (like Baez, who didn't debut as a professional until he was 19 thanks to high school in Puerto Rico), Alcantara was traded to Oakland for Chris Coghlan, largely because he'd be out of options in 2017 and no lock to make the stacked Chicago roster.
When Todd Frazier made his big league debut for the Reds back in May of 2011, he was older at that moment than Alcantara is right now. The relative struggles that Frazier had once reaching AAA came at a point in his development that was fortunate for Cincinnati, since they were able to be patient with the college draftee until he was able to work through those issues, and he ultimately blossomed once given a big league opportunity. Those kinds of early-career struggles plagued another prominent Cincinnati infielder with ample parallels to Alcantara - Brandon Phillips, as Redleg Nation's Chad Dotson examined back in October.
There's likely a lot of crossover among those who have overlooked Alcantara's current potential and those who were frustrated at the return the Reds got when Jay Bruce was traded to the New York Mets last summer, now that I think about it. Alcantara was only available on the waiver wire due to his early signing and call-up, while Dilson Herrera wasn't on any Top 100 prospect lists for exactly the same reason; Herrera, who also signed at age 16, appeared in just enough big league action at ages 20 and 21 to have too much service time to be considered a prospect anymore despite being some six months younger than, say, Jesse Winker. Perception has many angles, you see.
The Reds will need both luck and timing on their side to see Alcantara blossom, but they're certainly a team with the playing time to offer him in order to find out. With experience at every position on the field sans 1B, C, and P, he's versatile enough to get the kind of PAs the Reds have recently given to veterans at the tail end of their careers, the likes of Skip Schumaker, Jack Hannahan, and Ivan De Jesus, Jr., to name a few. The Reds, as far from contention at the moment as most any team in the game, won't be doling those reserve PAs out to guys from whom they know what to expect, instead likely serving them up to a guy who still might have enough in his former five-tool skillset to surprise folks, something Phillips himself did 12 years ago when he unexpectedly claimed the 2B spot and never relinquished it.
There's obvious hope that both Jose Peraza and Dilson Herrera can emerge as the future of the Cincinnati middle infield, and rightfully so. But while Alcantara won't exactly have the upper hand in winning one of those spots in 2017, he possesses plenty enough talent to still warrant consideration. In fact, how he performs in spring training - and how the Reds look to use him - is one of the more intriguing storylines to watch when camp gets going in Goodyear in just over a month.