Security with Blue Jays allows Alvarez to relax

Security with Blue Jays allows Alvarez to relax

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It was just one year ago that Henderson Alvarez was getting ready for his second stint with Class A Dunedin.

Fast-forward 12 months, and Toronto's right-hander is not only entering his second big league camp, but he already has a spot locked up in the Blue Jays' starting rotation.

Alvarez went through a memorable year in 2011 in which he advanced up the Blue Jays' Minor League ranks en route to firmly establishing himself in the big leagues by the end of the season.

"I feel like I'm more relaxed this spring," Alvarez said Monday through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I got a chance to pitch in the big leagues last year, and that experience has given me a chance to be a little more relaxed and work on my pitches.

"[Last spring] I was watching every game. I was watching how our pitchers attack the hitters, and how they were trying to get people out. That was something that I learned, I studied and practiced last year, and hopefully this year I can continue to do that."

Alvarez's stint with the Dunedin Blue Jays in 2011 lasted just two outings before he received a promotion to Double-A New Hampshire. Once there, he proceeded to go 8-4 with a 2.86 ERA while striking out 66 in 88 innings of work.

Those numbers were enough to catch the eye of the Blue Jays front office and prompted an even faster-than-expected promotion to the Majors. That occurred on Aug. 10, when Alvarez debuted at the young age of 21 against Oakland.

Despite the lack of experience, Alvarez handled the transition with relative ease. He went 1-3 with a 3.53 ERA in 10 starts and lasted at least six innings in each of his final eight outings.

"Everybody always talked -- the development staff always talked and raved about his throwing capability, and it's so important to be able to get outs with your fastball," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "You can't hide at this level, and you have to be able to get outs with your fastball, particularly in the strike zone, and he's capable of doing that with the heavy sinker.

"That's what has allowed him to transition to the big leagues. I know it was a short glimpse -- the number of innings he threw last year -- but that's going to be the pitch that allows him to stay here and be successful."

Alvarez made his spring debut on Monday afternoon against the Tigers and pitched one scoreless inning, his only blemish a two-out walk to Miguel Cabrera. Alvarez threw only fastballs and changeups, but he will begin incorporating a slider/cutter combination when his next outing is expanded to two innings.

The previous knock against Alvarez was that he didn't have a consistent third pitch to rely on, and it's development will be crucial in taking the next step of his career. That process began last season, when he started off with a curveball only to have it ditched in favor of the slider because of mixed results.

Alvarez, who walked just eight batters in 63 2/3 innings last year, spent the offseason trying to refine the slider in the hopes of being able to use it on a more regular basis this season. That could improve his strikeout rate (5.7 per nine innings), but perhaps more importantly, it will give American League hitters something else to think about when they step into the batter's box.

"The way he finished last year, I think he got a better feel for shortening up and creating a little more power to it, where it gave it a little bit more of a later action when it approached the strike zone," Farrell said of the slider. "It's a pitch that he felt more comfortable with as the year went on, and it gives him three distinct pitches.

"It's not adding any pressure to his elbow or his arm, and it's a pitch that at this level, the later the action to get quality big league hitters out, I feel like it's a pitch that will give him that opportunity to do that."

At the Blue Jays' request, Alvarez didn't take part in Winter League ball during the offseason for the first time in his professional career. Following a long season, the club wanted to provide Alvarez with more rest, so he worked out with his former team, Tiburones de la Guaira.

"When I was in Venezuela I faced some hitters -- I threw about five live batting practices, facing hitters from other organizations," said Alvarez, who was signed by Toronto as an undrafted free agent in 2008.

"I was doing everything that was needed to [get done] -- and that I did before -- just to come to Spring Training. I was working out with the team, I was throwing bullpen [sessions], and I was doing everything with the team except they didn't let me pitch [in a game]."

Alvarez's path to the Major Leagues is one that the Blue Jays hope some of their other top prospects can emulate. He was able to use last year's experience in Spring Training to further his development and speed up his transition to the upper levels.

There's hope within the organization that the likes of Drew Hutchison, Deck McGuire and Chad Jenkins will experience a similar development this season.

"You would hope that would be the case with every guy that comes into big league camp for their first time," Farrell said. "They're not only making an impression for the front office and the field staff, but just getting into games against guys that they've either read about or seen on ESPN.

"It goes a long way in their belief that they can compete at this level, that's what we would hope that Drew Hutchison will take out of this Spring Training, that's what we hope [catcher] Yan Gomes would take out of this Spring Training or any first-time player that's here in camp, and it can go a long way to shortening down the learning curve or the path to contribute here."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.