Since making his big league debut with the Toronto Blue Jays, Columbia native Anthony Alford hasn’t had much luck. Now rehabbing a freak elbow injury, though, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound outfielder is trying to look at the positive side of things.
After being designated for assignment by the Blue Jays and subsequently claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Alford was finally proving himself worthy of an everyday job. He was collecting extra-base hits, making athletic plays in the outfield and showcasing his speed on the basepaths.
In his first start with the Pirates on Sept. 2 against the Chicago Cubs, Alford ripped a 428-foot solo home run over the bullpen in left-center field on a slider from reliever Ryan Tepera that left his bat with an exit velocity of 106 mph. He went 2-for-4 on the night, then two days later he had a two-run triple.
Alford said getting to play every day had him finally in a bit of a rhythm and was allowing him to have more success at the plate with having the peace of mind that he would be in the lineup the next day.
“Nobody can really get comfortable when you’re playing just a few times a week and not getting consistent at-bats,” he said. “The biggest thing was finally having that freedom and not having to put that pressure on myself to get a hit or get two hits to get in the lineup the next day. I could just go out there and play like I would a minor-league game and not really have to worry about the results to buy myself another day of playing time.”
However, on Sept. 5, just five days after making his debut with the Buccos in his fourth consecutive start, Alford gave chase to what would be a home run ball off the bat of Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. Once he realized he was going to run out of room on the warning track, he jumped into the wall just to stop his momentum so it wouldn’t be a hard collision. But his right arm hit the wall at just the right angle to fracture his elbow.
Alford said initially he was kind of down because he was playing every day at the big league level for the first time in his career and playing well, but he’s glad the injury wasn’t more severe.
“I’m just glad it wasn’t like a ligament or anything like that. It could’ve definitely been worse than what it was,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to Pittsburgh and looking at the positives. My best days are ahead of me.”
Alford underwent surgery Sept. 8, and at this point he’s just waiting on the bone to full heal to get back to regular physical activity.
“Everything is going smooth so far,” he said.
Following the injury, General Manager Ben Cherington said Alford’s injury was disappointing, but he also noted that the Columbia native had already made a positive impression on the Pirates front office. Pirates Manager Derek Shelton was upset about it, too.
"Honestly, it makes me feel a little sick to my stomach just because of the opportunity he has right now, but even more so knowing the person and the kid," he told reporters following the Sept. 5 game. "Just to see the pain and anguish in his eyes, it's difficult."
Come February, though, when Alford reports for Spring Training, he will be competing for an everyday job once again.
“It’s going to be different than the past spring trainings I’ve been at because in the past no matter how good I done, I probably wasn’t going to be a starter in Toronto because of the guys that were in front of me. In Pittsburgh, I have the opportunity to go out there, win a spot and be an everyday guy.”
Alford added he knows what he’s capable of, as do front office executives throughout the league, and that he’s ready to showcase his skills over a full big-league season.
“I had 75 at-bats in four years. People get that in a month when they’re playing every day. With so many people in front of me (in Toronto) that they wanted to give at-bats to, unfortunately I got the short end of the stick there. But I’m still young and just turned 26, and there’s a lot of guys that don’t make it to the big leagues until they’re 26 or 27. I was fortunate enough to make it when I was 22 but just haven’t caught a break yet. But I feel like my best days are ahead of me,” he explained. “I’ve had good conversations with the manager and the GM, and they’re excited to have me there in Pittsburgh. And I’m looking forward to being there.”
Back in 2017 in just his fourth major-league game, Alford suffered another freak injury, fracturing the hamate bone in his wrist on a foul ball. Then that offseason the Blue Jays traded for Randal Grichuk, effectively blocking Alford’s path to playing time. Since then, while he played well in the minor leagues, he dealt with a couple nagging leg injuries and never got the chance to be a regular at the big league level.
He’s hoping that 2021, as so many are following a tumultuous 2020 worldwide, will change his luck and let him be the five-tool player he was always meant to be with the Pirates.