Yesterday, the Chicago Cubs made a somewhat surprising addition to their Major League roster in the form of left-handed reliever Dario Alvarez. The move was announced by the team earlier today.
Alvarez was a minor league free agent after the Rangers elected not to place him on their 40-man roster at the end of the season (like the Cubs did with Matt Carasiti). Given his previous prospect pedigree and dominant minor league numbers, Alvarez figured to be a highly sought-after free agent, and sure enough, it required a Major League deal to land him.
What that means, effectively (and financially), is that Alvarez is now on the Cubs’ 40-man roster like a prospect they called up from their own system. The only difference is that he’s got only one minor league option year left. So long as the Cubs are willing to use a 40-man roster spot on him, though, they can stash him at AAA Iowa until he’s needed in the bullpen.
Now let’s get to know him a little better, eh?
Brett mostly covered his history yesterday, but in short, after signing with the Phillies as an amateur free agent in 2007, Alvarez played for the Mets, Braves, and most recently, Texas Rangers. It was his time in New York, however, that his name started popping up on top prospect lists.
Indeed, after a breakout 2014 season in A-ball (61.1 IP, 1.32 ERA, 1.70 FIP), the Mets pushed Alvarez quickly through High-A and Double-A, before he finally debuted in the Majors later that season. After the season, he was generally considered a top-20 arm in the Mets system, which is about as high as any pure-relief prospect will ever get ranked. He split his 2015 season between the Minor and Major Leagues, though, and was eventually claimed off waivers by the Braves in 2016.
In 2016, he made 16 relief appearances for the Braves and mostly dominated thanks to a KILLER 45.9% strikeout rate and league-average 8.2% walk rate. Usually, when a reliever is capable of striking out that many guys, he doesn’t have the control to match it, but for 15 special innings back in 2016, Alvarez was unique.
Wisely, the Braves quickly turned those 16 appearances into a trade with the Rangers, which is how he wound up in Texas for the past year and a half. Unfortunately, his success mostly stopped there.
In the second half of 2016, Alvarez was still posting solid strikeout (25.0%) and walk (3.9%) rates, but batters hit .354 off him and ballooned his ERA from 3.00 with the Braves to 7.71 in Texas. One might be inclined to blame a .438 BABIP, 59.5% strand rate, and 27.3% HR/FB ratio for his rotten luck, but a 40% hard-hit rate, 25.7% line drive rate, and 42.9% ground ball rate certainly didn’t help.
This past season, Alvarez broke camp with the big league team, but had some mixed results once again. For example, his 2.76 ERA, 26.0% soft-hit rate, and 24.0% hard-hit rate all look *really* excellent (and, frankly, I’m guessing that’s what piqued the Cubs interest), but his strikeout rate took another downturn (20.7%) and his walk rate absolutely exploded (17.1%) – and all of that is despite a total turnaround in BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB ratio.
In 27.0 Minor League innings in 2017, Alvarez got back to doing what he does best: striking a ton of guys out (31.3%) and mostly limiting the walks (8.7%). And that turned into a solid 2.33 ERA (4.05 FIP). He did benefit from another high strand rate, but with a strikeout rate in the 30%+ range, it’s a bit more understandable. It’s also worth pointing out that Alvarez spent some time on the disabled list with a left elbow sprain last season, though he missed the minimum amount of time and it seems like it may have been mostly for roster-related reasons.
As far as pitch-mix goes, Alvarez is a pretty standard fastball/slider reliever, though he actually throws his slider more than his fastball – and that’s probably because his fastball velocity is not plus-plus for a reliever these days (93ish MPH). But don’t let that discourage you, because Alvarez’s slider is his wipeout pitch. In fact, back in 2016, Alvarez’s slider ranked as the 18th best in all of baseball among relievers with at least 20 innings, and MLB Pipeline gave it a 60 on the scouting scale back when he was a prospect.
See for yourself – it’s nasty:
Finally, Although Alvarez is a lefty, he’s actually been somewhat split neutral for his career. In other words, if the Cubs are going to extract any value out of him, it’ll likely be as a full-inning reliever, not a LOOGY.
In terms of excitement, I’d keep your hopes in check. Chances are Alvarez will spend most of his time up and down from Iowa next season, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a good pickup. Alvarez is a lefty, has a wipeout pitch, has posted killer strikeout rates, and has managed contact successfully in the past. If Jim Hickey and the rest of the Cubs see something they think they can work on, it’ll be well worth the tiny risk.
If things work out, the Cubs will have Alvarez under team control through 2022, and he won’t be arbitration eligible until 2020.