JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- In spring, fans are bombarded with names of young prospects. Most are quickly set aside; logged away for future reference when the player is closer to the majors.
A few, like Sandy Alcantara, become points of fixation.
At 21, the Dominican-born righty has already caught the attention of fans in St. Louis. With a 100 mile per hour fastball propelled by a long, lanky frame, it’s not hard to see why. Throwing triple digits commands attention.
But early last season, Alcantara’s fastball was his only weapon. He routinely threw in the upper 90s late in games, but a lack of significant movement on his heater meant he still got hit. His breaking ball was in development and he had an uneasy relationship with his changeup.
Still, he struck out 153 hitters in 122.2 innings between Low A and High A. By year’s end, his changeup appeared more frequently and his breaking ball began to show depth and consistency.
He was an intriguing talent, and at 6’5 and 170 pounds, had room to add muscle. His offseason homework was hefty, but the organization was eager to see what difference a winter could make.
The results have been impressive.
“If you’re looking at him and where he was a year ago, at the progression he made late last summer, now all of a sudden you’re seeing how well he spent his offseason.” General Manager John Mozeliak said. “He really looks like he went from boy to man. I think his physical presence is something that’s eye-popping.”
Alcantara, already rangy enough to tie his shoes without bending over, added double-digit pounds of muscle to his body. His arms look like tree branches hanging from his shoulders. His legs look lean and powerful as they propel his body through his easy motion. His hands- big enough to palm a spaghetti strainer- hang nearly to his knees.
On the mound he’s also showing his work. His breaking ball is no longer a show pitch. Having been made a point of emphasis this offseason, it’s now joined his fastball in regular rotation.
“I’ve been working on it at home with my brother in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Also with my trainer,” Alcantara said through a translator after his first spring outing. “Obviously, I’m always going to rely on my fastball. But it’s very important to develop that pitch because, if for some reason that fails, that’s the next one I am going to.”
In contrast to it being a last resort when a hitter had his fastball timed up last year, Alcantara now feels like he can throw the breaking ball in any count.
The next step is solidifying his changeup. Manager Mike Matheny is eager to see that development, noting the easy comparison to St. Louis’ most dynamic pitcher, Carlos Martinez.
“As we watch Carlos, it’s kind of the same track,” he said after Alcantara’s spring debut Sunday. “An overpowering fastball that he’s learning to sink already. If you can add a changeup in there it’s just a wipeout pitch to both righties and lefties.”
Tuesday, Alcantara threw a bullpen session with Martinez right beside him. The two countrymen talked execution, with Martinez stopping Alcantara to translate instructions from Derek Lilliquist and talk through the desired action for each pitch. It was a fun conversation to watch; two pitchers with enough combined horsepower to break the sound barrier discussing how best to make hitters look silly.
As they talked it was easy to look forward, to imagine a staff featuring multiple 100 mile per hour fastballers with breaking stuff to boot.
“When I think about his progression, you’re hoping it follows sort of the [Rosenthal] or Carlos Martinez in most recent memory,” Mozeliak said. “But in a lot of ways it’s like Adam Wainwright. Where he was physically to all of a sudden being ready knock on that major league door, ready to contribute, it happened rather quickly.”
There’s still plenty of minor league path Alcantara must walk before reaching the promised land. While he’s opened the cupboard and explored new ingredients with confidence, he’s not yet a chef.
“I think he has a very exciting future, but this is a very important year for him to take steps positively on the pitching side,” Mozeliak said. “I do feel like that should be an apple he chases. When you look at his, just his talent and what he’s capable of doing, it’s exciting.”
No matter how fast Alcantara progresses, there’s no plan to rush him to the majors. His only place on the Cardinals at this point is in the bullpen, which is far too short a track for him to build up the necessary endurance. The primary goal this season is a starter’s workload. Barring a major injury, it’s unlikely Alcantara will arrive until September.
“I don’t want to just necessarily say ‘OK let’s bring him to the big leagues and use him in short work,’ because his progression has been so good, I’d like that to continue,” Mozeliak said. “Having said that, there are times late in the season where there are opportunities to take that type of talent and use it in a short stint. It actually balances out the season quite well because he would have already bucketed all those innings early and now it might be a nice transition.”
As February closes, Alcantara is perhaps St. Louis’ most exciting prospect in the eyes of fans. But no baseball player wants to be a prospect. Prospects aren’t major leaguers. Seeing the rewards from his work this winter, it looks like he’s already tired of the label.