LAKELAND, Fla. — Eliezer Vicente Alfonzo wants to be his own man.
The 22-year-old Venezuelan grew up in the shadow of his father, Eliezer Jesus Alfonzo, an MLB catcher who played 193 games over six seasons for the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies from 2006-2010.
“He tried to make me a leader,” Alfonzo said Wednesday, after the first pitchers and catchers workout in the Detroit Tigers‘ minor-league minicamp. “That’s what he always talked to me about. I got to be a leader on the field.”
Also a catcher, the younger Alfonzo is a legit prospect for the Tigers.
His stock has never been higher, as the organization values his plate discipline and knack for putting the ball in play. The switch-hitter hit .287 with eight home runs, 28 walks and 35 strikeouts in 98 games in the minors last season, reaching High-A West Michigan.
The Tigers hope Alfonzo earns an opportunity in Double-A Erie this season, meaning he could push 23-year-old catcher Dillon Dingler, the 38th overall pick in 2020, for playing time.
This is a situation the Tigers’ higher-ups are keeping in mind. Dingler, who hit .202 in 50 games for Erie last season, is the team’s No. 4 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline; Alfonzo isn’t ranked among the top 30.
DEVELOPING A CATCHER: How Dillon Dingler will apply lessons learned on offense, defense
“I feel like I have to make my own name,” Alfonzo said. “I don’t want to be the person known because my daddy played before. I want people to know me because I’m doing the right things and playing the game the right way. I want to make people know who I am.”
‘I had a problem with my legs’
Make no mistake, Alfonzo is thankful for his upbringing.
His father, now 43, also played 919 games in the minor leagues, 781 games in Venezuela and Mexico and 68 games in an independent league, for a grand total of 1,961 games and more than 7,000 at-bats across 22 seasons.
“He always told me, ‘If you’re not playing a game, try to find something that’s going to help you for the next game,'” Alfonzo said. “That’s what he always told me. This game is physical, but it’s mental, too.”
Alfonzo started playing baseball at 3.
He began to realize he had a future in baseball around 11, and by the time he was 15, he completed his transition from shortstop to catcher. The Tigers signed him to a minor-league contract in July 2016 as a non-drafted free agent.
“When I was a kid, I couldn’t catch because I had a problem with my legs,” Alfonzo said. “My doctor told me I could start to catch, and after he told me that, I have always worked to keep my body healthy and try to be on the field.
“I had a problem where my legs were crossed. When I walked, I almost hit my legs (together) by myself. I was good in the infield, but I couldn’t run like a shortstop or a second baseman. With the training and doctors, I started getting better, getting better. Now I can catch.”
Defensively, Alfonzo has plenty of work to do.
But the Tigers, encouraged by Alfonzo’s contact skills and hit tool, think there’s enough untapped defensive potential for him to catch in the majors one day. The player development department has already started implementing a plan to boost his defense.
Alfonzo threw out 18 of 77 runners attempting to steal last season, for a rough 23% caught stealing rate. He had a 51% caught stealing rate (22-for-43) in 2019.
“When I’m in the offseason, I spend a lot of time with (my father) and try to learn from him,” Alfonzo said. “We practice together in the offseason. He always talks to me. We watch videos on the TV about game situations. As a catcher, we have to be really focused on the game.”
‘Everything is about adjustments’
After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the minor leagues in 2020, the Tigers sent Alfonzo to High-A West Michigan to begin the 2021 season. He hadn’t played competitively since 2019, when he hit .318 in 48 games in the now-defunct New York-Penn League.
For the Whitecaps, Alfonzo hit .226 (without a home run) in 38 games.
The Tigers demoted him to Low-A Lakeland in early July.
“I was trying to do too much,” Alfonzo said. “I was trying to hit homers. When I was trying to do that, I changed my approach too much.”
He went back to his old ways — focusing on contact rather than power — and had no trouble in Low-A, hitting .308 with seven homers, 12 walks and 11 strikeouts in 39 games for the Flying Tigers.
So, the Tigers brought him back to High-A.
“That was a big motivation for me,” Alfonzo said. “I never gave up when they sent me down. When I got back, I was feeling really good. My timing was there. My approach was better. I finished the season really, really well.”
Alfonzo played 21 games after rejoining the Whitecaps on Aug. 23, hitting .355 with one home run, six walks and four strikeouts. As a switch-hitter, Alfonzo is confident from both sides but has more power as a natural righty, though he is a better contact hitter as a lefty.
“I always try to make good contact,” Alfonzo said. “I know what I can do. I never try to put pressure on myself when I’m hitting. … When I have two strikes, I feel like it’s a 0-0 count. I never change or try to do more or less. When I have two strikes, I feel really comfortable in that situation.”
In total, Alfonzo hit .272 with 16 walks and 24 strikeouts in 59 games for West Michigan. He had a 6.9% walk rate, 10.3% strikeout rate and .319 on-base percentage. With Lakeland and West Michigan, he combined for a 6.9% walk rate, 8.7% strikeout rate and .337 OBP in 98 games.
“Everything in the game is about adjustments, the big adjustments we can make on short time,” Alfonzo said. “You have to make adjustments right away. When they sent me down, I never put my head down.”
Alfonzo’s goal, of course, is to reach the major leagues.
“I don’t like to think too much about the future,” Alfonzo said. “I’m just trying to give my best effort that I can during minicamp and spring training. We’ll see what happens after that and what league I make. I’ll keep doing what I can do and try to play in the big leagues as soon as possible.”