Right On Track

Alonso impresses Reds quickly

If there was ever a checklist of tasks to accomplish in order to make a solid first impression, this would be the way to do it:

Catch the eyes of the big league skipper in spring training? Got it. Or how about ripping a three-run homer off a veteran in a barnstorming tour and then patiently drawing three walks in ensuing plate appearances? Yep.

And add in a game-winning single three weeks later?

Uh-huh. That'll do, too.

Only it's not a fictional idea harvested out of a springtime daydream. Instead, it's a snapshot into the first couple of months of Yonder Alonso's first full season, an impressive streak that the Reds' top prospect assures will not go to his head.

"I think about what my parents did for a living back when I was growing up," Alonso said when asked what keeps him motivated, as well as grounded. "We came from Cuba on a small plane, and I remember my dad cleaning offices. When you think about that, you get that spark in you and do what you've got to do to get better."

If he never loses that mindset, Alonso won't be long for the minors, let alone Sarasota in the Florida State League.

Yet recognizing that he's still more pup than prowler, Alonso has created his own personal checklist—demanding, some might call it—that suggests the Reds will be justified in their decision last summer to sink four years and $4.55 million into a major league contract along with a $2 million bonus.

Put it this way: they may have to tell Alonso not to show up at the ballpark too early.

"People see me as an offensive guy," said Alonso, the seventh overall pick in last June's draft out of the Miami Hurricanes' tradition-rich program. "But I take pride in my fielding. I'll take an hour of infield and when I go hit, I'll go for 15 to 20 minutes. You have to put it out there everyday."

Said Reds farm director Terry Reynolds, "He had a great spring and came in in great shape. He impressed everybody."

Lasting Impressions

The first couple of months certainly became a whirlwind. By the time he drove in the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the ninth of a 3-1 victory against Jupiter on April 19, Alonso had created quite the buzz.

As a nonroster invitee, the Reds had him locker next to big league first baseman Joey Votto, and the two ended up enjoying a friendly competition—of who could arrive at the spring training camp the earliest.

"The first day he beat me. He got there at 6:45 (a.m.) and was grinning about it. So I got there at 6:30 the next day, and then he would get there before me the next day, and then I had to beat that," Alonso said. "Eventually they had to tell both of us that we had to stop coming in so early.

"But I definitely enjoyed it."

So, too, did Reds manager Dusty Baker, who in the team's barnstorming tour through Double-A Carolina in early April raved about Alonso's workmanlike approach.

"This guy, he wants to make it," Baker said.

Later that evening, Alonso turned on a Bronson Arroyo fastball in the first inning and creamed it over the right field wall for a three-run homer. In his next three plate appearances, he then showed impeccable patience, working the count full and laying off outside pitches and others that bounced in the dirt.

Which is the approach that excites the Reds.

He led the Atlantic Coast Conference last year in homers (24), slugging percentage (.777) and OPS (1.311) and enjoyed an incredible walk-to-strikeout ratio in three seasons at Miami, drawing 172 walks against 103 strikeouts.

Through his first 70 at-bats with Sarasota, he was batting .229/.309/.471 with four home runs, five doubles and 20 RBIs. He also had drawn nine walks and struck out 11 times, while grounding into five double plays.

Big Fan

"This guy could be hitting .350 right now," Sarasota manager Joe Ayrault said. "He's been hitting rockets right at the second baseman and hitting deep flyouts."

If Alonso ever establishes a fan club, Ayrault could ask to be its president and CEO. The guy can't talk about Alonso enough, about his dedication on learning first base, about his patience at the plate and his early arrival at the ballpark.

The skipper has spent the past three seasons in the FSL, the past two as Sarasota's manager and the other as its hitting coach.

"You can definitely see the work ethic," Ayrault said. "Some guys you say, 'This guy is a big leaguer.' With this guy, they can build championship-caliber teams around him."

Ayrault went on.

"He's one of the best guys I've seen at this level, plate discipline-wise. He can work the count. And when he gets his pitch, he can crush it."

Which is why Ayrault is confident that Alonso will succeed at the higher levels.

"He's already shown me that he can make adjustments at the plate," Ayrault said. "Some guys you have to tell to make adjustments game to game. He can do it at-bat to at-bat, and he can do that at the higher levels."

Alonso has an advantage that most other players have not enjoyed. For one, he says his Cuban heritage in itself demands that he strive for excellence, but he also benefitted greatly in working with the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez.

When Alonso's contract talks with the Reds raced to the Aug. 15 wire, A-Rod offered even to loan Alonso his New York apartment if the ex-Hurricane decided to pass on signing and spend some time with, say, nearby independent Atlantic City.

"I have been around big league clubhouses and my dad played pro ball down in Cuba," Alonso said. "So you've got that expectation. I just want to win. And I'll do the things you've got to do, even if that means riding the buses."