Richard Justice: Try to imagine where the Astros would be without Yordan Alvarez. On the other hand, let’s not spoil the fun

Apr 3, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez (44) hits a three-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in the fifth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Try to imagine where the Astros would be without Yordan Alvarez. On the other hand, let’s not spoil the fun

He has lightning in his bat, and every time he swings, he can do something. There aren’t many players around of that magnitude, but boy, he’s certainly one of the best.”

   —Dusty Baker on Yordan Alvarez.

   • • •

   Dynasties live and die on decisions that often seem inconsequential at the time. Try and imagine where the Astros would be without 25-year-old Yordan Alvarez.

   His every at-bat has become a must-see baseball because he can change a game instantly. Part of his appeal is that broad smile, his humility, and that easygoing nature.

   Oh, and those moments Astros fans will remember. Remember how he turned a 7-5 loss into an 8-7 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the playoffs last season?

   Remember that he hit another home run, only slightly less dramatic, to give the Astros a lead over Seattle in Game 2. He was such a threat that he became the first player to be intentionally walked in a postseason game with a runner on first since San Francisco’s Barry Bonds in 2003.

   As breathtaking as those home runs were, they were mere table setters for Game 6 of the World Series when the Astros trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning.

   When he stepped to the plate with two runners on base, a friend’s wife told her husband: “Get your camera out. Something is about to happen.” That’s how he ended up capturing one of the greatest moments in Astros’ history.

    I was seated many yards away, in the upper deck, when Alvarez swung the bat. Off the bat, I didn’t think it would get out of the park. And then it just kept going and going and going.

   When it cleared the center-field wall by miles, I stood there in silence, unable to speak or cheer, stunned that this guy had delivered again.

   As the Astros embark on a six-game road trip to Minnesota and Pittsburgh before returning home to play the Rangers and Blue Jays, Alvarez is off to a great start: .348 batting average, .407 on-base average, 1.059 OPS.

   Since the beginning of his first full-time season, 2021, he’s fourth in the American League in home runs despite playing at least 26 fewer games than the sluggers in front of him. He’s third in on-base percentage (. 376) and second to Aaron Judge in OPS (. 947).

   Beyond the raw numbers has been his ability to be at his best when the lights are brightest and the stakes highest.

   “I think a lot of people, like, try and amp up to get power,” Alex Bregman said last fall during the playoffs. “But he knows that he just needs to stay within himself and stay within his swing. When he makes contact, it goes. And he can do it from line to line too. He can hit it to left field, he can hit it to right field. He hit three homers in one game to center field this year. So it has an effortless feel to the swing, but it’s powerful.”

   Don’t chalk his arrival up to blind luck, either. Strip the noise away, and he’s as much a byproduct of the hustle and insight of an Astros front office that saw something in kid pitchers Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and Hunter Brown that few other clubs saw.

   This front office saw the untapped potential of Ryan Pressly and Rafael Montero. Bryan Abreu’s journey to major league dominance validates an entire organization’s smarts and patience.

   So when you read stories about how the Astros fleeced the Dodgers in the summer of 2016 to get Yordan Alvarez, know this: Sure, the Dodgers made a monumental mistake in trading Yordan Alvarez to the Astros for reliever Josh Fields. As their president of baseball operations (and Houston native), Andrew Friedman told the Los Angeles Times in 2019:

   “Looking back on it now, we obviously wish we would have said yes to the other names they asked for before him.”

  Here’s the thing about that: The Astros were in on Alvarez way before that trade. Their former international scouting guru Oz Ocampo pushed his bosses hard to sign Alvarez.

   But the Astros had used up their international allotment, and the Dodgers ponied up $2 million the day before the international signing period ended. It wasn’t that they were totally sold on him, either. But they’d missed on some guys and had budgeted money left over.

   “It was more because we were about to be cut out of big-ticket signings,” Friedman told the Times.

   When he telephoned Jeff Luhnow about Fields, several names went back and forth.

   “What about Alvarez, the Cuban?” Luhnow asked. He remembered that his scouts believed the 19-year-old had a chance.

   Friedman refused, thinking Luhnow was asking about Yadier Alvarez, a Cuban pitcher that had gotten a $ 16 million bonus.

   “Yordan Alvarez,” Luhnow clarified.

   He hadn’t even played in his first minor league game for the Dodgers, and there were significant questions about his power potential. Yeah, go figure.

   “Alvarez is a player with exciting offensive upside,” former Astros Director of Pro Scouting Kevin Goldstein said when the deal was announced. “He has excellent power for a teenager, as well as a feel to hit. He has also demonstrated great athleticism for a player of his size.”

   No one could have known that the Astros had just made a trade that would go a long way toward sustaining their mini-dynasty. As for the power, it arrived when Alvarez got to Double-A Corpus Christi in 2018 (12 home runs, 13 doubles in 43 games). He made his major league debut on Father’s Day 2019.

   He homered on a changeup to left-center in his second at-bat, and that single at-bat opened eyes in the Astros dugout. To watch a 21-year-old calm himself on the most exciting day of his professional career and wait for a changeup told a lot of people about what was coming.

   “Whoa,” Gerrit Cole remembered thinking. As Jose Altuve explained to The Athletic: “That’s really hard to do. When you’re in your first day in the big leagues, and they throw you a changeup, you’re normally out front. He waited for the ball and hit it the other way. That’s something that you don’t see very often in a guy like him.”

   Last summer, the Astros and Alvarez agreed on a six-year, $115-million extension, and Alvarez has continued to produce breathtaking moments. He hit his 100th career home run in his 372nd game this week. Only four major leaguers got there faster: Ryan Howard, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Pete Alonso. Of the 18 Astros to do it, Lance Berkman had the previous record at 452 games, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

   This season began with uncertainty. A lingering hand (or hands) issue limited him to seven Spring Training plate appearances, and Baker has said he’ll manage his rest to help alleviate the problem. Already, though, he’s on his way to being one of the best the Astros have ever had. As Baker said, there’s lightning in that bat.

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