Yordan Álvarez, traded in 2016 by Dodgers, has developed into a big deal with Astros

The Astros' Yordan Álvarez runs on an RBI double during the first inning in Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 29, 2022.
The Houston Astros' Yordan Álvarez runs on his RBI double during Game 2 of the World Series on Saturday night. Álvarez was briefly in the Dodgers organization before the team traded him in 2016. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Yordan Álvarez doesn’t remember much about his days in the Dodgers organization. Not that there’s much to remember.

The Houston Astros’ All-Star slugger recently recalled that he spent about a month at the organization’s academy in the Dominican Republic in 2016 — “maybe a little less.” He remembers working out on the field twice in shorts and a T-shirt. He never wore a uniform. He never played a game. It was a short chapter in his life.

But he does remember how his time with the Dodgers ended. He was in bed one day when he got a call from a team official at the academy.

“I was a little scared,” Álvarez said in Spanish.

Álvarez worried that the Dodgers were going to release him, that they were going to throw him out of the academy and his baseball career outside of Cuba was about to ram into a roadblock. Then the official explained what was happening: He wasn’t being released, but he had to leave because the Dodgers traded him to Houston. Fifteen minutes later, he was in a car to the Astros’ academy two kilometers away.

“I didn't know what a trade was here,” Álvarez said. “I didn't know how that worked.”

Six years later, Álvarez is playing in his third World Series with the Astros. The 25-year-old Cuban has become one of the most feared hitters in the majors, an imposing 6-foot-5 figure resembling an NFL tight end with a rare combination of power and plate discipline.

He was named American League rookie of the year in 2019 after clubbing 27 home runs and compiling a 1.067 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 87 games. He hit 33 home runs last year and 37 homers this season, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team for the first time. The only year the Astros haven’t made the World Series since he arrived was in 2020, when Álvarez played just two games before undergoing two knee surgeries.

On Saturday, Álvarez went one for three with an RBI double, a walk and two runs scored in the Astros’ 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park.

“I compare him a lot to David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado, hitters like that,” Astros hitting coach Alex Cintrón said in Spanish. “He's a guy who isn't afraid in the big moments. He's going to come through. He's going to walk. He's going to get a hit the other way. He's a good hitter. One of the best I ever had. One of the best I've seen.”

Álvarez’s world was rocked with the trade from the Dodgers, but the transaction was a blip on the Major League Baseball landscape. It was, at the time, a minor move. The Dodgers sought bullpen help for a postseason push, so they contacted the Astros about Josh Fields, a 30-year-old right-hander with an earned-run average pushing 7.00. Fields had various suitors, but the price wouldn’t be high.

Houston slugger Yordan Álvarez, center, celebrates a home run in Game 2 of the ALDS on Oct. 13, 2022.
Houston slugger Yordan Álvarez, center, celebrates a home run in Game 2 of the ALDS. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ president of baseball operations at the time, sent a text to Farhan Zaidi, then the Dodgers’ general manager, asking whether “Y. Alvarez” was on the table, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Zaidi thought Luhnow meant Yadier Álvarez, a pitcher from Cuba they had signed for $16 million less than a year earlier. The reply was a resounding no. But Luhnow was asking about Yordan, not Yadier.

Álvarez was a 19-year-old Cuban first baseman to whom the Dodgers had given $2 million in June before the international signing period closed. He wasn’t as coveted. Deal.

“I was happy when they told me about the trade,” Álvarez said. “I knew people in West Palm [Beach, Fla.] and I knew the Astros were going to construct a complex there, so I was happy.”

It has gone down as one of the few trades the Dodgers unequivocally lost since Andrew Friedman took over the front office in 2014, but the Astros didn’t acquire Álvarez knowing they were getting a superstar.

The Astros' Yordan Álvarez watches his three-run, walk-off home run in Game 1 of the ALDS on Oct. 11, 2022.
The Astros' Yordan Álvarez watches his three-run, walk-off home run in Game 1 of the ALDS. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

At the time, Álvarez’s size was misleading. In his final season in the Cuban professional league, he mustered just one home run with a .351 batting average in 125 plate appearances. He was a giant contact hitter.

But the Astros, specifically a scout named Charlie Gonzalez, saw potential. Álvarez moved to Florida after defecting from Cuba and establishing residency in Haiti. Gonzalez, a Florida native, built a close relationship with him. The scout tried convincing Luhnow to sign Álvarez in 2016, but the team already was over its international budget and couldn’t match the Dodgers’ offer.

Six weeks later, the Dodgers asked about Fields and Luhnow asked Gonzalez what he thought. Gonzalez stumped for Álvarez again. Soon enough, the Cuban moved five minutes down the road to his new academy.

“I lived there for five or six months,” Álvarez said, “and then I left.”

Álvarez smashed his way through the minor leagues in the United States. He clubbed 12 home runs in 90 games between low A and high A in 2017. He belted 20 homers in 88 games between double A and triple A the next year. Finally, in 2019, he laid waste to triple-A pitching, batting .343 with 23 home runs in 56 games before getting the call to Houston.

“I saw him a little in spring training in 2019, but I didn't think that he was that good,” Cintrón said. “Then he [thrived] in triple A. He was at another level. His mentality. His maturity. How he controls the plate. What he does, his approach, everything. Impressive.”

Astros catcher Martín Maldonado’s evaluation of Álvarez doesn’t start with his power or mechanics. It starts with his mind.

“It's impressive watching him every day, watch the consistency, watch the preparation, listen to what he thinks, talk to him about hitting,” Maldonado said. “It's something that not everybody can do every day.”

Álvarez made his debut against the Baltimore Orioles at Minute Maid Park in 2019. Astros designated hitter Trey Mancini was playing first base for the Orioles. From there, he watched Álvarez lift a changeup down and away from Dylan Bundy the other way, over the wall in left-center field in the fourth inning for his first home run.

Mancini was stupefied. He turned to Astros first base coach Don Kelly.

“I was like, 'Who's this guy?' ” Mancini said. “He said: 'He's going to be a stud. Keep an eye on him.' And he was right, to say the least. So, I saw it from Day 1, what he can do, and he hasn't stopped.”

Álvarez carried the Astros to a three-game sweep over the Seattle Mariners in the AL Division Series with two home runs — including a walk-off, three-run home run in Game 1 — and seven RBIs. He struggled in the Astros’ next five games, going three for 18 through Game 1 of the World Series, but he remains a threat in the three hole whom the Phillies worry about.

In Game 1, for example, Philadelphia manager Rob Thomson summoned José Alvarado, the club’s best left-handed reliever, to face Álvarez with one out in the fifth inning. Álvarez popped out and finished the loss 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.

History suggested Álvarez was due for a breakthrough, and it came Saturday when he lashed a double off the left-field wall against Phillies ace Zack Wheeler in the Astros’ three-run first inning. He has proved to be too good to slump that badly for long, a reality the Dodgers wish they had envisioned six years ago.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.