Latin Link: Theo Epstein stockpiling Latino flair down on the farm
When the Chicago Cubs acquired right-handed pitcher Hector Rondon as the second pick in the Rule 5 draft last week in Nashville, Tenn., it wasn’t exactly earth-shaking news, even in the Windy City. Fans were obviously more excited about the free-agent signings of Kyuji Fujikawa and Scott Feldman. But in reaching out for Rondon, a Venezuelan who had some success with the Cleveland Indians despite a tender elbow, Cubs president Theo Epstein appeared to be establishing a pattern: The organization is stockpiling young Latino players.
When you examine Chicago’s top five prospects, what grabs your attention is four of them are Hispanic athletes. Middle infielder Javier Baez, the Cubs most prized possession, was already in the system when Epstein came to town in October of 2011. In last year’s amateur draft, however, Theo was on cue when he selected Cuban-American prep star Albert Almora in the first round. A flashy outfielder with extensive international experience, Almora, 18, and the Puerto Rico-born Baez, 20, are the faces of Chicago’s future. They are bright, hard-working kids with multiple God-given skills.
The Cubs were also relentless in their pursuit of Jorge Soler, a 20-year-old Cuban defector, and inked him last June to an enormous, nine-year contract worth $30 million. The Havana native, who reminds the Wrigley Field faithful of a young Sammy Sosa, has no timetable for breaking into the major leagues, according to Epstein. But I predict that the 6′-3″, 210-pound powerhouse will be hitting monster shots on Waveland Avenue sooner rather than later.
Prior to last spring, Chicago also signed highly regarded left-handed pitcher Gerardo Concepcion, another Cuban who abandoned Fidel Castro’s national team during a tournament in Holland. Concepcion, now 20, agreed to a $7 million deal, and the 6′-2″, 180-pound string bean was expected to debut at the triple-A level. Stressing patience, Epstein instead placed his bonus baby in the lower minor leagues, only to see him get knocked and rocked over several starts. It was later discovered that Concepcion had mononucleosis and was immediately shut down for the season. Reinstated off the DL in October, Gerardo has been throwing on the side and trying to increase his weight and stamina with good results. Honestly, this kid is just too good to be a bust, and I expect him to bounce back strong next year.
One month after coming to terms with Soler, Epstein engineered a trade with the Atlanta Braves for 22-year-old power pitcher Arodys Vizcaino. It was a risky move since Vizcaino, like Rondon, had elbow problems and was recovering from Tommy John reconstructive surgery. But the Dominican right hander is now healthy as a horse, and is expected to challenge for a rotation spot when the Cubs go to spring camp in Arizona. Then, before the trading deadline last season, Theo dealt for Christian Villanueva, 21, a highly regarded Texas Rangers prospect who is playing third base this winter in the Mexican Pacific League.
Epstein knows that signing players like Fujikawa and Feldman are necessary to keep a team competitive, a feat the Cubs haven’t accomplished in recent memory. But he considers excessive spending for aging free agents a “fool’s errand,” preferring to build around youth like his intriguing Latino flock.
“Baez took a big step forward last season, but we’re not going to take shortcuts with any of these guys,” reveals Theo. “It’s not a question of talent. We just want them to develop and get the proper instruction.”
The Cubs have a typical big league club with a 40-man roster that is about 30 percent Hispanic. But as this group of young Cubs mature and are assigned a locker in the friendly confines of Wrigley, they’ll feed off the success of All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, who is only 20 years old himself.
That could be special.