Just a couple of weeks ago, Salvador Perez celebrated his major-league debut with the Kansas City Royals by camping under five pop ups and picking off two runners — as a catcher. Meanwhile in New York, 21-year-old Ruben Tejada is the main reason why it wouldn’t mean the end of the world if the Mets didn’t resign Jose Reyes. The slick fielding youngster from Panama, who once played for his country in the Little League World Series, has proven to be the real deal and could save his financially troubled team millions of dollars by taking over the daily duties at shortstop.
As we all know, the Royals and Mets are going nowhere again this season. But Perez and Tejada are among the new era of Hispanic youngsters earmarked for future prosperity. So with the “dog days” of September fast approaching, it’s time to check out some of the top prospects waiting in the wings for the contending teams. And more importantly, we should identify the young, established Latino leaders who will need to clutch up if their respective clubs are going to make the playoffs.
There’s no doubt that the “Brew Crew” can hit, and the bullpen is rock solid. But do they have enough starting pitching to win in the post season?
On the rise: Wily Peralta. The 22-year-old Dominican pitcher has been dominate since his promotion to triple-A Nashville.
Pivotal player: Yovani Gallardo. The 25-year-old Mexican is having another steady season and most certainly will break his career record of 14 wins. But Gallardo’s durability is a valid concern for the Brewers, who desperately need him for the stretch run. And if Milwaukee makes it to the World Series, Yovani will be a factor as one of baseball’s best-hitting pitchers.
St. Louis Cardinals
Albert Pujols, as great as he is, will need help if the fading Red Birds are to extend their season.
On the rise: Eduardo Sanchez. The Venezuelan rookie can actually help the Cardinals now if he recovers soon from a shoulder strain. Before going on the DL, he was a successful set-up guy for Fernando Salas.
Pivotal player: Jaime Garcia. Like Gallardo with the Brewers, Garcia is a key starting pitcher who has a history of health issues. But the Mexican southpaw loves to compete and has turned into a big-game hurler.
On the rise: Carlos Hernandez. The Phillies love Hernandez, their 21-year-old middle infielder, and carry him on their 40-man roster. The switch-hitting Venezuelan only made it to high-A ball this season, but is maturing rapidly and has caught the eye of GM Ruben Amaro, Jr.
Pivotal player: Antonio Bastardo. If Philadelphia has any weakness at all, it’s probably the bullpen. Bastardo is the designated lefty guy who can set up or close. And while the Dominican is having an excellent season, he can go through periods of wildness. Antonio will be worth his weight in gold if the Phillies go all the way and have to face the Yankees or the Red Sox and a dangerous left handed lineup.
The Braves may not catch the Phillies, but they are virtually assured a wild-card spot. And they will be a pesky postseason opponent.
Pivotal player: Martin Prado. He’s no kid at age 27, but Prado’s best years may still be ahead. At the plate, on the field and in the dugout, Martin is “Mr. Everything” for the Braves.
Nobody expected this team of castoffs to be even dreaming about the playoffs. But strange things happen in the wacky National League West.
On the rise: Yonata Ortega. By far, the best Hispanic youngster on the Arizona farm. The big Dominican right-hander has good strikeout numbers, but is still considered a “thrower” who needs more seasoning.
Pivotal player: Gerardo Parra. Without question, the 25-year-old Venezuelan will be a major cog in the machine if the Diamondbacks hope to stay in the race. A potential five-tool player, Parra needs to mature in a hurry. Arizona also needs the power and stability of young “veteran” Miguel Montero, a first-time All-Star this season.
San Francisco Giants
The defending champs were faced with the daunting task early on of coping without Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez. They were able to address some of those issues at the trade deadline by trading for Carlos Delgado and Orlando Cabrera. But both of those veterans have spent time on the shelf as well.
On the rise: Francisco Peguero. The 23-year-old Dominican can do it all and played in last year’s Futures Game. This season, however, he’s been hampered by a knee injury and inconsistent play.
Pivotal player: Pablo Sandoval. The popular “Panda” has provided the punch to keep the Giants above water, but he can’t carry the entire offense on his shoulders. GM Brian Sabean is kicking himself for letting Jesus Guzman get away.
New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers are lighting up the scoreboard as usual, and lead the world in home runs. But the question mark remains the starting pitching, and that enigma will determine how far they get in October.
On the rise: Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances. One is a slim, crafty lefty. The other is a foot taller and has been clocked in the high 90s. They are also home grown, the best of friends and future Yankee stars.
Pivotal player: Ivan Nova. New York’s starting rotation is a mess, and they are leaning heavily on the Dominican right-hander, only 24, to live up to his potential and stop the bleeding. So far, he hasn’t disappointed.
Boston Red Sox
It’s ironic how Boston mirrors New York in so many areas. The two teams will continue to slug it out in a heavyweight bout that will come down to the final game of the season. Then all that’s left will be bragging rights.
On the rise: Felix Doubront. The Red Sox see this kid as a left-handed Pedro Martinez. Same build and electric stuff. But the 24-year-old Venezuelan has a delicate elbow and his innings have been limited this season.
Pivotal player: Adrian Gonzalez. Like Prado from the Braves, Gonzalez is a young veteran who has already attained superstar status. When the 29-year-old Mexican is hot, the whole lineup responds in unison. When he’s not, the offense seems to struggle.
The Indians boast some of the best young Latino talent in the “show,” and they love playing for their Dominican-born manager Manny Acta.
On the rise: Kelvin De La Cruz. Like fellow pitching prospect Hector Rendon, the 24-year-old De La Cruz has had elbow issues. But at least he threw well this season in minimal work, and he’s a southpaw, which always creates front-office interest.
Manager Jim Leyland’s job hinges on Detroit’s success. Beyond Justin Verlander, the pitching is average at best and so is the defense. The Tigers will have to keep scoring a lot of runs.
Pivotal player: Miguel Cabrera. The 28-year-old slugger has overcome personal issues to become arguably the best Hispanic player in the major leagues. To say that the big Venezuelan is the heart and soul of the Tigers would be an understatement.
The Rangers are solid in every department and starting to run away and hide. And it’s my guess that President Bush will be driving that golf cart again in Arlington come October.
On the rise: Martin Perez. Texas has a good one in this 20-year-old left-hander. Perez is still a bit green, but the Venezuelan has unlimited potential.
Pivotal player: Elvis Andrus. As good as he is in the field, Andrus is the table-setter for the potent Rangers offense. His OBP is decent, and Texas needs this kid to keep using his speed to distract opposing pitchers.
Los Angeles Angels
Time is running out for Artie Moreno’s team, proving that $142 million still isn’t enough to buy the American League West.
On the rise: Jean Segura. Although he’s struggled with injuries, the Angels dream of Segura as a double-play partner with Erick Aybar for years to come. And although he’ll never be as good as Robinson Cano, this second baseman can mash.
Pivotal player: Erick Aybar. The Dominican shortstop is key for the Angels, both defensively and at the plate. But unlike rival Texas, the group from Anaheim is offensively challenged. And that makes Aybar’s job more complicated.
Hopefully, I didn’t offend anyone by not including the Chicago White Sox, who are still hanging around and probably deserve to be on my list. But only eight of the mentioned teams will be playing in October and four will be from the East Coast, including both wildcard berths. At the end of the day, I like the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians and Rangers in the American League, and the Phillies, Braves, Brewers and Giants in the other circuit.
As for the participants in the Fall Classic itself, lets see how it all plays out. But one thing for certain is that there will be plenty of young Latino stars performing on center stage.