My mind has been drifting lately, which isn’t unusual for an old guy like me. I’ve been thinking a lot about Gulfport, Mississippi, for a couple of reasons. My grandson, who resides there, is about to experience his first birthday. He was a St. Patrick’s Day baby born to my Mexican-American daughter and her husband, who were married in Costa Rica. Internationally speaking, the kid is off to a good start.
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Southern Mississippi is also celebrating it’s first taste of professional baseball as home to the Biloxi Shuckers, a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers that played in Huntsville, Alabama, last season. Due to the circumstances, I have a curious interest in this farm team, especially since I follow the Brew Crew and will do an up-coming preview on Yovani Gallardo’s former team for TTFB.
Unfortunately, the new stadium under construction across the street from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Biloxi won’t be ready for opening day, forcing the Shuckers to play their first 55 Southern League games on the road. That will be a challenge for Carlos Subero, 42, an iconic minor league manager who already has 15 seasons under his belt. It will also deprive local fans of getting an up-close look at Orlando Arcia, one of the Brewers most exciting prospects. The younger brother of Minnesota Twins outfielder Oswaldo Arcia, the teenage shortstop is a defensive wizard and solid contact hitter with 31 base thefts in the Florida State League last year. This season, he’s slated to play for the Shuckers and will likely hit in the leadoff spot.
The raw talent of Arcia inspired me to roll out my top 10 Latino players who have the best chance of wearing a big league uniform out of the gate this spring. I’m not talking about Cuban whippersnappers like Yoan Moncada or Roberto Baldoquin, who will need at least a year to get their heads screwed on straight. The guys on this list are ready for The Show, so here we go:
#10 — Francisco Lindor, shortstop, Cleveland Indians
Look, I know everybody says this heralded young shortstop needs a bit more seasoning. And Lindor is alright with that assumption. But I say the poised, 21-year-old Puerto Rican is experienced beyond his age and has Jeter-like smarts. Lindor has showed well this spring, and if the kid fails in his major league debut, so be it. Francisco Lindor will fill the seats in Cleveland and there’s little reason to wait any longer for the new generation to begin.
#9 — Rymer Liriano, outfielder, San Diego Padres
Liriano was the proud first graduate of the Padres plush Dominican academy. But that was eight years ago and the outfield at PETCO Park has become extremely crowded. Will A.J. Preller, the modern day Trader Jack McKeon, wrap up Liriano in a package deal for a shortstop or catcher? That would be the kind thing to do so the young man has a chance to play elsewhere.
#8 — Miguel Castro, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
This 20-year-old Dominican has quickly learned to use his long arms and 6′-5″ frame to “crack the whip” and generate a lively fastball, and he has a plus slider and change-up that add up to starting-rotation potential. The fact that Castro isn’t quite ready for that role yet doesn’t matter. The youngster deserves to be promoted because he’s the best pitcher available on the Jays farm. Let him learn on the fly as a long guy in the pen. Sometimes it’s better to learn from real big league coaches and players when one’s talent merely needs fine tuning.
#7 — Dariel Alvarez, outfielder, Baltimore Orioles
The O’s brass is high on this Camaguey native who spent six seasons as a pro in Cuba. After receiving numerous minor league honors and having a strong partial season in Norfolk last season, it’s time for Alvarez to shine.
#6 — Raisel Iglesias, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
The thinly built Cuban signed with the Reds last June on seven-year deal worth $27 million, but he has had little exposure outside the team’s Goodyear, Arizona, training complex. The fact remains though, that the soon-to-be 25-year-old has shown flashes of brilliance this spring with a sizzling fastball and sharp slider. I also like this player’s vibrant personality and confidence. He’s good and he knows it. I think the Reds will make sure Iglesias stays with the varsity and learns the ropes from countryman Aroldis Chapman.
#5 — Luis Sardinas, middle infielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Blocking the path of Orlando Arcia is this former Texas Rangers backup, who was a key piece in the Yovani Gallardo deal. The lanky Sardinas, 20, is battling for a roster spot and has minor league options left. But his versatility and switch-hitting abilities are attractive pluses for the Brewers to consider.
#4 — Hernan Perez, infielder, Detroit Tigers
This is a kid who has had three cups of coffee with the Tigers and still enjoys rookie status. But Perez has shown he can handle the bat this spring, and the 24-year-old Venezuelan has a good assortment of gloves in his bag.
#3 — Jorge Soler, outfielder, Chicago Cubs
With all the fuss lately, Soler has almost become the forgotten future Cuban star. But General Manager Theo Epstein still has a fresh memory of Soler’s $30 million contract, and the 6′-4″, 225 pound stallion has been prancing on the field like a prized thoroughbred. Truly a five-tool performer, Soler still takes a huge hack at the plate but is starting to refine his abilities.
#2 — Christian Bethancourt, catcher, Atlanta Braves
The 23-year-old Panama City native has been brought along slowly by the Braves, and he had a solid 2014 season in Gwinnett. After six years on the farm, it’s time for Bethancourt to remove the training wheels and ride solo. And fans in Atlanta hope there won’t be too many casualties.
#1 — Yasmany Tomas, TBD, Arizona Diamondbacks
The D-backs shocked many baseball insiders by swooping in from afar to sign Tomas, committing to a $68.5 million package that was probably a bit overpriced. Needless to say, the front office would look foolish if the 24-year-old Cuban didn’t make the team. There’s no question that Tomas can knock the cover off the ball. The bad news is that Arizona plays in the National League and the Snakes will be forced to find a spot to “hide” this guy defensively.
Whether or not any of these top 10 Latino players break camp with the varsity is basically irrelevant. Everyone except Alvarez and Castro are on their organization’s 40-man roster and are already in the big leagues. But for guys still clawing their way to the top, the competition on the farm is fierce. That’s why minor league baseball is so fun to watch. It’s definitely a blast to see these players battle and be so close to the action at intimate venues. I know a lot of folks who earmark entire weekends and travel to nearby towns to support their teams, simply because it’s good baseball and an affordable family outing. And believe me, these young athletes who are a long way from home appreciate the cheers of the crowd.
You can bet that I plan to check out a few Shuckers games this season, wherever they might be playing. I already own a team cap and a couple of t-shirts. Maybe next year I’ll even take that grandson of mine to Biloxi’s brand new MGM Park. He’s already walking, so in another 12 months, I expect him to be swinging a plastic bat and making some contact. That’s when I’ll know he’s ready.