I’ll start with Miguel Cabrera, baseball’s premier slugger, and Yadier Molina, arguably the game’s best catcher. Then there’s Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano and David “Big Papi” Ortiz. All these men are iconic baseball players that dominate the spotlight.
If you’re a fan of America’s Favorite Pastime, I’m sure you’ve also heard of Carlos Beltran, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Felix Hernandez. How about Adrian and Carlos Gonzalez?
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The point I’m trying to make: All the above-mentioned athletes are Hispanic superstars, and they make a lot of money. Soon to be just as important, however, are a new crop of talented young players looking to live the dream. These are the guys about to blossom, or who have already proved themselves but have yet to receive substantial monetary rewards. Here is my top 10 list of “breakout” players, although a few of them have already established that status.
1. Jose Fernandez, pitcher — Miami Marlins
The 21-year-old Cuban defector won the National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2013 hands down, and he accomplished that feat without a key family coach. It was Jose’s grandmother Olga, now 68, who taught him how to pitch back on the island. Now that she will be in the stands to watch her grandson weave his magic in person, Fernandez should be the early favorite to win the Cy Young Award.
I know the Marlins gave Fernandez a $2 million signing bonus, but owner Jeffrey Loria needs to figure out how to keep this kid financially happy. The only time fans fill up Marlins Park is when Jose is on the hill.
2. Salvador Perez, catcher — Kansas City Royals
Perez shouldn’t be concerned about being only the second-best catcher in Missouri, next to Molina in St. Louis. That’s because the 23-year-old Venezuelan is already considered one of the best receivers in the major leagues. The 6′-3″, 240 pound giant has the tools and work ethic to become the face of the Royals franchise, and he’s locked into a club-friendly contract through 2018.
I know that Salvador appreciates the financial security for his family that the Royals have delivered, and it will be a mutually rewarding investment. In my view, Perez could be the biggest superstar in Kansas City since the legendary George Brett.
3. Jose Altuve, second base — Houston Astros
Altuve is living proof that there is still a lucrative opportunity in the big leagues for the little guy. The 5′-6″, 175 pound pest from Maracay, Venezuela, is the straw that stirs the drink in Houston, but he also has some pop in his bat and can flash the leather on defense. As a result, the Astros seized the moment and extended Altuve’s contract, with team options, through 2019, making him a millionaire in small doses.
Only 24, Altuve gives the large Latino fan base in Houston its first legitimate hero since Jose Cruz, and a glimmer of hope for the future.
4. Julio Teheran, pitcher — Atlanta Braves
With a pile of Braves pitchers on the dreaded DL, Teheran, once a carefully groomed prospect, is now the guy who must help anchor the Atlanta staff. And he has done yeoman work, eating up 13 innings in his first pair of starts while recording a respectable 2.77 ERA.
Teheran, a 23-year-old native of Colombia, signed with the Braves as a lanky 16-year-old and was more than pleased to ink a six-year, $32.4 million deal in February. And although Julio won’t earn the “big bucks” for a few more years, I can assure you he feels pretty good about how his young career has progressed.
5. Everth Cabrera, shortstop — San Diego Padres
The speedy Nicaraguan sets the table for the Friars as their switch-hitting, lead-off catalyst. He also has sparkled as a skilled defender with a rocket arm, above-average range and superior footwork.
Cabrera was San Diego’s lone All-Star in 2013 before being slapped with a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Tony Bosch PED fiasco. That mess now behind him, Cabrera and the Padres avoided arbitration in January by agreeing to a one-year, $2.45 million deal. At 26 years old and in his prime, the athletic Central American could become almost as wealthy as Daniel Ortega if he puts up some good numbers this year.
6. Starling Marte, left field — Pittsburgh Pirates
The outfielder who gets all the hype in the Steel City is Andrew McCutchen, and deservedly so. But the Pirates think very highly of Marte, which is why they signed their 25-year-old speedster to a back-loaded, six-year deal just prior to opening day.
The 6′-1″, 180 pound Dominican gets things rolling for the Bucs. He stole 41 bases in 2013, with an above-average .280/.343/.441 slash line. And Marte is off to a fast start this season, hitting .318 with five games in the books.
7. Yan Gomes, catcher — Cleveland Indians
The first native of Brazil to make it to the show, the 26-year-old Gomes can play various positions on the diamond. But Indians manager Terry Francona chose to select the former University of Tennessee star as his team’s starting catcher. Good decision, since Gomes is excellent defensively behind the dish, and Carlos Santana can now save his legs, concentrate on hitting and fill a hole at third base.
Gomes is intelligent and productive as a hitter, and he has an amazing feel for the game, especially coming from a country that lives and dies with its “futbol.” The Cleveland brass recognize Yan’s talents, and were wise to present him with a $23 million extension package.
8. Yangervis Solarte, third base — New York Yankees
This 26-year-old Venezuelan struggled for several years in the Minnesota Twins organization and had some serious injury setbacks. Then, after finally showing promise in 2011, he was released.
Solarte eventually endured the same fate with the Texas Rangers, who had no use for extra infielders at the time. But after signing a minor league deal with the Yankees and playing well this spring, his luck has changed.
In his lengthy trek to the show, Solarte has learned to be versatile — he plays three infield positions plus the outfield. For now, though, skipper Joe Girardi likes him at the hot corner, and is especially pleased with his bat. The 5′-11″, 195 pound newcomer has shown gap power and currently leads all Yankees with a .471 average.
9. Juan Lagares, center field — New York Mets
After a lengthy stint in the minor leagues, Lagares made his debut in New York last season but disappointed with a slash line of .242/.281/352. He also struck out at an alarming rate and seemed to lose some confidence on the Big Apple stage. What a difference a year makes.
This spring, the 25-year-old Dominican won the center field job with his glove and his bat. While most Mets hitters have hovered around the Mendoza Line, Lagares has busted out of the gate batting .350. What’s more, his OBP has jumped to .417, which means some possible stolen bases down the road. Obviously, hard work pays off, and Juan is a happy camper.
10. Erasmo Ramirez, pitcher — Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have made plenty of improvements offensively, headed by Robinson Cano. But beyond King Felix, the team’s starting rotation is a bit unsettled. That’s why manager Lloyd McClendon is hoping the right arm of Ramirez will be his ace in the hole. The Rivas, Nicaragua, native is a home-grown Mariner who signed with the organization at age 17 and has quietly made his presence known. Now in his third year with the varsity staff, the time has come for Ramirez to step it up.
In his season debut, the stocky youngster threw a seven-inning gem. But in his second outing against the Oakland A’s, Ramirez was up in the zone and sent to an early shower. So, at least for the immediate future, Nicaragua’s national hero, Dennis Martinez, will still remain “El Presidente.”
There are plenty of additional candidates I could add to this list from all 30 teams because Latino players have become a huge part of the major league landscape, especially in the last decade.
I don’t expect this season to be any different.