A new generation of young and exciting MLB players is drawing the attention back on Puerto Rico.
Five years ago, the names of Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Edwin “Sugar” Diaz didn’t ring a bell to most baseball fans but now they are quickly establishing themselves as elite ballplayers by headlining highlights, Google searches, and drawing large crowds.
They were earning close to a million dollars but going into free-agency they are expected to obtain multi-million dollar deals. And none of these players are over the age of 26.
Puerto Rico has also gained recognition as a baseball powerhouse after earning back to back second place trophies in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). The Puerto Rico National Team finished second in 2013 behind the Dominican Republic and then placed second behind Team USA in 2017.
The boricuas as Puerto Ricans are also referred to, have not only excelled in the Majors in batting and pitching but with their dugout strategy and decision making as well. Rookie manager Alex Cora led the Boston Red Sox to a World Series victory in 2018 with a franchise record of 108 wins.
“After winning all those games and then going on to practically sweep everyone in the post season to win the World Series, what else can you ask of a rookie manager?,” said Puerto Rican Baseball Commentator Raymond Perez.
Noting that Cora, a former pro infielder, is the second Puerto Rican to manage a MLB team; Perez believes that in order for Cora to be successful, he has to lead Boston into the World Series again since the team is even better than last season.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, who played for the San Francisco Giants and the Saint Louis Cardinals, were the first Puerto Rican MLB players to acquire superstar status.
During the 90’s and beyond, ex players like Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, who was inducted this year into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his final year on the ballot; as well as Carlos Delgado, Juan Gonzalez, and Carlos Beltran, among others were huge stars. However, that generation faded away and for years Puerto Rico lacked baseball idols until this new crop of players appeared and demonstrated their talent right from the start.
Most fans agree that one of MLB’s future stars will be Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs. Baez is a 26-year-old utility infielder who led the National League in runs batted in last season with 111 and belted away 34 home runs with a .290 batting average, coming in a close second for the league’s MVP award in only his third full season in the Majors.
Javier, known as “El Mago” for his fielding abilities at second base, shortstop and third base; was a key player in the Cubs’ race to the 2016 World Series.
“Baez exploded and had his big season in 2018,” said Norman Davila, a Puerto Rican veteran radio sports broadcaster. “He is currently one of the most exciting players in the MLB, his base running is spectacular and he plays at a high risk mode all the time.”
Defensively Perez compares Baez to ex major leaguers Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles and Roberto Alomar of the Toronto Blue Jays, who were players that set new standards in the game and made dazzling plays.
“The only difference is that Javier does it at three different positions,” said Perez. “He is a smart player with baseball savvy.”
Baez started at second base during last year’s All Star Game and earned a $2.5 million signing bonus as a promising teenager in 2011, while earning a salary of $657,000 last season. But this year Baez was eligible for arbitration and signed a $5.2 million, one-year deal for the 2019 season. In 2022 he will be a free agent and if healthy is expected to sign a multi-year, multimillion dollar contract.
Edwin “Sugar” Diaz, a 25-year-old tall, lanky native of Naguabo established himself as an elite closer in 2018. He was named National League Relief Pitcher of the Year during his third season in the MLB. Diaz led the league with 57 saves, five games short of the all-time record of 62 in a single season achieved by Venezuelan pitcher Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels in 2008, who also had a 1.90 earned run average, and 124 strikeouts.
“Edwin has a strong fastball of over 100 mph and a great slider, he gets a lot of strikeouts and when he has good control it’s almost impossible to hit his pitches,” Davila said. “He also has the temperament of a closer which is something not every great pitcher has because you take the mound in the ninth inning when the game is on the line and either save it or lose it.”
In December 2018, Diaz was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Mets where “he will now have the backing of a large Latino community and more pressure to deliver,” Perez said. The Mets will pay him $570,800 – the same contract he had with the Mariners, which many consider low for such a solid performer.
Diaz will qualify for arbitration at the end of the 2019 season which will possibly ascend him straight into the millionaire’s club and if Diaz stays healthy, the bigger salary will arrive when he becomes a free agent in 2022.
Cleveland’s shortstop Francisco Lindor, nicknamed “Mr. Smile,” is in his fifth season and he came in strong from the start, as the runner up for the American League (AL) Rookie of the Year honor to Carlos Correa in 2015. Last year, he hit 38 home runs (ranking sixth in the AL) and had 92 RBI’s with a .277 batting average. Lindor has been a starting All Star Game shortstop for the AL in the last three years. In 2016, he won the Gold and Platinum Glove awards as best defensive shortstop.
Lindor earned $623,200 in 2018 but to avoid arbitration with the Indians he was awarded a $10.5 million, one year deal in 2019. He will be a free agent in 2022 and is expected to sign a multi-year, multimillion dollar contract. According to news reports, Lindor rejected a contract extension of somewhere near the amount of $100 million in early 2017.
Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa has also delivered impressive performances since setting foot in a MLB stadium. He began his career in 2015 winning the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award and helped lead the Astros to a World Series title in 2017. In that season he batted .315 with 24 homers and shined defensively. In 2018 however, he was plagued by injuries and his performance went down as he batted for a career low .239 average.
Puerto Rico did not have a great starting pitcher for quite a while but now there is a rising star looking to fill that position – Jose Berrios of the Minnesota Twins.
Berrios, the 6 foot, 185 pound right handed rookie; won a spot among the Twin’s starting rotation in 2016 and has had quality performances in his second and third year. Last season he had a 12-11 record with a .384 earned run average (less than 4 runs allowed per complete games) and was voted to the All-Star Game roster for the AL. “He has a great 95 mph fastball and has been the best starter for the Twins organization,” Perez said.
Besides the aforementioned young talent, there are veteran players who still have a big impact in the game. Puerto Rico’s main major leaguer right now is St. Louis Cardinals Catcher Yadier Molina, who is playing in his sixteenth season behind the plate and recently won his ninth Gold Glove Award. Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez are the only other catchers in MLB history who have won 10 and 13 Gold Gloves, respectively.
Molina earns a cool $20 million a year and is in his second year of a three-year contract extension for $60 million. He has said he plans to retire after the contract ends in 2020. “Yadier keeps playing at a very high level,” said Davila. “He is a fierce competitor and wherever he plays, he is a leader on and off the field, and that includes the Puerto Rico team in the WBC. He will be missed on that team.”
So, keep an eye on all of these young stars from Puerto Rico because they are bound to make headlines for quite a while in their MLB careers. And watch out for Team Puerto Rico in the 2021 WBC because these stars will be reaching their peak and might just take home the championship title next time.