By Hiram Alberto Torraca
Hurricane María notwithstanding, 2017 was a vintage year for Puerto Rican baseball.
It started in January when Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez was elected to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. In February, the Criollos de Caguas won the Caribbean Series, Puerto Rico’s first title in this revered regional tournament since 2000.
The party continued unabated in March, when #LosRubios captivated all of Borinquen by charging undefeated through the first two rounds of the World Baseball Classic. They knocked off the United States, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands and Venezuela (twice) before losing to Team USA in a finals rematch.
Midway through the major league season, shortstops Carlos Correa (Astros) and Francisco Lindor (Indians) were named All-Stars. In the stretch run of the campaign, closer Edwin Díaz (Mariners), infielder Javy Báez (Cubs), catcher Christian Vázquez (Red Sox), outfielder Enrique “Kiké” Hernández (Dodgers) and leftfielder Eddie Rosario and pitcher José Berríos (Twins) all took star turns, showing the breadth of young talent to come out of the island in recent years.
To conclude a glorious year of pelota, Correa, Carlos Beltrán, and the Astros won the World Series. Angels catcher Martín “Machete” Maldonado kept alive a 30-year streak in which at least one Puerto Rican player has taken home a Gold Glove. And the Red Sox hired Álex Cora as their skipper, while the Nationals opted for Nuyorican Dave Martínez.
With four Hall of Famers, two managers and a bevy of current stars, Puerto Rico sets a high bar in the game. But don’t think for a moment that the pipeline is going dry. Here’s the new wave, five more promising boricuas to watch in 2018.
C Víctor Caratini, Chicago Cubs
Born August 17, 1993, in Coamo, Puerto Rico
A third baseman turned backstop who can switch hit and play several positions, Caratini is the kind of versatile talent that manager Joe Maddon covets. Last season, he hit .342 with 10 home runs, 27 doubles and 61 RBI in 83 games with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, earning invites to the Triple-A All-Star Game and the All-Star Futures Game, which pits the best minor leaguers in a USA vs. the World format.
A midseason call-up after trades left starting catcher Willson Contreras without a backup, Caratini debuted on June 28 and ended up playing 31 games with the Cubs. He hit .254 with three doubles, one home run and two RBI.
But everybody likes this kid’s potential. Caratini, 24, has the physique of a future slugger. He stands 6-foot-1 and weighs a solidly-packed 215 pounds. Baseball America ranks Caratini as the Cubs’ fourth-best prospect, labeling him the best hitter for average. Just remember, to play catcher in the land of Pudge and Yadier Molina, you better be good.
RHP José de León, Tampa Bay Rays
Born August 7, 1992, in Isabela, Puerto Rico
The Dodgers’ 24th-round pick in 2013 out of Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana, de León quickly moved up in the minors, thanks to a lethal changeup and great control. A trade to the Rays and three different minor injuries last season have temporarily halted his climb. But de León already elicits comparisons with countryman Javier Vázquez, another righty who pitched 14 seasons in the majors, going 165-160 with 2,536 strikeouts.
Six-foot-1 and 220 pounds, de León has the body and swagger of a strikeout artist. He proved it in the minors, whiffing 490 batters and walking only 115 in 369.0 innings — a sizzling 12.0 K/9.
De León, 25, debuted with the Dodgers on Sept. 4, 2016, striking out 15 in 17 innings and earning two wins. He only pitched once in 2017 for the Rays, picking up another win despite allowing four hits and three runs in 2.2 innings. Now, after a winter of healing and recovery, he’s expected to battle for a spot in the Rays’ starting rotation this spring.
RHP Joe Jiménez, Detroit Tigers
Born January 17, 1995, in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Six-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Jiménez is tall, wide and throws pure heat, occasionally touching 100 mph. Since he’s been one of the most consistent relievers in the minors the past five seasons, the Tigers are hoping that soon he’ll be a right-handed version of Willie Hernández, the legendary closer from Aguada who led Detroit to the World Series title in 1984 while winning the MVP and Cy Young awards.
Despite his young age, the 23-year-old Jiménez has already racked up impressive credentials. He has been selected to two All-Star Futures Games and pitched in the World Baseball Classic. His minor league stats are off the charts: 15-7 with a 1.56 ERA and 56 saves. The metrics back up any eye test. Jiménez struck out 241 in 167.1 innings for an eye-popping 13.0 K/9 and 0.908 WHIP.
The challenge now for Jiménez is to erase from memory last season’s up-and-down major league debut. Jiménez was called up early, on April 13, but never found his rhythm over the course of the summer. He gave up too many hits and got into trouble too often, despite notching 17 strikeouts in 19.0 innings. Once he figures out a secondary pitch to keep batters off-balance, Jiménez could well revive the echoes of a summer long ago.
1B/3B/OF Edwin Ríos, Los Angeles Dodgers
Born April 21,1994, in Caguas, Puerto Rico
This kid is no fluke. The Dodgers’ 2016 Minor League Player of the Year after jumping three levels, Ríos responded last season with another sterling season. He hit .309 with 24 home runs and 91 RBI with the Double-A Tulsa Drillers and the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers.
Like almost every other prospect these days, he’s big and strong, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound left-handed slugger with the goods to become Puerto Rico’s next star hitter.
The big question is where should he play, especially given all the young All-Stars already on the Dodgers’ roster? Signed out of Florida International University as a first baseman after being drafted in the sixth round in 2015, Ríos has played a lot of third base and has also spent time in the outfield.
But right now, he’s not displacing first baseman Cody Bellinger, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year. Or third sacker Justin Turner, who sports a bigger and thicker beard and hit .322 last season.
If Ríos, 23, masters the outfield and continues hitting, there’s a reasonable chance the Dodgers will make room for him. He already got the invite to spring training. That’s a good start. He just better ensure that he’s the not the target of any of Yasiel Puig’s pranks.
OF Noel Cuevas, Colorado Rockies
Born October 2, 1991, in Camuy, Puerto Rico
Considered a five-tool player, the 26-year-old Cuevas has lingered in the minors since the Dodgers drafted him in the 21st round in 2010.
But thanks to a breakout season with the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes that earned him an invite to the Triple-A All-Star Game, the right-handed Cuevas may finally be ready for the Big Show. In fact, after hitting .312 with 12 triples, 15 home runs, 17 doubles, 79 RBI and 79 runs last summer in the Pacific Coast League, his current team, the Rockies, promoted him to the 40-man roster.
Cuevas, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, also has legs. He’s stolen 30-plus bases three times in the minors. He plays all three outfield positions. The Rockies will certainly give him a good look. You know the saying — better late than never.
Featured Image: Joe Robbins / Getty Images Sport