SAN ANTONIO, TX – Missing a full season recovering from Tommy John surgery is tough on any player, but for Padres’ outfield prospect Rymer Liriano, 23, it was especially difficult.
"After I finished playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, I started to play in the Dominican Winter League too but San Diego said maybe I should take a break or a vacation," Liriano said during a break before a recent game in AA San Antonio.
"But you know for me a vacation is I go to the gym, run sprints and then go to the cage and hit."
At six feet and a very solid 230 lbs. Liriano has constantly been pushing the envelope since he signed with San Diego in 2009 at 18. He represents the type of player that Padres’ fans have dreamed about, the elusive "five-tool player"; who can run, throw, field, hit and hit for power.
In the Rookie Level Arizona League at 18, he hit .350 with a .921 OPS in his first professional season. In 2011 at 20, he stole 65 bases to go along with 50 extra-base hits in Low-A Fort Wayne and hit .314/.404/.430 in August for AA San Antonio the next season.
Liriano seemed to be about half a year away from the big leagues in San Diego before getting injured. During one of his "vacations" that winter Rymer was throwing with his brother when he heard a pop in his arm as he was about to go in after playing catch.
"I couldn’t feel my fingers and got really scared."
"I called up the Padres’ trainer in the Dominican and he told me to rest it for a while but after a couple of months I still couldn’t throw without pain. I came back to San Diego and had an MRI and then we decided to do surgery."
The Tommy John procedure can loosely be described as a type of elbow reconstruction which usually occurs with pitchers but can also effect position players. It was five months before Liriano was even allowed to throw a ball.
"The trainer said I recovered pretty quickly, but for me it was too slow."
"I would go in the cage and start swinging the bat with one hand. I wanted to play so bad."
Many scouts and baseball executives believe that minor league players need at least 1,500 plate appearances before a player is ready for the big leagues. For Dominican natives like Liriano, many frequently need more. As his former manager in Fort Wayne, Shawn Wooten, noted in an interview in 2011, many of the kids from the Dominican Republic have played a lot of baseball, just not a lot of organized baseball. Their development time can take longer particularly when compared to talented American high school players that can sometimes play over 100 games between a high school season and travel ball.
Liriano came back this spring and got off to his typical slow start with the Missions, hitting .220, which actually was a good number for him considering that he had a batting average of less than .200 in April of each of his previous three seasons for the various Padres’ minor league affiliates.
"Rymer can just put too much pressure on himself early in the season," said Randy Smith, the Padres Director of Minor League Development and International Scouting.
"It’s always just a question of getting him to relax and letting his talent take over."
And Rymer has been letting his talent take over in May. His batting average has increased by 60 points and he is hitting .344/.409/.604 through Memorial Day and tied for second in the organization with 10 home runs.
"He is an aggressive hitter and generates some incredible bat speed," said Francisco Morales, the Missions’ hitting coach.
"The more he stays under control, specifically when he doesn’t jerk his head which can make the ball appear that it is moving more than it actually is, the better for him."
Additionally, with the injury to center fielder Travis Jankowski, Liriano has also been seeing time in center field in addition to right and left.
"It doesn’t matter to me where I play, I love playing all the positions," Liriano said on his defensive preferences.
"My arm feels great, as strong as before, but right now the most important thing is to just play. I need to be playing."
Before the season, Smith also stated that while Liriano’s injury was unfortunate, it also helped him to mature. In the past, every strikeout, or for a while every bad called strike, could lead to big attitude swings that could sometimes affect his next at-bat or his play in the field.
Every professional baseball player will tell you that because of the long seasons a player must strive to keep an even temperament or the game will eat you alive; a concept that Liriano has now fully embraced.
"If I strike out or don’t do something right, I know I’m going to get another chance."
Liriano, who taught himself English by watching American action movies laughed as he expanded on his new approach.
"You know, it’s like what Arnold Schwarzenegger says in that movie, ‘I’ll be back.’"
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