Cuban pitcher Yoan Lopez impresses early in D-backs camp
SCOTTSDALE — A few minutes into his first bullpen session of the spring, Cuban right-hander Yoan Lopez threw a particularly nasty slider that broke over the outside edge of the plate.
"Wow,” catcher Blake Lalli said quietly as he pulled the ball in, more to himself than anyone else.
You had to have been standing within 10 feet of Lalli to have heard that, but his was hardly the only positive review. Lopez, 22, said later that he has every intention of leaving spring training with a spot in the Diamondbacks’ starting rotation, and that claim hardly seemed far-fetched at first glance.
"This young man has the frame. He has a delivery. Today, I think we were all probably more impressed with his command," said D-backs chief baseball officer Tony La Russa. "Breaking balls were down. I didn’t see him hang anything hardly. His fastball had life downstairs. Things that you look for."
Then there was his demeanor.
"Here is having his first big league throw, and I didn’t see a guy who had any kind of fear. I thought he was impressive," La Russa said.
Lopez threw all of his four pitches — a fastball, slider curveball, changeup — in his first session. His fastball sits in the 95-mph range, and while there was no radar gun in place Friday, he appeared to be throwing that hard.
The D-backs’ already have $8.25 million reasons to believe Lopez will be in the majors in the near future — if not when camp breaks, then very shortly thereafter. His bonus was a major league record for an international amateur, and the D-backs also will have to pay another $8 million in taxes to major league baseball for exceeding their international signing pool.
La Russa, general manager Dave Stewart and many of the D-backs’ top brass watched Lopez’s session. It is nothing new. He is used to an audience, from his days in the top Cuban league and to the showcase events held prior to signing with the D-backs on Jan. 16. Lopez arrived in the United States, eager for the challenge.
"I came from Cuba with one purpose, to reach the big leagues, and I’m sure that I will be there," Lopez said through interpreter Hatuey Mendoza, the D-backs’ liaison to Latin America.
"Pronto. Muy pronto," Lopez said.
He will have plenty of competition. Josh Collmenter and Jeremy Hellickson were the only apparent locks for spots in the starting rotation as camp opened. Holdovers Chase Anderson, Vidal Nuno, Trevor Cahill, Daniel Hudson, Randall Delgado and Andrew Chafin, plus newcomers Rubby De La Rosa, Robbie Ray and Alan Webster, are in the mix, some more likely than others. Top prospects Archie Bradley, Aaron Blair and Braden Shipley are knocking on the door.
"I trust in myself a lot," Lopez said. "I know what I am capable of bringing out there on the field, and that’s exactly what I am going for. I’m going to do the best that I can to try to win one of those spots. That is what I am here for."
Among the reasons Lopez signed with the D-backs over other reported suitors, including San Diego and San Francisco, was because of the opportunity for a quick rise, he said.
Lopez and his father left Cuba for the Dominican Republic in December 2013, and he later established residency in Haiti. Lopez signed soon after he was cleared by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets, which no longer has anything to say about Cuban players.
"It was a hard transition, but I’d rather keep that in my heart," Lopez said.
Lopez, a solid 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, last pitched in Cuba’s Serie Nacional in 2013, making seven starts with a 3.12 ERA in 47 innings before leaving the country in midseason. He logged 230 innings in his two-plus seasons in Serie Nacional, but has no doubt more work would not be an issue.
"My body can fool people. I am very skinny, but I am a hard worker," he said. "I don’t think it would be a problem to go 200 innings this year."
Oddly, Lopez may know as much about the D-backs as the casual fan. When Lopez was younger, some of his friends worked in the Cuban hotel industry. They had internet access and were able to download information, pictures and statistics on the D-backs. Lopez followed Randy Johnson, who was in the D-backs’ camp yesterday, and the two shared a few words.
"It was actually my favorite team," Lopez said.
"This is a dream that came true."