D-backs relievers Salas, De La Rosa first pair of Mexican teammates since ’04

PHOENIX — On Opening Day last month, 750 players began the season on an active roster in Major League Baseball. Among them, only 10 native Mexicans started the 2018 season in such a position.

The Diamondbacks boast two of those in their bullpen: left-hander Jorge De La Rosa and right-hander Fernando Salas.

The veteran relievers are the first pair of Mexican teammates to play for the Diamondbacks since 2004, when Arizona briefly retained right-handers Edgar González and Elmer Dessens. Dessens was traded that season to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Statistics suggest this a rare feat.

Last year, 42.3 percent of active players in MLB were minorities, according to data from MLB’s 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card. Latino players accounted for 31.9 percent of the league. Although those figures are an encouraging sign suggesting improved diversity within baseball, it’s noteworthy that last season only 1 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were Mexican.

This makes it particularly uncommon for Mexican players to be teammates. For both De La Rosa and Salas, this makes playing together all the more meaningful.

“It’s really fun because I knew Jorge before here,” Salas said. “He’s helped me because he knows how everything goes.”

“This is the first time I’ve played with a Mexican player in the big leagues,” De La Rosa said. “I’m really excited to have one, specifically Fernando, because of the kind of person he is. I think it’s an honor for me to play with him.”

De La Rosa, who hails from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, is a 15-year MLB veteran. At 37, he’s the oldest Mexican player currently on a major league roster. He debuted in the majors during the 2004 season, with the Milwaukee Brewers.

He was originally signed as an amateur free agent by Arizona in 1998, but the Monterrey Sultanes of the Mexican Baseball League purchased his contract in 1999. The Boston Red Sox purchased De La Rosa from Monterrey before the 2001 season. He has since appeared in the big leagues with the Brewers, Royals, Rockies and Diamondbacks.

Being back with the organization that initially selected him is special for De La Rosa. He said that Arizona’s performance last season, when the club reached the National League Division Series, made his decision even easier.

“That’s why I decided to come here and play one more year with this team,” De La Rosa said. “I’m really happy so far. I think we’re going to be in a good place this year and we’re going to do really good things this year.”

Salas, 32, was also encouraged by the success Arizona amassed last season. He is also excited about playing with the Diamondbacks because of the team’s connection to his hometown of Huatabampo, Sonora, Mexico.

“It’s really good because a lot of people in Mexico follow this team because it’s near the border,” Salas said.

Salas began his professional career in the Mexico Baseball League, pitching for the Saltillo Saraperos as a 20-year-old. The St. Louis Cardinals purchased Salas’ contract in 2007, and he debuted for the major-league club in 2010. He’s also appeared for the Los Angeles Angels and New York Mets.

This offseason, Salas signed a minor-league contract with the Diamondbacks and managed to crack the big-league roster. After up-and-down stints with the Mets and Angels, he said he’s really enjoyed his time with Arizona so far.

“I feel really comfortable here,” Salas said, “because this team and Mexico and my state — this is the team for my state in Mexico because it’s really close.”

Although both De La Rosa and Salas are beyond their primes at this point in their careers, they take pride in their current situation. Arizona presents each an opportunity to play as close to home as they possibly could in the major leagues. To boot, the Diamondbacks feature a strong Mexican following that is often present during games.

“Now I play here in this stadium with a lot of Mexican people, and it’s special,” De La Rosa said. “I will try to do my best.”