For Reds’ Iglesias, scout’s honor strong as vow bound in matrimony
It was Mark Snipp’s eighth wedding anniversary, but where was he on Dec. 17, 2013? In Merida, Mexico on a last-minute assignment. In Merida, Mexico to watch a Cuban defector, pitcher Raisel Iglesias, showcase his right arm.
Snipp, a high-level scout for the Cincinnati Reds, originally had figured that December would be a safe time for a baseball man to get married. But when he got the call, his wife, Rebekah, understood. Duty beckoned, and off Snipp went with Tony Arias, the Reds’ international scouting director, to see Iglesias.
Snipp had heard Iglesias was only 5-foot-11. Wrong. Snipp is 5-9, and Iglesias was taller — 6-2, as it turned out. Arias previously had seen Iglesias throw only a fastball and slider. Another surprise. Snipp said that Iglesias showed a "70" curveball and "60" slider — high grades on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
Iglesias’ fastball was good enough — 93-94 mph. Unlike many Cuban pitchers, he stayed on a direct line to the plate rather than spin off the mound. Snipp considered the repertoire, considered the delivery and thought, "Why can’t this guy start?"
The Reds ultimately asked the same question, signing Iglesias to a seven-year, $27 million contract in part because they projected him as a starter while other teams saw him as a reliever.
Now, a little more than a year after that scouting assignment, club officials are not wavering from the assessments of Snipp and the other scouts who saw Iglesias in international competition and aided in his recruitment — Arias, scouting director Chris Buckley and assistant international scouting director Miguel Machado.
The Reds plan to open with Iglesias in their rotation, then move him to the bullpen or minors one or two starts into the season, once righty Homer Bailey returns from elbow surgery. Iglesias, 25, is that gifted, that mature. He did not allow a hit until the last of his seven innings in the Arizona Fall League, and has yet to allow an earned run this spring.
The signing of Iglesias marked the second time the Reds had stunned the baseball world with the addition of a Cuban pitcher — they previously had awarded lefty Aroldis Chapman a six-year, $30.25 million contract in 2010.
"In both cases, we probably went further (financially) than we thought we would go," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "But we have absolutely zero regrets."
In early June 2014, the Reds again dispatched Snipp to see Iglesias. Snipp had been in Cincinnati for the amateur draft. Iglesias was in Haiti, the country in which he established residence after defecting from Cuba in October 2013.
It was crunch time; the Iglesias sweepstakes were nearing a conclusion. The pitcher’s workout, Snipp recalled, took place on a soccer field. Snipp took video on his iPhone. Jocketty described the scene as "pretty comical," noting that Iglesias was throwing not off a mound, but on flat ground.
"It wasn’t flat ground — they had piled up some dirt for a mound," Snipp said. "But it might as well have been flat ground. It was kind of makeshift. They jumped up and down to (settle) it in. It was really not much of a mound."
Snipp noted that Igelsias was noticeably leaner, perhaps due to his diet in Haiti. He also was throwing harder — 93 to 96 mph — but didn’t look quite as good as he had in Mexico. Regardless, Snipp still viewed him as a starter. And he noticed something else — Iglesias was "socially mature, personable." He thanked scouts for coming, hugged them, shook their hands.
Meanwhile, a deadline was looming.
Bill Bavasi, then the Reds’ vice-president of scouting, player development and international operations, was the point man with Iglesias’ agent, Barry Praver. Iglesias needed to sign before July 2 or he would be subject to new signing guidelines that were about to go into effect, and count against a team’s international pool.
Once the deal was close, the Reds wanted to give Iglesias a physical, but couldn’t get the pitcher to the Dominican Republic, where the team operates an academy. So, they dispatched Dr. Angel Velazquez, who assists team physician Dr. Timothy Kremchek, to Haiti. Juan Peralta, the director of the Reds’ Dominican academy, also made the trip.
Bavasi, now the director of the Major League Scouting Bureau, still marvels at the team effort that the Reds employed to sign Iglesias, reserving special praise for Velazquez.
"He had lined up probably the only MRI machine in the country," Bavasi said.
Iglesias passed his physical.
The Reds had their man.
Reds catcher Brayan Pena, a native of Cuba, pointed to the vacant stool at Iglesias’ locker at 7:45 a.m.
"He’s already running," Pena said. "And it’s not eyewash. He’s driven to be better."
On Feb. 28, a group of Cuban players gathered at Chapman’s house near the Reds’ training facility in Goodyear. Pena proudly displayed a photo of the group on his iPhone on Thursday. The Royals’ Kendrys Morales was there. The White Sox’s Alexei Ramirez. Pena. And Iglesias.
At one point, Pena said, the conversation turned to hard work, and not letting down the people who had given them major-league opportunities, even though the players all had become wealthy.
Iglesias did not need such a reminder.
"He wants to be good. He wants to learn every single day," Pena said. "He’s not satisfied because they gave him a lot of money. He wants to prove they didn’t make a mistake, wants to prove that he is ready for this next challenge."
The Reds players have taken an immediate liking to Iglesias, whose smile is as easy as his arm is loose. Chapman had a difficult adjustment to the U.S. — ESPN the Magazine in February 2014 detailed his boredom and isolation during the offseason, four years after his arrival. Iglesias’ personality is more outgoing, and could make for a smoother transition.
"I haven’t seen a lot of people happier to be in a place than he is," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said.
Iglesias, through his interpreter, Tomas Vera, said he is making "a big effort" to learn English. He learns two or three new words a day in his conversations with Bruce, Pena, first baseman Joey Votto and center fielder Billy Hamilton. And he surprises his teammates with his knowledge of the major-league game — knowledge he gained watching video in Cuba, and from playing baseball games on PlayStation.
Ask Iglesias why he signed with the Reds, and he will tell you that the franchise is one of the "most historic" in baseball, and that he wanted to join his countrymen — Pena, Chapman and minor-league outfielder Felix Perez. He also said the Reds showed more interest in him than any other club.
No one knows if Iglesias can handle a starter’s workload (he was mostly a reliever in Cuba) or if he will make a significant contribution this season (it has been about a year and a half since he pitched competitively). But he shows savvy on the mound, an ability to set up hitters, a willingness to throw any pitch in any count. In a recent Cactus League game, he threw the Giants’ Adam Duvall a 3-0 slider for a strike.
Like all Cuban defectors, he is a profile in courage, and like Chapman, a symbol of the Reds’ scouting moxie.
"I have great faith in our scouts," Jocketty said. "I listen to them."
He knows how much the scouts care. And how, in the case of Iglesias, one even missed his wedding anniversary for the cause.