Roberto Baldoquin arrived in the United States later than expected last spring after the Angels invested more than $14 million in him. And the Cuban shortstop’s start was inauspicious.
In his first homestand with Class-A Inland Empire, he went 0 for 17. Six days after his first hit, he strained a muscle in his back and missed nearly seven weeks. When Baldoquin returned to the team, Manager Denny Hocking sought a way to connect with him, to find some common ground.
Hocking’s twin teenage daughters were soccer players, and he brought a spare ball to the ballpark one day in July, kicked it to Baldoquin, and “he started dribbling it, doing tricks, and acting like Cristiano Ronaldo,” Hocking said.
Their relationship improved immediately.
Ballplayers from foreign countries who are experiencing a new culture often struggle with the transition, and their play can suffer as a result.
Asked about the major challenges he faced, Baldoquin answered with one word: “English.”
“He’d never been in an environment like this,” Hocking said. “He’s trying to learn the language. He’s trying to learn the system. He’s trying to learn how to go to a grocery store. There’s so many things he had to adapt to.”
Baldoquin agreed to an $8-million bonus in November 2014, eight months after defecting from Cuba. Because of MLB’s international signing cap, the Angels paid more than $6 million in additional taxes, and it took five more months for the deal to be finalized.
Despite his slow start, the Angels remained hopeful. Jerry Dipoto, then the team’s general manager, gushed about Baldoquin’s potential while providing updates on his whereabouts. In his first at-bat of spring training, Baldoquin hit a home run.
And then he flopped.
Baldoquin finished the 2015 Class-A season with a .235 batting average, .266 on-base percentage and one home run. Injuries hurt his development, and those around him said the adjustment to a longer season also played a role.
“He never got into a rhythm of work ethic,” Hocking said.
Baldoquin, 21, said it was not pressure but the layoff after his defection that set him back.
“I simply tried to go out there and do my best,” Baldoquin said through an interpreter. “At first, it was a little difficult because it had been two years since I played organized baseball. But I feel like at the end, I got more comfortable.”
He did improve. Errors are an imperfect measure of defensive performance, but Baldoquin made 12 errors in his first 37 games and none in his final 40. One American League scout who watched him late last season said he expects him to be able to handle shortstop in the major leagues.
Of course, the Angels should not have an opening at shortstop for at least five more seasons, because of their off-season acquisition of Andrelton Simmons. Baldoquin tried third base during instructional league play in September, and he experimented at second base and in the outfield in Cuba.
His future with the franchise depends on his hitting.
“He improved. That’s the important thing,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He improved from day one to where he is now. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a good player.”
Hocking, now the Angels’ minor league infield coordinator, said Baldoquin has “much more energy” in camp this spring. Scioscia said he has a “much better presence.” The organization is again hopeful for what’s to come.
“I think he feels good about maybe his first year playing pro ball, where it leads and what’s expected,” Scioscia said.