Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is among the outstanding Cuban-born players now contributing to the success and excitement of Major League Baseball.
There is certainly a long tradition of Cuban players adding great talent and personal commitment to the game. They have included All-Stars like Tony Perez and Bert Campaneris.
Hechavarria is among the latest group of Cuban shortstops to make dazzling plays in the field and get big hits at the plate.
When I first saw Cuban native and Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexi Ramirez, I saw a player with talent and upside awaiting his opportunity to excel. That was in 2008. Ramirez showed agility, quick hands and feet, a very strong arm and a promising bat. He has gone on to have a very solid and successful career as a stable, every day shortstop for the White Sox.
I saw a similar skill set when I scouted Hechavarria in the 2011 Arizona Fall League. I saw a young, eager player waiting for his chance.
Hechavarria was signed by the Blue Jays as a free agent in 2010 after he had defected to Mexico from his home in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
Hechavarria had been mostly a second baseman in Cuba prior to learning to play shortstop at age 16. He played short for the Cuban Junior National Team and gained the attention of a number of international scouts and Major League organizations.
A year after the Boston Red Sox signed Cuban shortstop Jose Iglesias, the Blue Jays inked Hechavarria to a four-year contract.
Prior to his deal with Toronto, speculation was rampant that Hechavarria would sign with the New York Yankees as the eventual successor to Derek Jeter. That didn't happen.
Iglesias and Hechavarria have a great deal in common.
Iglesias is 5-feet-11 and 185 pounds. Hechavarria is 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds. Iglesias is 22 and Hechavarria is 23. They have both honed their skills in the Arizona Fall League. They both have excellent defensive skills that can be used to play both middle-infield positions.
Based upon my observation of both players, Hechavarria has a bit of a better offensive game than Iglesias at this stage of their development.
Physically, both Iglesias and Hachavarria may still add some weight and muscle to their physiques. They can stand to add a few pounds to survive long and humid summers.
Hechavarria ended 2011, his second professional season, at Triple-A Las Vegas. Cashman Field, as well as the Pacific Coast League in general, are considered "hitter friendly." Regardless, the player still has to make contact and hit the ball. Hechaverria did just that. He hit a robust .389 with two home runs and 11 RBIs over a small sample size of 116 plate appearances.
I saw Hechavarria following that season in the Arizona Fall League. He played 19 games, all at shortstop, and in 161 innings he made only three errors. He had 72 at-bats and hit .250 with one home run and eight RBIs. His overall play, particularly his defense, sparked interest among scouts.
Hechavarria played most of this season back at Triple-A Las Vegas. This time the sample size was much larger. In 102 games, he went to the plate 490 times. Again, the results were impressive. Hechavarria hit .312 with six home runs and 63 RBIs. He stole eight bases and was caught twice.
Most impressively, in his nearly 500 plate appearances, Hechavarria struck out only 86 times. His excellent contact rate did not require a "hitter-friendly" ballpark. He walked only 38 times, again highlighting his ability to make contact. But it also showed a bit of impatience at the plate.
There are several mechanical aspects to like about Hechavarria's offensive approach. He does have a nice, short stroke with quick hands through the ball. He has improved his plate coverage since I initially saw him. At that time, Hechavarria had trouble reaching outside pitches, especially those down in the strike zone. Basically, he is still learning to hit high-quality pitching.
Hechavarria may not have much home run power, but I do think he'll be able to hit the gaps and leg out doubles with above-average speed. As he learns the art of stealing bases, I think that skill will improve.
I think Hechavarria will be known as a "defense-first" player initially in his Major League career, like Iglesias. Hechavarria has a very quick first step. He is smooth and agile, gliding to the ball with excellent range to both sides. He can come in quickly on a short-hop grounder and get rid of the ball in plenty of time to make the play. His arm is strong and accurate with good carry on the ball.
There is one aspect common in the infield play of both Iglesias and Hechavarria. Both have a tendency at times to make the hard play look easy and the easy play look more difficult. It's not uncommon among very athletic shortstops with an abundance of innate ability.
Frankly, that has even happened to Omar Vizquel.
Hechavarria has already played shortstop, second base and third base for the Blue Jays. In fact, third base is where Hechavarria's career began with the parent club. With an oblique injury to regular third baseman Brett Lawrie this summer, Hechavarria was recalled from Las Vegas in August to make his Major League debut -- at third base.
In 41 games with Toronto, playing second, third and short, Hechavarria committed just three errors and hit .254
Hechavarria should continue to grow and develop as a major component of the Blue Jays' future. Going forward, he could be playing any of the infield positions. His defense may be ahead of his offense at this point, but it won't be long until he becomes a very solid and dependable Major League hitter as well.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter.