Prospect Lopez thankful for shot with Brewers
Set for debut, young pitcher balancing baseball with caring for sick child
SAN DIEGO -- Jorge Lopez will tell you the key to winning Milwaukee's Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award was reaching the point mechanically that he could take the mound thinking about nothing other than the next offering. But when the 22-year-old prospect steps onto the field at Petco Park on Tuesday to start for the Brewers in his Major League debut, you can bet that one corner of his mind will be 2,000 miles away in Cincinnati, with a little boy in a hospital room.
Few of baseball's prospects have been challenged like Lopez, whose son, Mikael, has battled a mysterious autoimmune disorder since his birth 28 months ago Monday.
"He threw a game in high-A when his kid was in surgery," said Edwin Rodriguez, Lopez's agent. "He finished the game and had to leave. Dealing with those situations is so tough, but he has been able to overcome that.
"I've been telling people that Major League pitchers, they go through rough times and they have to deal with the pressure. He's already done that for two years in the Minor Leagues with his kid in the hospital."
Rodriguez has known Lopez since the latter was a 16-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop with a volleyball addiction. Lopez was such an accomplished volleyballer that he could have received a collegiate scholarship, but Rodriguez -- who runs a development program in Puerto Rico that has produced the likes of the Astros' Carlos Correa, the Dodgers' Kiké Hernandez and another Brewer, infielder Yadiel Rivera -- convinced Lopez to focus on pitching.
That decision paid off when Milwaukee made Lopez a second-round Draft pick in 2011. He joined an organization roundly criticized for its inabilities in developing pitchers and helped change the narrative, appearing in the All-Star Futures Game in 2014 before starring in '15 for a talented Double-A Biloxi club that spent its first two months on the road while awaiting a new stadium.
Lopez went 12-5 with a 2.26 ERA for the Shuckers in the regular season, rising to No. 8 on MLB.com's list of the top Brewers prospects and finishing second in the Southern League ERA race to teammate Tyler Wagner (2.25). Lopez won three organizational Pitcher of the Month Awards along the way. Then he won two more starts in the postseason.
Last week, after Biloxi fell in the league championship series, the Brewers promoted Lopez, Wagner and four other Shuckers to the big leagues. Lopez will be the last of the lot to get in a big league game, growing to 12 the number of players to make their Major League debut for the Brewers this season.
That's two more than a previous club record set in 1995 and matched in 2013 -- and an indication of Milwaukee's season gone awry.
"It's been a challenging September," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "With the trades and with the injuries, that's why these guys are getting opportunities. I look at it as more like, it's good that we have players who are ready to be in a spot to take these opportunities. You're never going to have a player for every spot, necessarily, but we have had pitching that's been able to handle the opportunity."
The opportunity is absolutely critical for Lopez and his family.
Mikael Lopez was born prematurely on May 28, 2013, and spent the first month of his life in intensive care. When dad was assigned to the Class A Advanced Brevard County (Fla.) Manatees in 2014, he arranged for Mikael to be transferred to a facility in Miami, where doctors continued to search for a diagnosis.
In March, Mikael was transferred again, to Cincinnati Children's Hospital, which is renowned in the area of autoimmune disorders. Lopez visited over the summer for genetic testing, but has otherwise been away playing baseball and staying in touch with his young son via FaceTime.
Mikael's mother, Karla, surrounded the child's bed with pictures of Jorge.
"He's getting healthier, he's gaining weight," Lopez said. "He's getting better. I know he's getting better.
"His mom is amazing. She's so important for him. I met her in high school when we were really young. She's 21 right now. I'm 22. It's been a very hard time. She's pretty strong, but she's young sometimes."
The latest, best diagnosis from doctors is a combination of conditions including early onset inflammatory bowel disease, Familial Mediterranean fever (a hereditary inflammatory disorder), Renal Fanconi Syndrome (a disease of the kidney) and osteoporosis. Mikael is fed through a tube, and his growth has been slowed.
Lately, though, Lopez sees progress. Mikael has begun to say "mama" and "papa." And the current plan calls for treatment instead of surgery, which has loomed over so much of his young life. Doctors have had success by treating Mikael as if he were suffering from leukemia.
The optimism is cautious, because Lopez and Rodriguez have been down this road before.
"It's like the kid has gone through one of those episodes of 'House,'" said Rodriguez, referring to the television medical drama executive produced, coincidentally, by the brother of Brewers owner Mark Attanasio. "They just keep doing something different. I remember doctors saying, 'Oh, he needs a bone marrow transplant.' Then, 'Let's do an intestinal transplant.' It's like trying to do something to see if it works. It's very, very unfortunate.
"I think Jorge still has hope. Hope is the last thing you lose. He still hopes for the best, that his son will get better."
Aside from the emotional cost of worrying for a sick child, Lopez has born a financial one. As Rodriguez put it, "He understands he needs to get to the big leagues. He needs to be here to earn the money he needs."
Lopez earned about $1,500 a month this season at Double-A. In the Majors, the minimum salary works out to just shy of $85,000 per month, plus a $100 per diem on the road, so Lopez will earn more than $40,000 during his two-week stint in the Majors. Those paychecks will help tremendously in covering the costs associated with Mikael's health care and housing in Cincinnati for Karla.
In past years, Lopez has earned some extra money playing winter ball. That was not an option this year, considering his workload and importance to the Brewers' immediate future, so he would have been forced to cover expenses from October through January without any income, short of getting a part-time job.
His promotion pushed aside those concerns.
"I didn't know I would get here this quick," Lopez said. "In my mind, I was thinking of getting here next year. But they gave me the opportunity this year, and now that I have the opportunity, I will work out double in the offseason to get ready for next year."
If Mikael's treatment continues showing progress and Lopez can pitch his way onto the big league team, he sees a scenario that brings the family to Milwaukee. It would be their first summer together, and, "it's one of my goals right now," Lopez said.
His parents and his two sisters will be in the stands on Tuesday at Petco Park. Rodriguez will be watching on TV.
"I'm excited to see my son again soon," Lopez said. "But Tuesday, I'm going to compete. That's what I love to do."