Jimenez, Torres growing, learning with Cubs
Teenage top prospects work on English, baseball at instructional league
MESA, Ariz. -- When Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres return home from the Cubs' instructional league, the two prospects will have a better understanding of what to expect in professional baseball and know how to ask for a glass of water in English at a restaurant.
Jimenez and Torres are both 16 years old, and were ranked No. 1 and 3 on MLB.com's list of top 30 international prospects. Both signed this summer with the Cubs, part of the team's international shopping spree.Jimenez is a 6-foot-4, right-handed-hitting outfielder from the Dominican Republic who agreed to a $2.8 million deal; Torres, a shortstop, was the top prospect out of Venezuela, and signed for $1.7 million.
Players included on the instructional league roster are either recent Draft picks or international signees, such as 19-year-old Taiwanese pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng, or players whom the Cubs' staff felt needed more at-bats and innings. They conducted drills, played games, fine-tuned their defensive and hitting skills, while also climbing mountains together and holding their own "American Idol" competition and a mini-Olympics. The Cubs' camp ends Saturday at Fitch Park.
Jimenez and Torres have both played in top junior programs in their countries, but the month-long instructional league was their first taste of life in the U.S. as a professional baseball player.
"They're not raw in their physical abilities, it's just being raw to the United States, how things are run," said Anthony Iapoce, the Cubs' Minor League hitting coordinator. "As far as the way they play the game, they're pretty advanced for 16 years old. They're not raw as far as their tools. Their tools are in place."
Jimenez had been to the U.S. for baseball tournaments, but this was Torres' first visit. It is the longest both teens have been away from home, and it's Ray Fuentes' job to help them assimilate and learn how to survive. The Latin players take half-hour English classes every day after practice at the hotel, which Fuentes monitors as the coordinator of culture programs for the Cubs. Both Jimenez and Torres said baseball is far easier to learn than English.
Fuentes works not only on their language skills, but he also teaches what can best be described as coaches' speak.
"We sit together in games, and we do kind of a play-by-play announcing of the game in English so they can learn phrases and the words," said Fuentes, who a few coaches called the "MVP" of the instructional league. "I'll take them to eat sometimes, and they have to order and learn how to ask for a menu, ask for water."
Jimenez and Torres do not room together; the Cubs made an effort to pair a Latin player with one from the U.S., which benefits both. They can learn about each other's music, food preferences and clothing styles as well as baseball.
"Their talent is incredible," Fuentes said of Jimenez and Torres. "We were taking batting practice the other day, and one of the American players, who is probably 22 or 23 [years old], [was watching] I believe it was Gleybar hitting, and the kid said, 'At 16 years old, I was a sophomore in high school and I was going to geometry class, and this kid is in professional baseball and outhitting some of us.' It's amazing what they're doing."
Jimenez is an impressive athlete. He started playing baseball when he was 9 years old in the Dominican. He loves basketball and was playing both sports, but he began to focus primarily on baseball when he was 12 or 13, he said.
"God blessed me with the talent to play baseball," Jimenez said.
One of the Cubs' area scouts, Carlos Reyes, told Jose Serra, the director of the team's Dominican Republic operations, about Jimenez, and then the bidding began. Jimenez said three or four teams had a strong interest in him.
"I followed the Cubs and grew up with the Cubs," said Jimenez, who was a fan of fellow Dominican countrymen Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou.
Torres started playing baseball when he was 4 years old, and his role model was Venezuelan shortstop Omar Vizquel. They have met a few times, but Torres didn't have much of a chance to speak to the 11-time Gold Glove Award winner. Torres is about six feet, but still growing. So is Jimenez.
"Sitting next to [Jimenez], I'm like, 'This guy is really strong for 16 years old,'" Iapoce said. "Their swings are clean and short and direct to the ball. They're very balanced in their setup and their swing. It's just a matter of getting them accustomed to the organization and expectations as far as what we have for every player who is with the Chicago Cubs. We just have to get them in as many game situations as possible, because the only way they can get experience is by playing."
Fuentes is Cuban, but was born and raised in Miami. He knows how difficult it is to adjust to the U.S., especially with language challenges.
"I played baseball at a young age, and Spanish was my first language," Fuentes said. "When I was growing up, my mother barely spoke English, and my grandmother, who was living with us, didn't speak any English."
He hasn't talked to the two teens about their past.
"I try to teach them along with English, how they can make a life here in the United States," Fuentes said. "I tell them, 'Never forget where you're from, never forget your country, but you don't have to live that lifestyle. You can live here, bring your family.'"
Jimenez was one of the fortunate kids in the Dominican, and he had a glove to use while growing up. He has many friends who had to cut off milk cartons, because that was all that was available.
"Thank God I had a great family that provided for me," Jimenez said. "With the help and grace of God, hopefully, in the future, I can eliminate some of that [poverty] in the Dominican."
Playing in the Major Leagues is a dream both Jimenez and Torres share with the 50 other players in instructional league this fall. How soon do the teens think they'll be playing at Wrigley Field?
"With God leading the way, I have a goal," Jimenez said. "If I can be there in three and four years, it would be great."
Torres' answer was similar.
"When God wants me to be there, I'll be playing there, and hopefully, it's sometime in the next four years," he said.
Both teens smile easily and laugh. They are humble and talented, and the Cubs are banking on both having bright futures.
"It still comes down to a guy working and wanting to be good at something," Iapoce said, "and at 16 years old, when their English is starting to get better already, it's a good sign that they're pretty good workers and they're learners. That's what I've noticed about these two guys. For such a young age, they're learners. They want to get better at everything, and not just baseball."
That's good news for the Cubs.