Meet Yadier Alvarez, MLB.com's No. 1 int'l prospect
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The Blue Mall is bustling.
Cellphones are buzzing, high heels are click-clacking and the Spanish conversations at the popular cafe near the elevator are increasing in volume.
The famous shopping center is full of trendy stores, fancy restaurants and high-end fashion -- and it's alive on weekends. Located at the corner of Gustavo Mejia Ricart Street and Winston Churchill Avenue in the heart of the city, it could be on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Yadier Alvarez is here, dressed in a light gray suit and a baby blue undershirt with newly polished black shoes. He's riding an escalator up, making his way to the fourth floor for a meeting at a popular restaraunt, and he's looking down at the luxury-brand stores below.
"I've been here, but I've never been to this restaurant before," the soft-spoken Alvarez said in Spanish. "It's new to me. But a lot of things are still new to me."
The Dodgers invested heavily in several top prospects during the current international signing period, but none is more important than the 6-foot-3, 175-pound right-hander from Matanzas, Cuba. He seemed to appear out of thin air and land a $16 million signing bonus. Alvarez, ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list and No. 10 on the Dodgers' Top 30 Prospects list, is now considered one of the top young pitching prospects in the world, and he's only been out of Cuba for 10 months.
"So much has changed overnight, but I'm the same person," Alvarez said. "I've only reached part of my dream, so that's kept me humble."
Once inside the restaraunt, Alvarez picked a table near the bar that suited his newfound rock star status. "Aqui?" Alvarez asks. The group, which includes his trainer Amaurys Nina, nods.
The restaurant's lights reveal Alvarez's perfectly cropped hair and a youthful face that looks nothing like his signature snarl on the mound. Alvarez, who turned 19 in March, is the age of a college freshman. He wears a friendship bracelet in the Dodgers' colors on his right wrist. He said his big brother Yasiel taught him how to play the game, and he's never going to forget it.
"The hardest part was leaving my mother behind in Cuba," Alvarez said. "I still miss her and I call her every day. She wanted me to follow my dreams, and that's what I did. She wanted her son to be happy and to be brave."
The details of Alvarez's departure from Cuba remain a mystery, but he says he landed in Ecuador last December and spent almost two months in Central America before arriving in the Dominican Republic in January. He spent his first weeks in the country looking for somebody to train him, but was repeatedly turned down because trainers viewed his age -- then 18 -- as a liability, because teams generally seek younger prospects. Other trainers didn't want to deal with the extra work that comes with getting a Cuban player eligible to sign with a Major League team.
Alvarez starred on national teams in the younger divisions in Cuba, but with no proven track record in Serie Nacional, the country's top pro league, trainers were weary of working with him.
It was Nina, a former Minor League player for the Rangers and current president of the International Prospect League, who decided to take a chance on Alvarez. Open and private showcases for Alvarez began almost immediately, and he soon established residency in Haiti, the first step to signing with a club. The Dodgers, who expressed serious interest in March, made the deal official on July 2.
"I played with Colby Lewis in the Minors with Texas and he was filthy," Nina said. "He was 96 mph to 98 mph with a nasty slider and good curve. I saw Yadier, and I immediately thought about what Colby would be like at 18. He was just like him. He threw three pitches the first time I saw him and I knew I had to work with him."
Alvarez has an apartment in Santo Domingo, but spends six nights each week at the Dodgers' academy. The biggest challenge, he said, was adjusting to the 6 a.m. wake-up calls, but that's no longer a concern. He expects to spend the rest of the year in the Dominican Republic and hopefully join the Dodgers in Arizona for Spring Training next year. He hopes to start the 2016 season at Class A.
"Yadi is progressing beautifully, both in his athleticism and as a man," said Gabe Kapler, the club's director of player development. "He has a general calmness about him, which will play well as he acclimates physically and culturally to his surroundings, both on and off the field. He has proactively taught us a ton about how we can help him."
On his way out the restaraunt, Alvarez bumped into Enrique Estrada, a teenage pitcher from Cuba, near the escalator. Estrada, who recently established residency in Haiti, has a history of success in Cuba, but is an unknown in some Major League circles. He won't have his first open showcase for weeks, and it's unclear when he will be eligible to sign.
The pair shook hands and took photos before going their separate ways. Alvarez had to get home to study English. There's also that 6 a.m. wake-up call.