CHICAGO -- It seemed fitting that Robel Garcia's first start in the Major Leagues came on Independence Day. This was the dream -- to play baseball on its biggest stage -- but it was so much more than that for Garcia. This was the end of a long road, and the start of a new one.
After five years out of affiliated baseball, Garcia found his way to the big leagues and he provided his own fireworks in that July 4 game in Pittsburgh. The second baseman homered, tripled and collected three hits to help power the Cubs to a win over the Pirates. He had been off the baseball grid. Now, he was decisively back on the map.
"I always had that desire to find opportunity to come back to the United States first," Garcia told reporters through a translator on that day in July. "And then try to make it to the big leagues, which is every baseball player's dream."
MLB Pipeline has named Garcia -- a relatively unknown player only a few months ago -- the Cubs' Position Player Prospect of the Year for 2019. Pipeline gave the '19 Pitching Prospect of the Year award to right-hander Cory Abbott, marking his second consecutive season earning the honor among Chicago's developing arms.
The 23-year-old Abbott is currently ranked 16th on the Cubs' Top 30 Prospects list, per MLB Pipeline. A second-round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, the righty posted a 3.01 ERA with 166 strikeouts, 52 walks and a 1.12 WHIP in 26 starts (146 2/3 innings) at Double-A Tennessee this year. Abbott racked up three double-digit strikeout showings, posted a 0.98 ERA with 50 punchouts in August and allowed one or zero earned runs in 12 starts.
Unlike Abbott, Garcia is not a typical prospect, given his age (26) and especially considering his recent playing background. But, it is that backstory that is simply too incredible to ignore.
Garcia was an international free-agent signing out of the Dominican Republic by Cleveland in 2010, but he never rose about Class A in his four years in the Tribe's farm system. He was released near the end of Spring Training in '14, and then slipped out of affiliated ball. Garcia played baseball in Italy for the next five years.
While playing in Arizona with the Italian national team last fall, Garcia caught the eye of a Cubs scout and the team offered him a Minor League contract.
"We were playing around the world everywhere," Garcia said earlier this season. "And there were a lot of scouts scouting those kind of games. And I always thought, 'OK, there are scouts watching, so that means I’ve got a huge opportunity to do good to make it again.'"
Garcia -- now ranked as the club's No. 26 prospect -- started this season with Double-A Tennessee and hit .295 with a .981 OPS in 22 games. Chicago promoted him to Triple-A Iowa and he continued to rake offensively. By the end of the Iowa's season, Garcia had hit .281 with 21 homers and a .946 OPS in 76 games at Triple-A.
Between the Minors and a few stints with the Cubs, Garcia has launched 31 home runs in professional baseball this year. And there is an opportunity for more, given that the versatile infielder is up with the Cubs for the rest of this season.
"That makes me feel really, really, really proud of who he is," Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said earlier this year. "He [fought] his way back to the United States, and is now fulfilling his dream. That means a lot to me, to life, to all the kids that are seeing this guy playing. He never gives up."