PHOENIX -- Brewers outfield prospect Hedbert Pérez was in the Dominican Republic last March, 16 years old and ready to board a flight to Phoenix for his first Spring Training since signing with the Brewers the summer before. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and plans changed.
Pérez was stuck. He couldn’t go to Phoenix because camps had been closed. He couldn’t go home to Venezuela because of travel restrictions imposed by his home country.
So, he stayed put and he grew up fast.
“It was four months on my own,” Pérez said. “I didn’t know how to cook very well. Now I think I’m a good cook.”
He has proven to be a quick study at every step of his baseball journey to date.
Pérez’s father, Robert, was a catcher for the Brewers in 2001 and a Venezuelan baseball legend who raised his son with a bat in his hand. Hedbert signed with Milwaukee in July 2019 for $700,000 and announced his arrival during a loud round of batting practice at Miller Park with fellow international signee Luis Medina. Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines remembers walking onto the field that day and wondering why so many of the club’s scouting officials were crowded around.
“I didn’t plan on paying very close attention, I know that,” Haines said. “But then I saw him hit and we all started to watch him pretty closely. It was impressive.”
Pérez expected to play his first Minor League games in 2020 but was forced to adjust. He turned 17 on April 4 while staying in the D.R. with fellow prospects Luís Silva and Anderson Melendez. In July, the Brewers added Pérez to their 60-man player pool and invited him to the alternate training site outside Appleton, Wis., where Pérez rubbed elbows with fellow prospects and established Major Leaguers. Then he finished the year in the Brewers’ fall instructional league. This spring, the Brewers invited Pérez to a Minor League minicamp, offering more opportunities to mingle with Major Leaguers.
Pérez’s play and his poise in those circumstances explain how he has shot up MLB Pipeline’s list of the top Brewers prospects without playing a single Minor League game.
He ranks No. 3 in the Brewers’ 2021 preseason Top 30, right behind a pair of first-round Draft picks in Garrett Mitchell and Brice Turang.
“What he’s been through and how he’s handled himself speaks to his maturity level, and it’s well beyond his age,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “That’s something our scouts did a great job of seeing even through the signing process. This is a person who was always thought to be wise beyond his years with a tremendous work ethic.
“He has had to rely on all of those attributes over the past year in order to stay level, to not get down and to make it a productive year. It’s very impressive for all of us who have been around him a little bit.”
By Baseball America’s accounting, Pérez was the youngest player at any alternate training site in baseball last year. Pérez knows of only one other player younger than 18 who was invited to an alternate site: A’s infield prospect Robert Puason.
The uniqueness did not escape Pérez.
“For me, it’s a blessing,” he said. “I know that teams don’t give those opportunities to a lot of guys, so for me to be that person, it’s really, really big for me and my family. It’s living the dream, you know?”
His family knows about big dreams. Pérez’s father is a Venezuelan baseball legend whose professional career spanned three decades including parts of six seasons in the Major Leagues, capped by five at-bats with the Brewers in 2001. He didn’t play in the Majors after that, but his career continued at home. Hedbert has seen video of the stadium rising in 2006 to acknowledge his dad becoming the fifth man to reach 1,000 career hits in Venezuela.
“He played 27 years in Venezuela. That motivates me,” Hedbert Pérez said. “He introduced me to the game and I grew up with a bat in my hands. Since then, I’ve always loved the game. I don’t mind playing at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.”
But he was never pressured.
“A lot of people think, like, ‘You had to play baseball because of your dad,’” Pérez said. “No. I always loved it. I just wanted to play the game because that’s what I felt in my heart.”
Pérez’s first Minor League season is still more than six weeks away, at least. He will turn 18 in April, and whether the Brewers start him in the Arizona Rookie League or push Pérez to Low-A Carolina, Pérez will begin his career stateside rather than return to the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic.
“Listen, I’ve had a lot of discussions with our Minor League staff about him,” Haines said. “I know they’re excited, rightfully so. I think what’s fair to the kid is not to anoint him, so to speak, and just let him go play because of the age, the acclimation to a new country. There’s so many things in front of him here that it’s going to be new for him.”