Converted pitcher Cuas makes it from FedEx to MLB

June 1st, 2022

CLEVELAND -- When  heard the bullpen phone ring Tuesday night in the visiting bullpen at Progressive Field, his heart raced. When he heard his name called out to start warming up in the bottom of the third inning, he breathed heavily as he stepped to the bullpen mound.

But when he entered the game in relief of starter Daniel Lynch in the fifth inning with a man on first and no outs, Cuas looked calm and collected. He threw a first-pitch strike and then won a nine-pitch battle with Guardians outfielder Oscar Mercado for his first Major League strikeout.

Then the 27-year-old infielder-turned-reliever got two groundouts back to him, as he showed off his athleticism and made the easy outs for a scoreless debut inning.

“It’s a dream come true, being a kid from New York, everything I’ve been through in my playing career, to be here in a Major League stadium with a chance to pitch -- I can’t even say I dreamed about it,” Cuas said. “It’s beyond my dreams.”

Cuas’ debut shouldn’t be overlooked in the big picture of the Royals’ 8-3 loss to the Guardians on Tuesday, which left Kansas City with the worst record in baseball (16-32) as the calendar flips to June.

His arrival in the Majors gives a peek into a potential key piece of the Royals’ future bullpen, a unit they need to improve beyond high-leverage relievers Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont. Cuas’ slinging sidearm delivery and 95-mph sinker flash major promise in that regard.

“Great debut. Those get overshadowed in a tough loss,” manager Mike Matheny said. “It’s a different look. We talk about deception, talk about having something that isn’t the same slot, same shape, and he’s got good stuff to go with it.”

Five years ago, we wouldn’t be writing this story, because around that time, Cuas wasn’t a pitcher.

In the fall of 2017, the Brewers decided to convert Cuas, an infielder they drafted in the 11th round of the 2015 Draft, to a pitcher. A year later, after limited opportunities and little success, they released him.

He immediately called his brother, Alex. That was the first time Jose wanted to quit the sport.

“He called me and said, ‘I just got released, I’m done with this,’” Alex said Tuesday. “I was like, ‘Hey, relax. Let’s see what happens.’”

Jose, who was raised in Brooklyn, New York, signed with the Long Island Ducks, an independent ball team in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. He was still throwing overhand at that point, but one day, former closer Francisco Rodriguez saw him throw from a sidearm slot while warming up, and the six-time All-Star was intrigued, telling Cuas to keep throwing sidearm. Cuas started to get a feel for the slot, which was more natural to him, and had success.

Alex helped, using knowledge he’d researched himself and picked up while playing collegiate baseball at Towson University.

“Hitters were uncomfortable,” Alex said. “If they’re looking like that, we got something. He only threw a fastball. Once that was good enough, we needed something to strike people out with. And then just the development of pitching. He started from nothing, and he was in-season. It was brand new.”

Cuas signed with the D-backs in 2019 and had success in the low levels of the Minors, gaining momentum as he headed into the offseason. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the D-backs released him.

That was the second time he wanted to quit.

Cuas had a family to support in Brooklyn. His longtime girlfriend, Anais Peña, was raising their son, now four-year-old Jose, and pregnant with their second child, now one-year-old Annalise. But she and Alex pushed Jose to keep going.

“I told him, ‘Don’t you dare do that. You are not going to quit. We did not sacrifice all this for you to quit,’” Anais said. “I was sacrificing a lot, yeah, and it was a crazy time -- it still is -- but we’ve come so far. And it was worth it.”

So Cuas didn’t. He worked for FedEx during the day, delivering boxes in Brooklyn, and trained with Alex at night, at a nearby field with barely any light.

The Royals signed Cuas in 2021 after coach Tony Peña Jr. saw him pitch in the Dominican Winter League. After a stellar season in Double-A, Cuas piqued the Royals’ interest in big league Spring Training this year, and his numbers in Triple-A to begin the year -- 1.74 ERA in 20 2/3 innings -- led him to Monday, when the Royals needed bullpen depth in Cleveland.

Cuas arrived in the third inning Monday night, warmed up in the seventh but never entered the game. He’s still waiting on his suitcase to arrive but says, “If you tell me I have to wear the same outfit every single day to be a big leaguer, I would say it’s worth it.”

As Cuas entered Tuesday’s game, his family cheered from the stands. After watching his dad pitch, Jose III ran around the section behind home plate, telling everyone that his dad plays baseball and “throws strikes.”

Anais smiled and shook her head as she tried to describe the moment.

“We have gone through so much just to get here,” Anais said. “There are just so many emotions. I’m just so happy. This is his dream.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster, what he’s had to go through,” Alex added. “It’s not always sunshine and rainbows or happy stories. He’s been through so much. His goal was always that. And now, whether it’s an inning, a couple seasons, or 10 years, he got it.”