With solo homer, Velázquez proves he's in 'right spot'

April 29th, 2023

MIAMI -- caught a baseball and pen that bounced across the dugout roof and dropped over the edge on Friday afternoon at loanDepot park. The Cubs outfielder then tucked his glove under his arm and signed another autograph.

Stitched in red thread into the side of the glove was the phrase "Never give up!" The fact that Velázquez was in Miami was a testament to his embodying that mantra, as the young outfielder's recent play convinced the Cubs to keep him in the fold when the latest roster crunch arrived.

"It means the world to me," Velázquez said prior to the Cubs' 3-2 loss to the Marlins. "I'm in the right spot. Here is where I want to be."

Velázquez shortly thereafter launched a home run in his first trip to the plate, yanking a 98 mph inside sinker from Marlins lefty Jesús Luzardo out to left field in the third inning. That type of power, coupled with a maturing approach in the batter's box, has impressed Chicago's decision-makers this year.

In the hours before Friday's series opener in Miami, veteran center fielder Cody Bellinger was activated from MLB's paternity list. To clear room on the active roster, the Cubs designated third-string catcher Luis Torrens for assignment.

The Cubs liked Torrens' potential and offensive pop enough to hand him an Opening Day job, but he was sporadically used in this opening month. With only three true outfielders -- Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki and Bellinger -- on the active roster, the North Siders felt Velázquez was a better fit at the moment.

"It's nothing Luis did," Cubs manager David Ross said. "Nelly has come up and played really, really well and earned this spot. So he's going to get some looks here. He can do that, and also figure out how to be a bat off the bench and be a defensive guy that we can put out there and rest guys at times."

Velázquez said he struggled to adapt to his part-time role with the Cubs in 2022, when he hit .205 with a .659 OPS in his 77-game stay in the Majors. Going into this season, the 24-year-old outfielder felt he had a better grasp of his duties and worked on mentally preparing for multiple jobs.

"I'm here for whatever they need," said Velázquez, who went 1-for-4 in the loss. "It doesn't matter if it's running the bases, or going in in the eighth for defense, or [to] pinch-hit. It doesn't matter what it is. I'm going to be ready, because now I know my role. But at the end of the day, I have to still work hard."

During Spring Training, Velázquez suited up for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, surrounding himself with some of the game's elite talent and playing in raucous environments -- including at loanDepot park, which hosted games in each round of the tournament. Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman, who allowed two runs over 6 1/3 innings on Friday, was with Velázquez on Team Puerto Rico.

"You could see how much he loved it," Stroman said, "how much he was picking everybody's brains and how much knowledge he was taking in."

In his first game back with the Cubs on March 19, Velázquez launched a three-run walk-off homer against the Padres. In 14 games with Triple-A Iowa, he hit .327/.403/.618. When Chicago summoned him earlier in April prior to Suzuki's return from the injured list, Velázquez belted a go-ahead grand slam in a 14-9 win over Seattle on April 11.

On Tuesday, Velázquez reached base twice, including a walk that helped set the stage for a three-run triple for Nico Hoerner. On Wednesday, the outfielder doubled and had a nine-pitch walk with the game on the line against Padres closer Josh Hader. On Thursday, Velázquez homered back-to-back with Eric Hosmer.

"It's hard to send him down after he keeps hitting home runs, you know?" Stroman said. "I think everybody in this clubhouse knows the potential of Nelson. ... It's very hard to do – step in and then hit like he has and then get sent back down and produce. A lot of guys struggle with that.”

Beyond the offense, Ross said Velázquez has shown improved "baseball IQ" both on the basepaths and defensively in the outfield.

"That's what development is," Ross said. "That's why we have the Minor League system. Part of the reason he didn't break camp was just to continue to hone in on his skills, get him regular at-bats so he can do what he's doing right now."