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Tomas' talent potential rings true for D-backs

La Russa says Cuban slugger brings 'special thump' but could need time in Minors

SAN DIEGO -- There's something about the way the ball jumps off the bats of the best hitters. Always has been, always will be.

They swing easy and the ball screams toward the outfield. Whether it was Julio Franco or Magglio Ordonez, Roberto Alomar or a young Ken Griffey Jr., you could close your eyes and know they were the best hitters on the field.

You could hear their talent in batting practice, when pitch after pitch jumped off the bat barrel.

Winter Meetings: Monday through Thursday in San Diego

Tony La Russa believes Yasmany Tomas is that kind of a hitter, which is why the Arizona Diamondbacks waded into the bidding for him and walked away with their prize, $68.5 million later.

"He has a special thump," La Russa said on Monday, when the D-backs announced a deal they had agreed to Nov. 26. "The ball comes off his bat more special than a power hitter, an average power hitter. That's a good place to start. The character, the [other] things we've studied, the athleticism, it all adds up."

Few had seen Arizona coming on the 24-year-old Tomas, who first caught the eye of many North American scouts with the light-tower power he showed taking batting practice at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The Giants, Braves, Padres and Phillies were the teams said to have the most interest in him, but the more research that La Russa and his staff -- headed by GM Dave Stewart and senior VP of baseball operations De Jon Watson -- did on Tomas, the more convinced they were that he could be a shortcut back to contention in the National League West.

Their faith in Tomas was returned to them when Ken Kendrick's ownership group signed off on the biggest contract in franchise history.

"When his name was being bandied about, we had De Jon down there [in the Dominican Republic] with all the scouts," said La Russa, the D-backs' chief baseball officer. "The number started getting up to 60, 70 [million dollars]. De Jon and the scouts like him. 'Stew' went down there and saw him. Our ownership said, 'We can make this happen.' There was no one talking about the Diamondbacks, were they?"

Stewart admitted that he had some serious trepidation entering the process. But his scouts sold him on Tomas having the same competitive fire and skilled hitting approach that sold Major League clubs on fellow Cuban sluggers Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.

"Once you do your research, you talk to guys who have seen him play, seen him interact, seen him perform, it became a little easier as time passed to make it happen," Stewart said. "But initially, you've got to believe that's a lot of money to be passing out on any player. At this day and time, when a player hasn't played here, hasn't been proven here, it makes it even a little more uncomfortable."

Video: D-backs formally announce signing of Yasmany Tomas

When the return is as high as it could be with Tomas, an aggressive team will always take a risk.

There's a lot still to be learned about Tomas, of course. The D-backs aren't sure if he will break camp with the Major League team in April, which is why they insist that they aren't going to trade Mark Trumbo, the outfielder who joins Paul Goldschmidt and Tomas to give new manager Chip Hale a trio of right-handed power hitters.

"We're starting to build the kind of depth that a team needs," La Russa said. "We like Trumbo a lot. The way we envision our club is with Trumbo and the other guys we put in there. What we want to do is be fair to Tomas. We want to look at him. We know he's a special talent. Puig went to the Minor Leagues to start. We want to be fair to him. There's enough room on our roster for guys like Trumbo, [A.J.] Pollock and Tomas."

Tomas played some third base in Cuba and will get a look there for the D-backs. Scouts with other teams scoff at the idea of him being agile enough to play there, but there were also a lot of guys who didn't think Abreu could handle Major League pitching.

History says you better be careful betting against Cuban players.

"He'll be really excited to play at the Major League level," Watson said. "When you watch these kids play in the WBC, against the best players, their focus is a little more detailed, really the execution of the game [is better]. I think when we see him compete against some of the best players in the game, I do see him turning his game up a little bit."

La Russa and Stewart know there's a lot more work to do before anyone is talking about the D-backs in the same breath as the Giants and Dodgers. But they're gambling that they just added a game-changer, and for their regime, it's only the start.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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