Storied path led slugging prospect Ortiz to Phils

Despite being long way from bigs, youngster impresses with power

March 16th, 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This is where legends grow -- in the half shadows, on the margins, at the edge of peripheral vision. Or in the case of 17-year-old Jhailyn Ortiz, the Phillies' No. 26 prospect, on a back field at the Carpenter Complex in a camp game seen by only a handful of spectators.
That's where Ortiz hit a home run last weekend -- not just any homer, but the kind that makes even seasoned baseball people blink and give their heads a "Did I see what I just saw?" shake, a "Field of Dreams" home run that disappeared deep into the woods behind the left-field fence at Robin Roberts Field.
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"All that I can say is that I've never seen a kid that age hit a ball that hard and that far," said Phillies Dominican Summer League coordinator Manny Amador.
International scouting director Sal Agostinelli estimated that the ball traveled 475 feet.
That Ortiz, listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, has extraordinary power is no secret. That, after all, is why the Phillies gave him a $4 million signing bonus right after the international signing period opened last July 2. It's why they'd had their eye on him for years.
Even the story of how the Phils first became aware of Ortiz has mythic overtones.
Agostinelli was in the Dominican Republic several years ago when somebody passed on a scrap of gossip. There was a 12-year-old in the little town of Constanza, he was told, who had supposedly beaten grown men in a softball home run derby.
"Believe it or not," the scouting director said.
Agostinelli was understandably skeptical, but as a good scout does, he mentally filed the information away. One thing led to another, and five years later, Ortiz reports to the complex each morning to continue his baseball education.
"It's been a good experience," Ortiz said Wednesday, with outfielder Jose Pujols acting as his translator. "I've learned a lot of new things, and [I'm] having fun because I've met a lot of people I didn't know before. There are a lot of new things, but I'm learning the customs here."
Adjusting to a new culture can be difficult for young Latin players, but Ortiz said that hasn't been an issue. Phillies officials who have gotten to know him describe him as humble and fun-loving, the product of a stable family environment. Ortiz's father, Felix, is a tailor who also played baseball, though he never signed with a Major League team.
About the time that Agostinelli was hearing about the youngster who could crush a softball, Ortiz met a "buscone" -- independent bird dog scout -- named Baltazar Mesa. They soon began working together. When Ortiz was old enough to sign, that would turn out to give the Phils an edge.
By then, many teams were interested. Carlos Salas, who scouts the Dominican Republic, had been diligent about developing a relationship with Ortiz and his family. It also didn't hurt that Mesa's brother, Jose, played for the Phillies and still holds the club record for most saves in a season (45 in 2002).
"A lot of how you sign a big player like this is trust," Agostinelli said, "and I think that Jose just let his brother know that we were a very good organization. Obviously, Jose played here and knew what the Philadelphia Phillies were all about. That helped us quite a bit."
Ortiz had a simple yet eloquent answer when asked why he had chosen the Phils.
"They are more than a team," he said. "They're like a family to me."
That is literally true. Even before Jhailyn, the Phillies signed his brother, Geury. The right-hander was 4-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 2015, led the Dominican Summer League in complete games and tied for first in shutouts. He didn't allow more than three earned runs in any of his 13 starts.
Jhailyn hasn't played in an official game yet. He probably won't for a while. After signing last summer, Ortiz spent two months with Amador in the Dominican, playing in the "Tricky League," an unofficial league a step under the DSL. He then participated in the instructional league in Clearwater.
Ortiz is likely to remain in extended spring camp after the team's Minor League rosters are formed in April. These are baseball equivalents of the dark side of the moon, another breeding ground for legends. He probably won't play in games where statistics are formally kept until the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League begins play in late June.
So here's a necessary disclaimer: Ortiz is not going to show up at Citizens Bank Park any time soon, not only because he's the same age as high school juniors, but also because his immense talent is ever so raw. He still swings and misses a lot. Ortiz hasn't had much experience with breaking balls and offspeed stuff. It will take time.
"He's a young kid with a lot of tools," Amador said. "He's still unpolished, needs a lot of work. One thing we keep talking about, if he comes close to putting all his tools together, he's going to be an amazing ballplayer. But he's far away. He needs a lot of work. He's going to be OK, but he has a long way to go before anything happens, a long way before we get there."
Agostinelli was as wowed by the home run as anybody, but what really excited him was what happened next. The pitcher started working Ortiz away, and the young slugger began making an adjustment. In his next at-bat, he went with the pitch and roped an opposite-field line drive to right.
Ortiz's first Class A game of the spring on Tuesday showed both how far he has to come and how much he has to offer. Against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., he struck out three times and misplayed a fly ball that allowed three runs to score, putting his team down by one.
Ortiz led off the next inning by ripping a double to dead center, eventually scoring the tying run. Just one more chapter in the growing legend of Jhailyn Ortiz.