'He stands out': Arozarena's star on the rise

October 2nd, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- Who is ?

The Rays’ dynamic rookie outfielder exploded onto the scene this season, establishing himself as one of the best young players in the Major Leagues. Arozarena hit seven home runs, stole four bases and posted a 1.022 OPS in 64 at-bats over 23 games, performing so well that manager Kevin Cash inserted him into the third spot of the lineup during the team’s American League Wild Card Series sweep of the Blue Jays. And he delivered, going 4-for-9 with three extra-base hits and giving the baseball world a preview of what’s to come.

“It just seems like once he gets pitched tough or he swings and misses on a pitch, it’s like he puts it in his memory bank -- and if you go back to that pitch, he’s ready for it,” Cash said. “That’s the sign of a really, really good hitter that can make adjustments within the at-bat or from at-bat to at-bat in a game.”

Since joining the team on Aug. 30 against the Marlins, the Rays are 11-6 when Arozarena is in the starting lineup. Over the last month of the season, Arozarena led top-seeded Tampa Bay with seven home runs and nine extra-base hits, and he was fourth on the team with 17 hard-hit balls.

Arozarena’s bat speed is the first thing that stands out, but it’s hardly the only tool at his disposal. The 25-year-old averages 29 feet per second on the bases, which is comfortably above the 27 feet per second average, and he has proven to be a versatile defender with plus arm strength at all three outfield spots. All those tools will have people asking, “Who the heck is that guy?”

This is Randy Arozarena.

At just 19 years old, Arozarena was the starting second baseman for Pinar del Río in the Cuban National Series. He led the club with 15 stolen bases and was third with three home runs despite being the youngest player on the roster.

Despite his success, when Pinar del Río constructed its roster for the 2015 Serie del Caribe in Puerto Rico, they elected to take older players over Arozarena. The belief is that the Cuban team feared a potential defection, but being left off the roster is what ultimately forced Arozarena to think about his future.

“I felt like I was going to get left behind, the same way a lot of other players have before,” Arozarena told MLB.com in Spanish. “In Cuba, if you have a bad week or two, they put you to the side and forget about you. But I said, ‘Before that happens to me, I’m going to get out of here.’”

Arozarena comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in Havana, Cuba’s capital city, where he relied on his father to provide for his family. Arozarena’s “job” was to focus on school and sports. Soccer was Arozarena’s first passion and is still one of his favorite hobbies, which could explain his lightning-fast footwork on the basepaths. His brother, Raiko, is the goalkeeper for Venados F.C., a team in the second division of the Mexican League.

“He used to play baseball and I used to play soccer,” Arozarena smiled. “So the roles have reversed now.”

Arozarena didn’t start playing baseball until his soccer coach took him to a practice where a local team needed extra players. Once he got a hold of a bat, Arozarena quickly traded in his soccer cleats for baseball spikes, and as time went on, he began displaying the bat speed the Rays fell in love with from afar. At just 18 years old, he signed a professional contract with Pinar del Río.

Throughout his journey, his father, Jesus, was his greatest supporter, never missing a practice or a game. In 2014, his father attended one of his playoff games in another town, where he ate a seafood plate that gave him an intense allergic reaction. He died shortly afterward.

“Losing my dad at such a young age was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, and losing him in a baseball field, that has really stuck with me and gets me really sad when I think about it,” Arozarena said. “After that happened, I just felt alone.”

Following his father’s death, Arozarena’s role around the house changed. He immediately felt responsible to help his family financially, creating more urgency for him to pursue a professional career in the United States.

This is Randy Arozarena.

With his mind made up about leaving Cuba, Arozarena had a difficult conversation with his mother, who became his closest confidant in the wake of his father’s death. Both understood the consequences of defecting, including the possibility of never seeing each other again. He only made his plans with his mother’s blessing.

“You honestly just have to risk your life for your family,” Arozarena said. “I took the chance and thankfully, I got here without any problems, and now I’m representing the Tampa Bay Rays.”

Just a few weeks later, Arozarena’s plan to leave for Mexico was in motion. He was only 19 when he decided to leave his family behind and get into a “lancha,” which is essentially a glorified kayak. Arozarena doesn’t remember exactly how many people were with him, but he estimates there were eight others on board.

He spent about eight hours in the Gulf of Mexico, praying he would land safely. Rays infielder , who also defected from Cuba, said he saw sharks during his journey. Arozarena said he only saw sea turtles and groups of dolphins. The fear, however, was the same.

“When you’re in the ocean, the only thing you’re thinking about and hoping for is that you get there safely,” Arozarena said. “There’s been people that are out in the ocean for days, months, and there are others that don’t make it because they die. But when you’re in one of those fake boats in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, the only thing you could do is hope that you survive.”

Once he arrived in Mexico, Arozarena had to wait to get all the necessary paperwork in order to be eligible to sign with a Major League organization. That process took a year and three months. In the meantime, Major League scouts kept their eye on the 21-year-old as he played for Tijuana in the Mexican League.

During his time there, Arozarena continued to prove himself against older competition. The Cardinals, who ultimately signed him to a $1.25 million deal as an international free agent in 2016, had kept tabs on the outfielder dating back to when he played on the Cuban Under-18 World Cup team in '13. That team also included White Sox infielder and outfielder , Marlins prospect Victor Victor Mesa and Orioles prospect Yusniel Diaz.

“He played a lot of second base in Cuba, and when we saw him in Mexico, he was playing center field -- and that was good to see,” said Cardinals assistant general manager Moisés Rodriguez. “He looked natural. He was athletic, a quick twitch, he was a hitter, he ran -- just a lot of tools that you look for.”

This is Randy Arozarena.

After signing with St. Louis when he was 22, Arozarena played his first professional season in the U.S. with Class A Advanced Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. Naturally, it was a culture shock for Arozarena, who didn’t understand the language.

For the first two months that year, Arozarena felt alone again. He couldn’t communicate with his teammates, he couldn’t laugh at jokes, and nobody could understand his personality or appreciate his humor.

“I didn’t have friends. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt really weird,” Arozarena said. “But then I looked around and I told myself that I was here by myself and I just need to give 100 percent and not worry about anything else and just play baseball because that’s what I know.”

Arozarena credited an improved mentality to his success later that season. He hit 11 home runs in his first Minor League season and his teammates began to gravitate towards him. In 2018, Arozarena got a taste of Triple-A, but he said he didn’t feel quite ready. He struck out 59 times in 89 games with Memphis and was sent back down to Double-A, where he hit seven home runs in 24 games.

The following season, Arozarena was with Triple-A Memphis again, but this time, he proved he was ready. He hit 12 home runs and posted a 1.028 OPS in 64 games, instantly becoming one of the best young players in the Cardinals’ farm system. In August, he earned his big league callup, accomplishing what he set out to do when he left Cuba.

“The Minor Leagues were tough, but when I left Cuba, I knew what the struggles were going to be,” Arozarena said. “I started to get along with some of my Dominican teammates. And the teammates that didn’t speak Spanish, I would make them understand me. That gave me a lot of confidence, and then I was able to get through that.”

This is Randy Arozarena.

Trading pitchers like Matthew Liberatore -- the league’s No. 6 left-handed pitching prospect, per MLB Pipeline -- is simply not something the Rays usually do. But on Jan. 9, they sent him, catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez and a second-round supplemental Draft pick to the Cardinals for Arozarena, first baseman José Martínez and a supplemental first-round pick. Tampa Bay’s willingness to include Liberatore, which it believed could be a future Cy Young Award winner, in the deal speaks to just how much it wanted the athletic outfielder.

It was a gamble, to be sure, but it appeared to be a winning one almost immediately. After an impressive Spring Training in which he hit .400 with nine walks and three stolen bases, Arozarena was in line to be a big part of the Rays’ lineup when they took the field for Summer Camp in July.

But then came his next challenge.

Arozarena tested positive for COVID-19 during intake testing. He continued to test positive for more than a month, forcing him to miss Summer Camp and the first month of the 2020 season, despite being mostly asymptomatic.

During quarantine at an apartment in St. Petersburg, Arozarena learned how to cook. All he knew how to make was chicken and rice, so that’s what he ate almost every day. He paired that with nearly 300 pushups a day and reported to the alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla., with almost 15 added pounds of muscle.

After spending nearly three weeks rehabbing there, the Rays called up Arozarena on Aug. 30 in Miami. The outfielder hasn’t looked back.

“You don’t expect guys to have [that type of success] immediately, for sure,” said Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola. “But the fact that he’s done it isn’t surprising. I saw him on video, and I didn’t know much about him when we were looking to acquire him, and I immediately lit up. He stands out immediately.”

This is Randy Arozarena.

Off the field, Arozarena is as calm as it gets. He continues to work on his English but still isn’t fluent enough to have a long conversation. Arozarena says he’s always been a calm person who is focused on staying mentally strong and ready to play. Despite the language barrier, he’s starting to show his personality more, as evidenced by a dance battle against Rays outfielder after the team won the AL East at Citi Field on Sept. 23. Arozarena admits he lost the battle, but joked he was just “trying to move his body a little bit.”

“He doesn’t say much, but he’s a sparkplug in our lineup. There’s no other way to put it,” said Rays catcher . “The way he’s been going of late, he’s carried us in some games.”

On the field, Arozarena has repeatedly delivered for the Rays. He got them on the board with a two-run homer in the first inning of a heated 5-2 win over the Yankees on Sept. 2. He hit two home runs in the 8-5 win over the Mets that secured Tampa Bay’s first division title since 2010.

Arozarena was also responsible for the Rays' first run this postseason, ripping a leadoff triple in the fourth inning off Blue Jays pitcher Robbie Ray and scoring on a wild pitch to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. He flashed his elite speed in that sequence, running 29.7 feet per second.

“I think there’s going to get a point in his career where people are not going to say, ‘Who is that guy?’” Cash said. “He’s going to show that he’s consistently really good. He’s a special player and has already shown the ability to do special things.”

This is Randy Arozarena. A star in the making.