Cuban outfielder Urrutia has sights set on big leagues
SARASOTA, Fla. -- When he finally could see it, smell it, and feel the dirt of the baseball field underneath his cleats, Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia stopped for a moment and took a deep breath of satisfaction. Seven months since agreeing with the Orioles on a Minor League deal, Urrutia -- who had been stuck in Haiti trying to secure a work visa -- wanted to remember everything he could about that moment at the Orioles' Minor League facility in Twin Lakes Park on Monday morning.
"[It was] probably the happiest thing that's happened to him the last couple of years," director of the Orioles Dominican Republic Academy Felipe Alou Jr., who served as Urrutia's interpreter, said at a press conference introducing him Wednesday morning. "He's really happy and thankful that the Orioles are giving him this opportunity."
Urrutia's signing, which includes a $778,500 bonus, gives the Orioles a bona fide outfield prospect who could reach Baltimore by year's end. Scouted and recommended by national cross-checker Danny Haas and the legendary Fred Ferreira -- who is most recently responsible for Orioles righty Miguel Gonzalez -- Urrutia is a 26-year-old left-handed-hitter with a 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and plenty of potential.
"He has a really good bat from the left side," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said of Urrutia, who made the decision recently to give up switch-hitting. "I think that's his best asset.
"He has a terrific pedigree with his family. And I really like his thinking. He said, 'My idea was to come to the States to come to the big leagues.' So he's very clear on what his intent is. And that's our intent, too. He just needs to get back into playing condition."
Urrutia, scouted while playing in the Dominican Republic, last played in a game in Japan in 2010 -- before he defected from Cuba -- and he said he did his best to stay in good physical condition while in limbo in Haiti, where there were no fields accessible. Asked what he enjoyed the most about the United States since flying into Miami on Feb. 27, Urrutia didn't hesitate, saying through Alou that he would sleep on the baseball fields if he was allowed.
"This is a pretty polished guy," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who sat in the press conference along with Duquette, to hear Alou and Urrutia speak. "I can't tell you about baseball for sure, but I can tell you the rest of it is pretty impressive. He understands what he's getting ready to do.
"He's engaged. You can tell this is a guy that's played a high level of baseball. He's a confident kid."
That confidence was on full display Wednesday afternoon, as Urrutia -- who grew up idolizing another Ferreira find in Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams -- made it clear that he's here to make an impact for the Orioles.
"His idea is not to play [in the] Minor Leagues," Alou said. "When he got out of Cuba, his dream is to be a big league player. The way Yoenis [Cespedes] did last year [for Oakland], the kind of year he put up, kind of just pushes [Urrutia and other Cubans] to give more and to work harder, just preparation for them. Like he says, he is not here to be a Minor League player. That's his dream [to be a Major Leaguer], and he is going to work hard for it."
Urrutia, who would watch games on television or online if Internet access was available, has long been a student of the game. He started playing baseball at age six and steadily moved up the ranks in Cuba before defecting to the Dominican Republic, where he worked out for several Major League clubs. The Orioles -- who played a game in Cuba in 1999 that Urrutia watched in the stands -- were interested in the outfielder from the get-go, following him in international competition and scouting his time on the Cuban national team in 2010.
Since Urrutia's last season in competitive baseball came when he was 24, Duquette was asked if he was concerned about the long layoff in getting him Stateside.
"These careers are short and they're fragile, and Henry was having trouble getting a platform to continue his career and to start his career as a professional," Duquette said. "But we got beyond that, and he's still young. He reported in very good shape. It looks to me that, with his drive and his pedigree, he'll be able to do what he does well for the Orioles."
Urrutia figures to start at Double-A Bowie to get his legs under him and get used to playing again. He's comfortable in all three outfield positions, although he projects as more of a corner outfielder. Duquette said Urrutia has also played some first base, although Showalter said his focus this spring will be on playing the outfield in Minor League camp.
"I'm glad we are going to start him down there," Showalter said. "Who knows, maybe before spring is over, we will get him back [in big league camp] for a game or two. I'll lean on what they tell me. He's in their hands now. Very capable hands.
"We have high hopes for him. It's been a while, so we got to be patient with the amount of time he's been away from it and adjustments he's got to make to life here. So, just because it's delayed doesn't mean it's denied. He will reach his level. And we think it's got a chance to be the big leagues."
Wearing wrist guards emblazoned with his name, Urrutia took the time to thank the Orioles' organization for the opportunity on Wednesday. He said leaving his family behind -- his wife is in Haiti while the rest of his family is in Cuba -- was an incredibly tough decision. As he acclimates to the life in the United States and, as he put it, the much healthier food, Urrutia is also excited to begin his professional baseball career.
"He felt welcome from Day One when he came in here to the office and to Minor League camp," Alou said. "It was his dream to be a professional player, and to be part of the Baltimore Orioles is the best. He's very happy to be with the Orioles."