Tapia aims to provide Rox with boost off bench
Outfielder focused on defensive versatility, English language skills at camp
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies outfielder Raimel Tapia figured that his quest for more Major League action could be more fruitful if he could talk the talk.
Improved English, he figured, can help his communication and planning as he adjusts to a bench role -- an area of struggle (.211 in 19 at-bats as a substitute in 2018) after a dynamic hitting career in the Minors (.319/.364/.461 slash line over eight seasons).
"I tried to speak it and learn a little bit more with my brother and people who spoke it down in the Dominican," said Tapia, who has spoken more English than before but had bullpen catcher Aaron Munoz translate this interview. "That's something I continue to work on.
"Especially if there is a lefty on the mound, I can talk to other players, communicate with them and get a better scouting report and have a better chance of being up there with a little more confidence."
After arriving at Spring Training, Tapia received a surprise. Turns out new hitting coach Dave Magadan's grandparents were from Spain and Cuba. Although Magadan grew up in Tampa, Fla., he spoke Spanish in his household.
"The first conversation we had, we spoke Spanish together and certainly it threw me off -- I said, 'Wow,'" Tapia said, smiling. "It definitely helped me with that relationship. When we talk hitting, we can communicate a little bit more. Things I can't say in English, I say them in Spanish. We've developed that relationship."
Whether it's a language (on a team that will start the season with just one other player from a Latin American country -- Venezuelan pitcher German Márquez -- on its 25-man roster) or a role he is adjusting to, Tapia realizes he can't let anything trip him.
Tapia, 25, long held a lofty place in the Rockies' prospect rankings. He debuted in the Majors in 2016, but an otherwise experienced outfield left him with irregular playing time. He slashed .263/.293/.263 in 22 games in '16 and showed more promise in 70 games in '17 -- .288/.329/.425.
But last Spring Training, Tapia couldn’t justify regular opportunity, so the Rockies burned his final Minor League option. Although he parked a key grand slam off the D-backs' Archie Bradley in an 11-10 victory on July 20, poor offensive execution and questionable defense limited him to 25 appearances.
Tapia regained forward momentum this spring. His statistics were modest (.250/.271/.393), but he finished strong and was solid at all three outfield positions.
But can Tapia clean up the areas of game awareness -- especially if his opportunities come late in close games -- and become a successful role player who pushes for even more opportunity?
Regular outfielders David Dahl, Ian Desmond and Charlie Blackmon have more experience, and Tapia must perform to their level of situational awareness late in close games.
"There will be communication during the game, because not everybody arrives at the big leagues the same way -- they don't always arrive playing every day," Magadan said. "Some guys force their way into more playing time by playing really well from the bench, by getting big hits off the bench, doing smart things on the bases and playing good defense.
"A big part of it is accepting that, running with it, taking advantage of those times you do get to play and not using it as an excuse -- not that he does, but I know a lot of players use that -- 'I've never done that. It’s hard.'"
Rockies manager Bud Black doesn't doubt Tapia's ability.
"When he's hot, he gets hitter-ish -- and he can hit," Black said. "And other times, there's a little bit of a chase in there, expanding the zone. You'd like to improve on that, because there are big league pitchers who can expose him.
"He's proven enough to think that he can handle big league pitching. Now the question is whether he can handle it in the type of role that we might want him in."
Wanting to maintain strength over a long season, Tapia arrived bulkier than before -- noticeably in the lower body, but he said he was careful to maintain speed. Tapia was clocked at a team-high 29.4 feet per second on plays measured by the Sprint Speed Leaderboard, and at 28.6 feet per second last year.
Running, hitting, fielding or even speaking, Tapia aims to be fluid.
"Last year was a learning experience," he said. "It was a down year, but I used the experience to prepare me this year. I can come in knowing the situation, knowing how I have to play defensively, knowing what to do on offense. I'm ready to go."