There’s some mysterious activity going on these days at a remote beachfront property in the Dominican Republic. The media occasionally comes and goes, but the reason for their presence has created some curiosity. Is President Danilo Medina hosting a regional summit? Has Congressman Charlie Rangel bought another vacation hideaway? Actually, all the hype hovers around a muscular 16 year old baseball player, and his private workouts are no longer much of a secret.
Just when it was rumored that the talent pool of Cuban peloteros was starting to dry up, a kid named Lazaro Armenteros has surfaced, and veteran scouts claim he’s the best thing produced on the island since Santiago rum. Everyone simply calls him Lazarito, which is to say that that he has already become the Cuban version of Japan’s Ichiro. If fans recognize an athlete solely by his first name, that’s some serious shit.
Truth be told, baseball’s supreme experts can only speculate how well Lazarito will perform at higher levels, because he hasn’t played competitively for 18 months. Yet, it’s certainly obvious that the 6′-2″, 205 pound youngster has mad skills, because he has already turned down a $15 million offer to play overseas. Lazarito has that rare combination of speed, strength and agility that Coach Tom Coughlin would find useful in the New York Giants backfield. The Havana native is clearly a special talent, and his defection is an embarrassment for the Cuban regime.
Most of the world got its only peek at Armenteros when Cuba’s 15-under squad participated in a baseball World Cup at Culiacan, Mexico in 2014. Playing as a 14 year old corner outfielder, Lazarito hit .462 with three doubles and five triples, earning him a spot on the All-Tournament team. After achieving such success, Armenteros and his parents were stunned when he was removed from the club this year. That meant no more international exposure and an uncertain future. Many insiders who wish to remain anonymous claim that Lazaro Armenteros Sr., the boys father, had dared to speak out against the government and the family was being punished. That accusation has never been proven, making it more probable that the teen was considered a flight risk in a quest for better opportunities. Ironically, that notion was unfounded as well.
Lazarito has already become the Cuban version of Japan’s Ichiro.
“I had planned to continue my career in Cuba,” says Lazarito sincerely. ” But after what happened, I knew I had to leave. I wasn’t going to quit playing and stop developing.”
It should be pointed out that despite the relaxing of sanctions against the Communist island, rules pertaining to Cuban defectors remain unchanged until MLB owners and the players union can hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2016 season. So, for the time being, athletes must continue to establish residency in a third party country in order to sign a big league contract. Aware of the circumstances, Armenteros and his mother first flew to Ecuador to try and set up shop. But the pair were sent home, even though wealthy American retirees are welcomed with open arms. Plan B was then set in motion, which entailed a flight to Russia with an itinerary that would eventually loop around to arrive in Haiti. That raised a red flag with officials in Moscow, which resulted in another return trip to Havana. During a layover in Germany, however, Lazarito purchased a separate ticket direct to Port-au Prince, where he landed safely and settled in.
Haiti has been a popular sanctuary for Cuban players, including Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Dariel Abreu, and official baseballs used to be made there during better times. But the extreme poverty that now exists was a shocker for Armenteros, who grew up poor himself. Temporarily residing in a ramshackle Haitian house, he was dismayed to observe residents line up to consume scraps from a garbage can.
Over 200 scouts and front office executives are expected to be in attendance when Lazarito stages a showcase event on January in Dominican Republic.
“It woke me up,” revealed Lazarito, who has six siblings. “It just made me more determined to achieve my goals and help my family.”
With the help of his agent Ariel Nunez of the Culture 39 sports group, Armenteros was able to cross over the border to the Dominican Republic last May and train in better surroundings while his paperwork is being examined. Due to all the travel and general chaos, the youngster missed the free agent registration deadline, and it’s not clear whether he can sign immediately or must wait until the new international selection process resumes next July. Teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and World Champion Royals are hoping Lazarito will be eligible sooner than later, since they have already exceeded pool money and would be unable to make a deal once the new period begins. Other organizations such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Diamondbacks are already in the penalty phase and can only make minimal offers to international prospects. Still, over 200 scouts and front office executives are expected to be in attendance when Lazarito stages a showcase event on January 8th at the plush San Diego Padres Dominican facilities in San Cristobal. The feedback should be interesting because the flashy teen isn’t the only prize prize prospect on the radar screen.
According to Ben Badler of Baseball America, a guru of sorts when it comes to handicapping Cuban talent, there are several players who get higher marks than Armenteros. One prospect in particular is Jorge Ona, 19, an outfielder with Serie Nacional experience who tore it up in the COPABE Pan American Games. Badler refers to Ona as “a beast.” Another polished player in clearance limbo is Randy Arozarena, 20, a versatile youngster capable of covering center field or shortstop. He is smaller than Armenteros and Ona, but more advanced in overall makeup.
Rankings don’t seem that important, though, when looking at a player like Lazarito. He’s a diamond in the rough, but the intrigue and high ceiling seem to be all that matters. The only question is whether or not an organization is willing to shell out millions of dollars in bonus money for an investment that may not bear fruit until 2020.
The answer, of course, will be yes.