PORT CHARLOTTE — Cole Figueroa showed up in Rays camp with an intriguing enough back story.
A father, Bien, who played briefly in the majors before going into coaching, and a godfather, Luis Alicea, who had an even more prominent career. An identical twin brother, Correy, whom he played alongside through high school in Tallahassee. An interesting decision to play for the Gators. A part of what has turned out to be an overwhelmingly one-sided trade with San Diego.
But it's what the 25-year-old infielder has done over the past few weeks that could turn out to be really interesting.
"I'd only heard about this guy through the minor-league people, but this guy is going to play in the big leagues," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's the kind of guy that people sometimes are afraid to put their stamp of approval on. … He's a big-league player for me. Cole Figueroa is a very good 'baseball player.' "
Maddon uses that term generally, and appropriately, because Figueroa is the type who impresses as much with how intelligently he plays as what he actually does on the field, a scrappy left-handed hitter who works tough at-bats and has the athleticism and versatility to play anywhere on the field, though he's only (as he puts it) "Five-nine and a half-ish."
Figueroa has impressed in a variety of ways, besides starting the spring hitting .462 (6-for-13).
Late in one game, Maddon went to the mound to set the defense and Figueroa made a suggestion about their positioning that turned out to be exactly the right move. During another, while teammates were high-fiving Figueroa for making a dazzling inning-ending play, he was — correctly — mad at himself for being in the wrong spot and making what should have been a routine play difficult.
"In a very respectful way, he'll throws things at me. He's right on top of things. He's not afraid to open up, to make a suggestion. … And he's highly accountable," Maddon said. "Those are the kind of things you don't get out of young guys very often. … I really like his mind."
None of this is a surprise to Bien, who after 11 years as a player (including 12 games with the Cardinals in 1992) and a dozen as a minor-league coach and manager is running a baseball school outside Tallahassee.
"He's very smart," Bien said. "He's been on the baseball field since he was born. He works hard. He knows how to play the game. And he plays the right way."
Figueroa is good at making first impressions. He was a 19-year-old freshman at Florida in April 2007, batting leadoff against the No. 1-ranked team in the country and its ace lefty pitcher, who would be the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. He battled through four at-bats, notching two of the Gators' four hits, impressing everyone, including that opposing starter.
"He was the toughest college hitter I faced in three years," David Price said across the Rays clubhouse. "It was hard to throw a pitch he would swing and miss at. He put everything in play. He was a very tough out."
Figueroa has earned that reputation. He starred at Tallahassee's Lincoln High; he played short with Correy — who went on to St. Petersburg College, the University of Tampa and independent ball — at second. Then he decided to escape the shadow of Bien, who was an All-American at FSU, and the mothering Cindy would want to continue to provide and go to Florida.
The Padres made him a sixth-round pick in 2008, but he was still in A ball after three years when he was sent to Tampa Bay in a four-player package for shortstop Jason Bartlett. The other three — relievers Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell — have all played for the Rays. Figueroa has a good chance to be the fourth.
He worked his way from Double-A Montgomery to Triple-A Durham last year and figures to be back there in April, shuttling between second, third and shortstop, working the kind of quality at-bats the Rays value (career on-base percentage: .384). The invitation to major-league camp was the first step; next is showing he indeed can play in the big leagues.
"I'm confident I will," Figueroa said. "I think it's very realistic. Just being here, I know sometimes they just need bodies, but I think it was an opportunity, and that's how I'm taking it."
Maddon has little doubt, comparing him to a similar-sized player who had a big role on his teams.
"He's the kind of guy people say he's not that big, he's not that tall, and thus you don't give him enough credit," Maddon said. "I don't care how tall he is. He's an interesting guy. I know he's an under-the-radar kind of guy. So was David Eckstein. I like him."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]