Six weeks ago, he was a wish. Just another name, another prospect, another hope for another day.
You knew Tampa Bay had given up plenty to get Randy Arozarena, and you knew there was talk that he had talent to burn. But it was late August and the Rays had the best record in the American League, so Arozarena was simply tomorrow’s daydream.
Turns out, tomorrow got here in a hurry.
From practically the moment he arrived in the clubhouse, Arozarena has been Tampa Bay’s best hitter. His first start for the Rays was Aug. 31, and over the next six games he hit .500 with four home runs.
When the playoffs began a month later, he was hitting third in Tampa Bay’s lineup and still turning heads. After getting two more hits in Tuesday night’s 7-5 victory against the Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, Arozarena is now 9-for-16 with two doubles, a triple and two homers in four postseason games.
“It’s unbelievable what he’s doing right now,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash.
Hunter Renfroe? On the bench. Yoshi Tsutsugo? He’s there, too.
But Arozarena, 25, has been front and center, no matter whether the pitcher is left-handed, right-handed or hauling around a $324 million contract like New York’s Gerrit Cole.
“You’ve seen some of the things that Randy is capable of doing,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “You’ve seen his potential.”
The potential has been there forever. It just didn’t have the proper value attached until the Rays stunned a lot of baseball observers by dealing top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to acquire Arozarena from St. Louis in January.
So how did he go unnoticed for so long?
The truth is Arozarena has always been a promising talent, but his story grew in increments instead of in a rush. He was a budding star in Cuba at 19, but later told MLB.com he was concerned that he may not get the opportunity to thrive at home. His father had died unexpectedly when Arozarena was a teenager, so he sought his mother’s permission to escape Cuba on a tiny raft in 2015.
He spent a year playing in Mexico and getting his paperwork in order to be eligible for an MLB contract. He was 21 when the Cardinals signed him for $1.25 million in the summer of 2016, which is not a minor paycheck no matter how you look at it. But, to put it in perspective, 13 other Cuban players signed for more money in the United States that summer, including Adrian Morejon, who got $11 million from San Diego.
The truth is, Arozarena was easy to overlook. He was a top athlete, but didn’t have a true position. He played middle infield in Cuba and Mexico, but others saw him as a future centerfielder. While he had good plate discipline and a quick bat, he was rarely talked about as a future power hitter. He seemed to do everything well, but did not stand out from the crowd in any singular way.
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The breakthrough came in the summer of 2019 after two solid minor-league seasons. Arozarena hit .344 between Double-A and Triple-A, along with 15 home runs in 343 at-bats. By that winter, the Rays were enamored enough to deal Liberatore, who was the organization’s top pitching prospect.
Cash had heard plenty from the front office about Arozarena’s skills, but said it was still eye-opening to see him play as well as anybody in the roster in spring training. His season ended up being delayed when he tested positive for COVID-19 in the summer, but was ready to hit the big leagues a month after returning to the field.
“We don’t gauge a ton on spring training performances, but you’ve got to be excited about a guy you haven’t seen at all,” Cash said. "We’ve just acquired him in a trade, and we’re really trusting our (front office). We gave up a good pitcher in Matt Liberatore and (had) to know and be confident that we got a good player back.
“Randy, to his credit, picked up right where he left off from Port Charlotte. He missed the summer camp because he got sick, but after that he had about 2-3 weeks at the alternate site and (field coordinator) Michael Johns and that staff said, ‘He’s ready, he can really hit, he’s ready to go whenever you guys need him.’”
There are still lessons to be learned. Opponents will eventually stop challenging him so often with fastballs, and he’ll have to adjust to more off-speed pitches. His last six home runs have come off fastballs of 98, 95, 93, 95, 96 and 94 mph, including the last one off Deivi Garcia Tuesday night.
The prospect of making his own adjustments doesn’t seem to faze Arozarena.
“I’ve always considered myself a pretty good player, a pretty good hitter,” Arozarena said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I’ve worked hard and trained hard in doing so. Ever since the minor leagues and my time in Cuba, I’ve always hit and I’ve always carried those results over to whatever league or level I’m in.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.