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For Rays’ Randy Arozarena, what’s next is a big question

The postseason star seems positioned to avoid the pitfalls that can follow breakout performances.
Rays leftfielder Randy Arozarena's rise from unheralded, though not unknown, prospect to postseason legend has been stunning.
Rays leftfielder Randy Arozarena's rise from unheralded, though not unknown, prospect to postseason legend has been stunning. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 27
Updated Feb. 27

PORT CHARLOTTE — As it turns out, Randy Arozarena can be stopped.

A video posted to social media in early January showed Arozarena, the Rays rookie who roared through the postseason at a record-smashing pace, standing in an open field near his adopted home in Mexico.

He was wearing sneakers, a black T-shirt and jeans.

And he was racing a horse.

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It wasn’t the first time. Before he fled Cuba in 2015, Arozarena said, he would test his speed against a neighborhood friend’s horses, racing over 20-30 meters.

“The same thing happened in Mexico,” Arozarena explained last week. “I had a friend who had a horse, and they’re going back and forth saying I wouldn’t be able to beat him. So, of course I had to take the challenge.’'

Of course he did.

Arozarena lost that race, the horse catching him just before the makeshift finish line.

Naturally, Arozarena wanted a rematch. This time, he wore shorts and ran barefoot. He also ran faster. As he said to a friend, “Who do you think won?”

That’s how things have been going for Arozarena, whose unbridled rise from unheralded, though not unknown, prospect to postseason legend has been stunning.

That he has done it with a simple, fun, if-it-feels-good-do-it approach and a gleaming smile has made the story even better. Rays officials are confident his sudden success won’t be fleeting.

Arozarena, who turns 26 on Sunday, made that clear when he first joined the Rays.

Acquired from St. Louis in a January 2020 trade, he made an impressive introductory showing before the original spring training was halted and the season delayed. A COVID-19 infection sidelined him for spring 2.0, and he spent the first month of the season at the alternate site working back into shape before an Aug. 30 call-up.

Having spent just a month in the majors with the Cardinals in 2019, Arozarena often found himself facing an unfamiliar opponent. But he didn’t need detailed scouting information to formulate a strategic game plan.

“He wants to know the velocity, and that’s pretty much it,” Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “I’ll say a few more things, and he acts like he’s not paying attention, but at least it makes me feel better that I told him.”

More times than not, Arozarena would take a good swing, flexing his quick bat and showing his extraordinary plate coverage and innate ability to cover and adjust to whatever pitch was thrown.

He was impressive in 21 September games. Then flat out amazing over 20 in the postseason.

By the time he was done, after the Rays lost the World Series to the Dodgers, he had tied or broken postseason records held by the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds.

The question of how he did it has been replaced by a follow-up: What can he do for an encore?

“Randy better do exactly what he did last October,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, presumably joking.

The simple math is staggering. If you took the 29 hits, 14 RBIs and 10 homers Arozarena posted in the Rays’ 20 postseason games and extrapolated them over a full 162-game season, he would finish with 235 hits, 113 RBIs and 81 homers. Yes, 81.

Obviously, Arozarena isn’t going to do that. But no one around the Rays wants to be the one to say it out loud.

Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, right, and infielder Wander Franco, left, warm up during the first day of full-squad workouts Tuesday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.
Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, right, and infielder Wander Franco, left, warm up during the first day of full-squad workouts Tuesday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“I think I’ve come to find out that I’m never going to doubt what Randy can do,” veteran catcher Mike Zunino said.

Arozarena said he doesn’t set season goals, focusing instead on being ready for each game, doing “whatever I can do to help the team at the moment,” with the cumulative payoff at the end. “I just know if I prepare for that game, I’ll get the results that I want,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro.

But that might not be entirely true. When Mottola saw Arozarena for the first time this spring, he said the outfielder pounded his chest and said, “40,” indicating the number of homers he was aiming for.

When a player breaks out the way Arozarena did, there tend to be two areas of concern for the next season.

One, that he gets too wrapped up in his success.

For Arozarena, that includes plans for a movie about his life and a documentary being filmed now about the production. Plus, there were deals with The Real Autograph memorabilia and Topps and Panini trading card companies, a memorabilia signing for Fanatics and other opportunities during a busy offseason that started with his November wedding.

Arozarena visited the mayor of Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan; did a clinic and motivational speech for inmates at a correctional facility; and provided equipment for underprivileged kids. He stepped up his social media presence, including fan chats on his Facebook page.

There also was the matter of Arozarena being held, but not charged, by Mexican authorities after a dispute with the mother of one of his daughters, an incident he said stemmed from “a miscommunication” that has since been resolved.

Cash said he hasn’t seen or heard any signs of egotism from Arozarena, and he doesn’t think he is that type of person, anyway. He certainly hasn’t looked it during initial full-squad workouts, engaging in lively conversations on the field (frequently with top prospect Wander Franco), performing dance moves with other teammates and be-bopping (Cash’s word) from drill to drill in the batting cages.

“It’s the same guy,” Cash said. “It’s not like he’s come in after a big month in the postseason and said, ‘This is my routine, this is how I’m going to go about it.’ He’s very loose with willing to try everything. Very accommodating. You watch him, he talks to everybody. People enjoy talking to him.”

Plus, Cash said, there would be heavy peer pressure if Arozarena did act out.

“I think his teammates are really going to help him,” Cash said. “They’re going to keep him humble. Not that anything has gone to his head, his success, but it’s a pretty good group, going back and forth and having fun with each other. They all respect how tough the game is.”

The other concern is that a breakout player might put too much pressure on himself to live up to and match his numbers from the previous season.

“Just the way he handled that, laughing and having fun, I don’t think he ever felt any pressure even during the playoffs, so why would he feel pressure to repeat it?” Mottola said. “The way he bounces around throughout the day and is treating it like a child’s game makes you think, I don’t know if he’s going to have the same type of success, but it’s not going to be the pressure that gets to him, that’s for sure.

“... It’s truly that he’s happy to be at the park and he’s having fun, where other guys are treating it as, ‘This is my occupation. I better do well. I have to repeat and keep my job.’ You don’t sense that same anxiety that a normal human being would have at this type of stage.”

Who said anything about Arozarena being normal?

“It’s a very fun game. I love this game. And you’ve got to have fun,” he said. “I know I put up some great numbers and some great results. That actually gives me motivation to go ahead and do it again and to try and repeat it. That’s the motivation it has given me every time I go back and think about it.”