The first team to visit John Thurman Field this season brought with it the most intriguing player in the California League.
Inland Empire shortstop Roberto Baldoquin, a 20-year-old Cuban, agreed with the Angels on an $8 million contract late last fall, then had to wait through the visa process before reaching the states.
He finally arrived in America on March 13 and was put right into a uniform, with the Angels deciding to start his professional career at the High-A level and in the hands of 66ers manager Denny Hocking, a 13-year major league middle infielder.
“My first impressions were from right when he came over, and that was his first time in the states, so there were so many non-baseball things he had to get accustomed to, like the language,” Hocking said prior to Sunday’s game against Modesto. “We set him up with English lessons on the computer. But he had to learn to blend-in. In Cuba, everybody is Cuban. Here, everybody's different. It was a huge adjustment for him.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
“He's quiet and reserved, but the more he came to the field, got into a routine and understood what the Angels wanted from him as far as a work ethic was concerned, the more he started to come out of a shell. Now we see his personality. He's engaging. When you instruct him, he still won't look at you, but I think that's a cultural thing. We do have an interpreter and he does understand what we're trying to get through.”
The first impressions on the field have been impressive. He has many of the same on-field mannerisms as Miguel Tejada (who played in Modesto in 1996) but is slightly taller and thinner than Tejada.
Baldoquin appears to be a relaxed and instinctive fielder with excellent hands. He also has made five errors already this season, and four of them have been throwing errors. According to Hocking, that’s something being addressed immediately.
“He fields balls on the right side of his body, so his timing is off right away,” Hocking said. “He drags his right foot to gain timing, and then flips the ball from below his belt in a sinker motion. He made two of those errors the other night, and we have to pay attention to that because it affects the team.
“We took him aside yesterday and had him do a drill to get his footwork in order. We asked him to do that in the three throws he gets between innings, so that was 27 throws with proper footwork. He had about five plays last night, and his footwork was the way we worked on it until the last one. We're trying to teach a little thing here and there, starting with the footwork, and then everything else in his fielding will synch-up.”
And then there’s the early adjustments at the plate, and like so many young players Baldoquin started trying to hit every pitch, no matter the type or location. As a result he went hitless in the 66ers’ first two series, but went five-for-11 in the first three games at Thurman Field. He was rested in Sunday’s series finale.
“When he first started this season at the plate, he was trying to cover four different pitches in all locations,” Hocking said. “We've gotten him to sit on certain pitches in certain spots and he's having better at-bats.
“That all comes with the transition of playing every day and becoming accustomed to the American game and American culture.”
With Baldoquin making strides every day, Hocking said, Modesto fans can expect to see a completely different player when Inland Empire makes its second visit July 7-10.
VANDER TUIG IN SAN JOSE ROTATION
From Modesto, the 66ers travel for a three-game series in San Jose, where tonight they will face Oakdale High and UCLA grad Nick Vander Tuig - making his first start this season.
Vander Tuig, 23, is starting his third professional season. He’s 1-0 in three relief appearances this season and has not allowed a run in five innings.
REHAB START FOR ROCKIES’ DAVID HALE
David Hale will make the start for the Nuts tonight in their series-opener against Visalia. Hale, a starter for Atlanta last season, was supposed to be in the hunt for a spot in Colorado’s rotation before being sidelines by an oblige strain. He’ll throw three innings or 50 pitches for the Nuts, with the scheduled Modesto rotation moved back a day to accommodate the rehab start.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2150. Follow him on Twitter @modestobeek.