Here’s a well-worn story: A Dominican kid signs a contract with a Major League team, plays ball for a few seasons, struggles to develop as a prospect, and gets cut. This sort of thing happens so often it’s scarcely worth reporting. The kid finds another job or starts a family and that’s that. At least they get to say that they made a genuine effort to follow their dream. Most people never even get that far. The Dominican Summer League, or DSL, contains over 1000 players, most of them teenagers who haven’t even grown into their bodies, scattered across 40 teams. That’s way less than the number of kids who want to play ball, and way more than the number of kids who will actually turn it into a career. The odds of reaching minor league ball in the states, let alone the big leagues, are vanishingly slim.
Five years ago, Joaquin De La Cruz was just starting out as one of those kids. When he was 17, De La Cruz signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and reported to camp as a lanky corner infielder with a sweet glove and a violent swing. He proceeded to post a .215/.335/.281 batting line, flashing a good eye, but little else at the plate. That’s okay; he was young for his league, and would have a chance to develop next year.
That’s when disaster struck, helped by a dose of bad luck. On the heels of a .176 BABIP, De La Cruz regressed to a .127/.213/.152 triple-slash. He struck out more, took fewer walks, and tallied all of two extra base hits across 180 plate appearances. He was probably pressing some, knowing that he was playing his way out of St. Louis’ plans. At the end of the year, he was cut. It probably didn’t come as much of a surprise.
The best teams in baseball leave no stone unturned. Legions of organization employees scavenge international markets, plumb the waiver wire, and sift through spreadsheets, all in pursuit of talent and value. Someone in the Brewers organization saw some talent in Joaquin De La Cruz, even after his 2014 showing. Before the start of the 2015 season, Milwaukee handed him a contract and deposited him in their DSL facility, this time on the pitcher’s mound. Perhaps a scout was impressed by a rocket of a throw across the diamond.
The results were solid that first year, especially for a first-time pitcher. The right-handed De La Cruz pitched to a 4.62 ERA, but sported strong peripherals. He struck at a batter per inning, walked only 1.8 men per nine, and steadfastly refused to give up a home run. His 2.33 DRA foretold a future on the mound. De La Cruz was older than his competition now, but the Brewers were prepared to show him patience that St. Louis never had.
2016 was another strong year. Across 55 innings, De La Cruz struck out 46, walked just 15, gave up his first (and, to date, only) home run, and generated ground balls at a 59 percent clip. His DRA stood at 2.79, his ERA at 3.44. A surge in Milwaukee’s minor league depth made it tough to crack a stateside roster, but it wasn’t for lack of talent. De La Cruz returned to the Dominican Summer League for 2017, two years older than his teammates. His experience showed. Across 18 innings, De La Cruz fanned 17 batters, walked seven, kept an astonishing 77 percent of balls in play on the ground, and posted perfect 0.00 DRA.
That kind of performance would persuade any team to hand out a promotion, and De La Cruz’s came on June 22. He’s pitching for the Arizona League Brewers against same-age competition now, and he’s started in five of his nine appearances. He’s on fire, too. The relevant digits: 37.7 innings pitched, 42 Ks, 17 walks, 56 percent ground balls, a 2.87 ERA, a 2.01 DRA.
Of course, it’s one thing to taste some success on the lowest rungs of the minor-league ladder. Plenty of prospects do that. It’s quite another to improve and adjust and climb your way to the top. De La Cruz has a long journey ahead, perhaps even longer than the one he’s endured already. But even If his fastball flames out, he’s giving himself a longer look in front of organization officials, as well as those from other organizations, for that matter. If his arm breaks down, perhaps De La Cruz could still help the club one day as a translator, or a scout, or a coach. Those doors are open for him now, or more open than they were before his journey to Arizona. Or perhaps he’s the next Kenley Jansen. He could be setting up for fellow converts Parker Berberet and Nick Ramirez in the back of the Brewers’ bullpen five years from now. He could be leading the rotation. These outcomes are unlikely, of course. But so was De La Cruz’s journey to the States in the first place. No matter how the next few years play out, the 21-year-old has plenty of reasons to be proud.