Omar Vizquel’s major-league debut came less than two weeks before Adeiny Hechavarria was born on April 15, 1989.
Now Vizquel, the 11-time Gold Glove winner with 2,841 hits in the majors, has a locker next to Hechavarria’s in the Toronto Blue Jays’ clubhouse. It is Vizquel’s job to mentor the kid some believe can become what Vizquel has been – a measuring stick for all other defensive shortstops.
“This kid has great hands and the perfect body to play shortstop with those long legs,” Vizquel, 44, said of Hechavarria, who is 5 foot 11, 180 pounds. “He has great range and all the tools to become a great shortstop.
“It makes me feel proud to know some of these kids were not even born when I came up to the majors. I have a big responsibility to show him and others that, at this age, I can still move and play the game. Maybe this guy can do it too, play for 20 years.”
The Jays beat the New York Yankees and others to the talented Cuban, signing him in 2010 to a four-year contract worth $10-million (U.S.). Two months before he signed, George King of The New York Post wrote of Hechavarria: “Do the Yankees have their sights set on Derek Jeter’s eventual replacement, who could be a future centre fielder who nudges Curtis Granderson to left?”
Toronto coaching assistant Luis Rivera shakes his head and can’t stop smiling when describing Hechavarria, whom he managed at Double-A New Hampshire in 2010.
“His range is unbelievable,” Rivera said. “His hands are soft and he has a great arm, really strong. He’s a very exciting player.”
Is he a future All-Star?
“I sure hope so,” Rivera said. “He’s got every tool to be that. One day, he will win a Gold Glove in the big leagues.”
Hechavarria, 22, nodded when the praises were repeated for him.
“For me,” he said, “I feel good to hear everybody talk about how I am playing, and what I will do in the game.”
He takes daily English classes with other young Latin players, and had Jays infielder Luis Valbuena translate some questions during an interview. But he did not shy away from talking and trying to answer questions in his second language.
Facing challenges is something Hechavarria handles well.
“When I managed him at New Hampshire,” Rivera said, “he showed everybody what they were talking about. He had the range and the arm, but not the bat. He’d hit [.193]at Class A with Dunedin, but we challenged him to work hard and become better. And he did. He put the time in at the cages and got stronger.”
He batted .273 for New Hampshire when promoted that season, and last year hit .389 in 25 games for Triple-A Las Vegas.
“Again,” Rivera said, “he accepted the challenge and stepped up. He has gained 10 pounds in two years. He is stronger and smarter, and gaining power.”
Hechavarria had eight home runs, eight triples and 28 doubles last year in 572 minor-league at-bats. Rivera said his power should improve, and he sees him “hitting about .270 in the majors.”
“Yeah, I have more power than last year,” Hechavarria said. “I trained a lot, lifting weights.”
Rivera said Hechavarria “just needs to develop his swing” and “be more selective at the plate.”
He needs to hit enough to justify putting his great glove in the lineup. The Jays have him working at second base, and that could lead to a midseason call-up should second baseman Kelly Johnson not perform well enough to hold on to the starting role.
“Second is a little different for me,” Hechavarria said. “The ground balls to my right are different, but I am practising and getting better. It would be no problem.”
“He’s major-league ready defensively,” Toronto manager John Farrell said, “and he’s gained bat strength. What he ends up being offensively remains to be seen. But he’s one bright-looking prospect, and he’s really pretty special with his range.
“Fluid, graceful and explosive is a rare combination.”
Hechavarria expects to spend most of this season with Las Vegas, and lacks only the finishing touches Vizquel can provide.
“They can work side by side,” Farrell said. “Omar can teach him verbally and by what he shows him. That’s part of why Omar’s here. And it’s pretty special to watch.”
Special to The Globe and Mail