Part of the allure of spring training is spotting The Next Big Thing, before he breaks out for the world to see. It's the same feeling...
PEORIA, Ariz. — Part of the allure of spring training is spotting The Next Big Thing, before he breaks out for the world to see.
It’s the same feeling, no doubt, experienced by lucky souls who saw Robin Williams riffing at comedy clubs in the Bay Area or Bruce Springsteen rocking at New Jersey dive bars in the 1970s.
Last week, I saw the Mariners’ future, and its name is Carlos Triunfel.
OK, perhaps that intentional echo of Jon Landau’s famous 1974 Springsteen rave is a little melodramatic.
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Triunfel, after all, is just a babe in arms in baseball terms, less than a month removed from his 18th birthday. He has yet to hit his first professional home run, and innumerable potential pitfalls still await him on the road to stardom.
And yet, sometimes you just can tell when someone has “got it.” After watching Triunfel for a few days on a distant minor-league practice field at the Mariners’ spring complex here, I’m going to go out on a limb — just me and every scout who has ever seen him play — and say that Triunfel has the touch of greatness.
He’s a shortstop (for now), signed out of the Dominican Republic in September 2006, at the tender age of 16, by the Mariners’ zealous international maven, Bob Engle.
Engle, officially Seattle’s vice president of international operations, is also the man responsible for Felix Hernandez — the last Mariners teenager to inspire such feelings. Engle’s web of scouts and contacts in Latin America — and his ability to identify and corral young talent — is one of the hidden assets of the Mariners’ organization.
In Triunfel’s case, it was the Mariners’ Dominican scout, Patrick Guerrero, who first was wowed by the kid from Santiago. Those feelings were confirmed by Pedro Grifol, their coordinator of instruction. That’s when Engle swooped in.
“I got to see him play a few times, and we worked him out in our academy,” Engle said last week from Venezuela, where he was scouting a new crop of young talent. “Everything came together. We felt we had a good line on Carlos. We felt very good about him, obviously.”
The final proof of Triunfel’s unique talent was the fact that super-agent Scott Boras took him on as a client. Boras doesn’t take on stiffs. With former Mariners infielder Domingo Ramos, now a Boras associate, working as liaison, Engle knew he would have to outbid the usual suspects — the Yankees and Red Sox, among a half-dozen teams dealing with Boras.
I spoke to Triunfel in the Mariners’ minor-league clubhouse, with Rafael Colon, one of the organization’s mental-skills coaches, serving as interpreter. Asked why he chose the Mariners, Triunfel spoke in Spanish to Colon, and they both laughed.
Colon’s blunt translation: “Seattle offered more.”
According to reports, the Mariners gave Triunfel a $1.3 million bonus, big money for someone who was the equivalent of a high-school sophomore. But it has proved to be a wise investment, as Engle suspected it would be.
“This kid loves to play the game,” he said. “You have to tear the uniform off him. To me, that’s a real plus. He’s an aggressive kid with a very good bat. He has an advanced approach to hitting for a young man, and a great arm. He has a chance to be a front-line player.”
After breaking into professional ball in Seattle’s instructional league in the winter after the 2006 season, Triunfel started last year at Class A Wisconsin — extraordinary for a 17-year-old. Even more extraordinary, he hit .309 in 43 games to make the Midwest League All-Star team.
A thumb injury kept Triunfel out for nearly six weeks, but after his rehab, the Mariners employed their trademark “sink or swim” prospect philosophy by elevating Triunfel to High Desert.
That’s their high Class A team in the California League, featuring prospects up to five years older than him. Triunfel more than held his own, hitting .288 in 50 games, albeit with just 12 extra-base-hits in 208 at-bats.
The Mariners believe that the power will come. At 5 feet 11 and 175 pounds, he is most often likened to countryman Miguel Tejada, a comparison that appeals to Triunfel.
“Tejada is my idol,” he said. “I’m very proud of the fact I would be compared to him.”
As much as the physical adjustment to professional baseball, Triunfel must deal with being dropped into a new culture without knowledge of the language.
Greg Hunter, the Mariners’ director of player development, says he reminds Triunfel every time he sees him that he needs to learn English, and Triunfel is working hard at it. But it’s coming slowly.
“I find it a little strange,” Triunfel said of his cultural adjustment, “because I don’t speak English. But I feel good. I feel comfortable, and I’m slowly learning.”
Some scouts believe that Triunfel will ultimately wind up as a third baseman or corner outfielder. Hunter said Triunfel will likely start the year back at High Desert. But if the Mariners like what they see, he will continue to shoot quickly up the ranks.
If Triunfel remains on the fast track, it’s conceivable he could be ready to replace Adrian Beltre at third base when Beltre’s five-year contract expires after the 2009 season.
Hunter, however, believes it’s possible that Triunfel will remain at shortstop.
“He has a tremendous arm, so if he can play shortstop, which it looks like he might be able to do, that’s a premium position where you can end up having an impact bat,” Hunter said. “That goes a long way.”
The Orioles were said to covet Triunfel in the Erik Bedard trade, and the Mariners were ecstatic they didn’t have to include him. While Triunfel has flaws in both his offensive and defensive game, his progress has delighted the Mariners.
“We had high expectations, and he’s lived up to everything,” Hunter said. “Physically, he’s very mature. You look at what he looks like in a uniform, and he looks like a man.”
Hunter quickly added, “His face is younger,” an observation that helps bring one down to earth. It’s important to remember that Triunfel is now, by age, a high-school senior. In other words, a work in progress.
Jim Callis, who evaluates minor-leaguers for Baseball America, is cautious in his assessment of Triunfel, who is ranked 62nd in his publication’s most recent ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball.
While lauding Triunfel’s showing at age 17, hitting nearly .300 in two Class A Leagues (“I can’t remember anyone doing that well at that level at that age before”), Callis added:
“He still has to develop his power and plate discipline, and scouts I’ve talked to aren’t sold that he’s a shortstop. But he has plenty of time to refine his game and can become an above-average third baseman, perhaps even a star. I’m very interested in seeing how he progresses this year.”
I asked Triunfel if he envisioned having the same success as his man, Tejada, the American League Most Valuable Player in 2002. He didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I envision playing at that level, and succeeding.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.