After two years away from the game, a defection to the U.S., multiple showcases for professional teams, Heredia on Wednesday jogged onto fields at the Mariners’ spring-training complex as a member of a Major League Baseball organization.
PEORIA, Ariz. — He waited two years for the opportunity, but had spent a lifetime dreaming of it.
Early Wednesday morning when many of his teammates were still wiping the sleep from their eyes, Guillermo Heredia already was in a Mariners uniform eagerly awaiting the start of their workout. He couldn’t put the uniform on fast enough.
After two years away from the game, a defection to the U.S., multiple showcases for professional teams and waiting the past few days for his contract to become official, Heredia jogged onto fields at the Mariners’ spring-training complex as a member of a Major League Baseball organization.
Mariners 7, Padres 0
Notable: The Mariners banged out 12 hits and clubbed three homers (by Chris Iannetta, Franklin Gutierrez and Stefen Romero) in their Cactus League opener at Peoria Stadium. Mariners hitters struck out just two times. James Paxton looked strong, pitching two scoreless innings without allowing a hit. The only baserunner came on a walk. He threw 39 pitches with 19 strikes. Robinson Cano looked healthy, lining a single in his first at-bat and turning a nifty double play with a backhand glove flip to Ketel Marte in the third inning.
Player of the game: Iannetta belted a two-run homer in his first at-bat, yanking a 2-2 slider over the wall in left field off right-hander Luis Perdomo. In his second at-bat with one out and runners on the corners, Iannetta hit a deep fly to center, which allowed Adam Lind to tag up and score.
Quotable: “We did exactly what we wanted to do — use the middle half of the plate. The big emphasis was throwing strikes down in the zone. With a guy of his caliber, it’s not hard to do. You just have to put an emphasis on it. With that mentality, we are going to be in a good spot.” — Iannetta, on Paxton’s performance.
On tap: The Mariners will face San Diego Thursday at Peoria Stadium, but they will be the visiting team. Right-hander Nathan Karns will get the start. San Diego will go with right-hander Phil Humber. First pitch is set for 12:10 p.m. PT. The game will be broadcast on radio only, by ESPN 710 AM.
His smiling face had a look of satisfaction. Everything on the first day was special — the fly balls, batting practice and meeting his new teammates.
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“This is a very big deal for me,” Heredia said through interpreter Fernando Alcala. “I’ve prepared a long time for this. I thank the Seattle Mariners organization for giving me this opportunity to start this long journey I’m going to have.”
Heredia’s journey has been well-documented in the past 10 days after reports of an agreement surfaced.
An All-Star player in Cuba, Heredia decided to follow in the steps of Cubans such as current teammate Leonys Martin and defect.
Rumors of an unsuccessful attempt in 2014 led to a four-year suspension by the Cuban National Series, Cuba’s professional league. Then Heredia defected in January 2015, establishing residency in Mexico to pursue free agency.
He has lived in Miami the past year, working out and preparing for showcases for MLB teams. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto watched one in Boca Raton, Fla., during the GM meetings in November. He was intrigued by Heredia’s speed, defensive ability in the outfield and plate discipline.
The Mariners signed Heredia to a major-league contract for the minimum salary of just over $500,000.
“It’s obviously a lot of sacrifice,” Heredia said of his journey. “A lot of things have happened between then and getting here. It’s a new opportunity. I see this as a new phase in my life. I’m going to work hard to reach my objectives.”
Heredia had no self-doubt about the lengthy procedure and the time away from the game.
“I never regretted it,” he said. “I knew it was a process. I was focused on the future and getting here and focusing on baseball in the future.”
After two years away from formal competition, the 25-year-old Heredia is happy to be part of a team again.
“It was difficult being away but not impossible,” he said. “Obviously it’s hard being away from the game. It’s two years, and sometimes there are things that you just have to step away from, even the game.”
Returning to form will require hard work. He played 1,400 games in the CNS from 2009 to 2014, posting a .285 batting average and .376 on-base percentage. Mariners scouts and baseball-operations staff believe in his ability control the strike zone and his approach to get on base. He drew 141 walks and struck out 143 times in his CNS career.
But Heredia knows the pitching he’ll face is better. He knows many scouts have doubts about whether he can hit big-league pitching.
“I really focused on the hitting this last year,” he said. “Obviously the speed of the game here is a little faster, guys throw a little harder, so I’m just trying to get up to speed with that.”
But he knows what makes him a good player.
“A player that is a contact hitter that has some speed and plays defense, an agile player,” he said.
Heredia flashed some speed and defensive skills in early drills Wednesday. Both he and Martin are graceful and efficient in running down fly balls.
“I’m excited to see him,” manager Scott Servais said. “Our scouting staff was really on him. I’ve been involved with signing international players before, so I do know the anxiety level and nervousness of what it’s like for that young player to come up for the first time, especially in major-league camp. I think we probably need to slow-play that a little bit.”
The Mariners have told Heredia not to try to make up for the time away in the first days of camp. He likely will be in the first round of cuts and sent to the minor-league side when games begin there.
Heredia is not expected to join the big-league club this season. He probably will start at Class AA or Class A.
“We’ll give him some time to get in and break him in easily,” Servais said. “I don’t know where our minor-league people see him going. It’s probably High-A or Double-A setting. He just needs to play. It doesn’t really matter where, just play.”