At just 17, the Orioles felt Dominican-born prospect Jomar Reyes had progressed enough this time last year to bypass playing in the Dominican Summer League and move right to the minor leagues in the United States.
That decision proved to be the right one.
Reyes played third base for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles and performed well in 2014. Over 53 games, he batted .285 with 10 doubles, two triples, four homers and 29 RBIs. He had a .333 OBP, a .425 slugging percentage and a .758 OPS.
Recently at the Orioles’ Twin Lakes Park facility, I interviewed Reyes, who turned 18 on Feb. 20, with the interpreting help of Felipe Rojas Alou Jr., the director of the Orioles’ Dominican academy.
“I put a lot of effort into it last year,” Reyes said. “Worked hard before the year and very thankful for that because at the end it showed. I definitely feel my defense improved a lot. My offense, I was able to take what I worked on in the drills into the games.”
Indeed, Reyes got better as the season went on. In 21 games in August, he batted .338 with seven doubles, two homers, 17 RBIs and a .899 OPS. He batted .367 for the year against left-handed pitchers, .248 versus right-handers and .333 with runners in scoring position.
“The effort and work I put in was big and I was really able to concentrate and focus, too,” Reyes said of his strong finish to the season.
Reyes drew rave reviews from prospect analysts for his 2014 season. He has been ranked as the Orioles’ No. 5 prospect by ESPN.com, No. 10 by Baseball America and No. 11 by MLBPipeline.com. He was also ranked as the Gulf Coast League’s No. 18 prospect by Baseball America.
“I am happy about it and it is a recognition for all the effort and work I put into last year. Very exciting,” Reyes said.
While he hit just four homers in the games, Reyes’ size and raw power was noted by GCL opponents as last season went on. One scout said he was pitched to like Hank Aaron late last summer. Reyes led the GCL in intentional walks.
“I saw it,” Reyes said. “Definitely saw a lot of breaking balls and tried to work on that and make the adjustments. I knew I would not always get a fastball on certain pitch counts.”
Already an imposing figure for someone so young, Reyes is even bigger this season. He said his height has increased from from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-4 1/2 and his weight from 238 lbs. to 246 lbs.
He said he has not encountered any growing pains or issues with the added size.
“It hasn’t bothered me at all. I feel better with my lower half and it hasn’t impacted my glove or bat, so happy with that,” he said.
“Was back home in the Dominican (over the winter). My main focus was to get in the gym and work on my lower half. I understand that is a weakness right now. I need to get more agile with my legs and I worked on my bat, too, to stay sharp.”
Some scouts feel Reyes will have to eventually move to first base. He’s got the arm for third, but does he have the agility and glove? For now, Reyes wants to stay at third.
“I have not talked to the (O’s minor league) staff yet on that, but I definitely think third is my position. I feel I developed some there at third. Think third base suits me,” he said.
The Orioles signed a then 16-year-old Reyes for $350,000 in January 2014. They list the signing scouts as Fred Ferreira, Calvin Maduro and Enrique Constante. Reyes has two tools scouts feel are already above average and MLBPipeline.com rates his power and arm at 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. I’ve had scouts tell me they grade those two tools higher than that. Reyes’ power potential is exciting to the O’s brass. He showed a slight uppercut swing, but also solid pitch recognition for someone so young and inexperienced.
Reyes said he has gotten plenty of guidance and help from O’s coaches.
“A lot of the guys in the Dominican,” Reyes said. “Miguel Jabalera has helped me a lot with my defense. In the states, guys like Milt May last year helped me a lot. Matt Merullo, Jeff Manto and Ramon Caraballo also in the Domincan.”
At just 18, it appears that Reyes is likely to head north next month as the third baseman with Single-A Delmarva. When Manny Machado started for Delmarva in 2011, he was also just 18.
A nice comparison, but coming off a good year and getting to a full-season club at such a young age won’t do anything to temper expectations for Reyes.
Can he handle those higher expectations and South Atlantic League pitching?
As best, I can tell through a language barrier and after my second interview with him in two years, Reyes seems to be focused and humble right now. Those two traits will serve him well as he faces his first long full season in the minors.
I asked him what he has to do this year to take his game to an even higher level.
“Just like last year, have to put a lot of effort in and work hard. Have to be smart and make adjustments when I’m at the plate,” he said.