Onelki Garcia never stopped believing his time would come. The only question was when that would be.
Garcia took a winding road to pro ball, but the 23-year-old lefthander finally is working toward the majors in the Dodgers system, opening his first full season at Double-A Chattanooga.
This comes after he had to wait an additional year to begin his career after leaving Cuba in January 2011. He had hoped to start pitching in the U.S. that season, but it wasn't to be.
Garcia wanted to be declared a free agent, but Major League Baseball, in the run-up to the 2011 draft, decided he would be subject to the draft. MLB reversed course just two days prior the draft, deciding his case would need further review, and ruled Garcia ineligible for the draft due to issues surrounding his residency.
Garcia ultimately wound up being eligible for the 2012 draft, but in the meantime he had to find someplace else to pitch.
He found a temporary landing spot in Southern California, pitching in a local adult league—or a beer league if you prefer. Despite the obvious downgrade in competition, the Dodgers looked past Garcia's surroudnings and the fact he would be 22 by the time the 2012 draft rolled around. They had been interested in Garcia as a prospective international signee, and they stayed with him throughout the process.
"We just treated him like any other player (in the 2012 draft)," Dodgers scouting director Logan White said, "going out and having our area scouts see him and turn him in. Then our crosscheckers and myself went in to see him and see how he progressed. We just ranked him on the draft board like we would any other guy."
Money To Spend
The delay in Garcia's availability, and his being subject to the draft, may have worked to the Dodgers' advantage. Had he hit the international free agent market or been a high pick in the 2011 draft, he may have commanded more dollars than the Frank McCourt-run Dodgers could afford.
Money has been no object to Los Angeles' new ownership group of Mark Walker, Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson and Co. The Dodgers grabbed Garcia in the third round of the 2012 draft and had no issues signing him for a $382,000 bonus. His addition served a bigger purpose as well, since the Dodgers didn't have a single Cuban player in their system before drafting Garcia. The organization wanted to be more aggressive internationally, and Garcia, despite having to go through the draft, presented an opportunity to get a foot in the door with Cuban players.
"We had new ownership, and we had been in the mix on (Cubs outfielder Jorge) Soler and then with (Yasiel) Puig coming up down the road," White said, "I wanted to make sure that we were making a dent with the Cuban players—something we hadn't been able to do."
White believes Garcia's presence helped Los Angeles land his countryman Puig, who's now the organization's most prized hitting prospect and Garcia's teammate with Chattanooga. But as a power pitcher from the left side, Garcia's own prospect status shouldn't be overshadowed.
He pitched with an 89-92 mph fastball leading up to the draft last year—and actually did give up some hits to the beer leaguers—but he started topping out at 97 after he signed. Garcia was slowed by knee issues during spring training ths year, but he was throwing at 90-95 early this season for the Lookouts. His fastball moves with armside sink, and he has a feel for varying its velocity.
Garcia relies on a slurvy slider as his go-to secondary pitch—a big, power breaking ball that he can also add or subtract from, ranging from 79-84 mph on the radar gun. He also has a rudimentary changeup in his arsenal.
"There's a tendency to just revert back to what comes naturally to him," Chattanooga pitching coach Hector Berrios said, "and that's those two pitches (fastball and slider), which are like four pitches because he's able to change speeds with them so well."
Garcia shined in his 2013 debut, limiting Huntsville to one run on one hit in four innings on April 8, striking out four. His second outing wasn't as smooth.
Garcia struggled to command the ball against Tennessee on April 14, with Berrios also acknowledging that Garcia allowed himself to get unsettled by some umpire calls. The result was a start that lasted just 3 2⁄3 innings, during which he allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits and two walks.
Improving his command and his changeup will be crucial to how far Garcia goes, and whether he can stick as a starter or if he'll face a move to the bullpen. He's still tinkering with grips to make his changeup more effective against righthanded hitters. Berrios is also trying to get him to better incorporate his lower half, which should help his arm work easier.
Garcia pitched three seasons in Cuba's top professional league, Serie Nacional, before defecting, so another challenge has been learning the tendencies of American hitters.
"The hitters here seem like they have a plan and they're looking for a pitch. They have an idea what they're doing," Garcia said via a translator. "In Cuba, they're more like free swingers and they're going to just let the talent come out. They don't really have the plans that they do here."
By all accounts, Garcia's done well acclimating himself to his surroundings off the field despite the obstacles. His English is coming along, and his coaches rave about his work ethic and how well he absorbs instruction.
Garcia wasn't shy about his goal for this season—he wants to get to the big leagues. Whether he meets that timetable, his next appearance on a Southern California mound will come with larger stakes than a beer league can offer.