Angels' Amarista Confirms Stature Isn't Everything
To gain attention of scouts back in his native Venezuela, Angels second baseman Alexi Amarista would sacrifice his body and didn't care how he did it.
He would dive for groundballs, even those on the fringe of his range. At the plate, he became the little engine that could, busting out line-drive doubles when he wasn't busting it down the first-base line.
Looking back at it now that he has reached the Texas League, Amarista cannot help but break into a wide grin about those days when he was trying to get signed.
For him, it's become standard operating procedure. Which anyone would understand, given Amarista is listed as a generous 5-foot-8. He is more likely two or three inches shorter.
"Being a small guy, you have to be able to do all of that (hustling, diving and so forth) to open people's eyes," Amarista said. "You have to be aggressive."
Amarista's assertiveness has served him well in pro ball and especially this season in which he busted through the high Class A California League and then won a midseason promotion to Arkansas.
Through 448 at-bats this year, the lefthanded batter was hitting .310/.352/.429 with five home runs, 22 doubles and eight triples.
Veteran pro scouts have taken notice, too, and make clear that no one should quickly write him off. They appreciate his hustle, sure, and believe Amarista's limited arm strength will confine him to second base.
But scouts emphasize they like Amarista's strong, quick wrists when he swings a bat, and believe his strength to put the ball deep into the outfield can play at the higher levels.
In fact, one National League scout compared him to a throwback, second baseman Freddy Patek. At 5-foot-5, Patek overcame the odds and assumptions to enjoy a 14-year big league career from 1968-81.
"He can play defense and he can hit—in a nutshell," Arkansas manager Bobby Magallanes said, shaking his head as he marveled about Amarista's surprising performance.
Beating The Odds
Asked to list his goals, Amarista said he would like to move runners more frequently, drive in more runs and steal more bags (17 of 27 this year).
That is, all the while paying attention.
"The success I'm having this year is because I'm doing the little things I'm supposed to be doing," Amarista said through an interpreter, teammate Efren Navarro. "I've been myself and getting advice from veteran guys who have played a long time. That's helped me grow as a player."
For small players eager to get noticed by running through brick walls, development can sometimes be difficult. It's tough to slow the game down and concentrate on the fundamentals that push them through the high minors.
But Amarista has turned to a fellow Venezuelan as inspiration, veteran big leaguer Omar Vizquel. He doesn't know him well, but he knows Vizquel has proven himself despite a reputation as a light-hitting shortstop.
"Being a leadoff hitter has helped me develop to put the ball in play and get in good counts like 3-2, 2-2," Amarista said. "I try to see as many pitches as I can.
"All the experience I got from watching big league guys and guys in the minor leagues, I've learned from it. That's why it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you are small."
That's not to say that buddies and other players don't razz Amarista about his size. Springfield's Jose Garcia, a fellow Venezuelan second baseman, recently joked with him that he is Chapulin, a Latin America TV superhero known to be short in stature.
Fortunately, Garcia said Amarista takes the joke in stride, especially after he doubled in the Springfield series and looked back at Garcia as if to say, "Told ya so."
"He's a good guy," Garcia said. "And that's because he's a guy who makes the plays and does the little things."
One Texas League pitcher characterized Amarista as one of the most difficult outs in the game, simply because of his height.
"He's got a small strike zone, so you've got to keep the ball down, but that's pitching to his strength," said Brian Broderick, a 6-foot-6 righthander with Springfield.
The Cardinals had mixed results against him in an early August series. In one at-bat, Amarista turned on a fastball and sent it into orbit over the right-field wall.
The shot was made all the more impressive because the ball landed on the roof of a two-story, indoor training facility that sits about 20 feet behind the wall.
"The big thing you've got to do with him is to elevate and get him to chase your pitch," Broderick said. "You've got to keep him off balance so that he can just pop it up."
But that plan of attack may play right into Amarista's strategy. The Angels are encouraging him not to try to lift the ball but, instead, drive it.
That challenge came last season from low Class A Cedar Rapids manager Bill Mosiello.
"He's a five-tool player without the power," Angels farm director Abe Flores said. "He can beat you in a lot of ways. And he's got some juice in that bat.
"His swing can get a little big. But when he uses the whole field, he can create some havoc."
Kary Booher covers the Springfield Cardinals for the Springfield News-Leader