Padres' Hard Work Yields Mexican Sensation Juan Oramas
Four years ago, the Padres loaned a talented, if unknown, young pitcher to the Mexican League. As it turned out, the 22-year-old righthander's talent was obvious to everyone except the final decision-makers with the Padres.
San Diego left Joakim Soria off its 40-man roster in November 2006 and subsequently lost him to the Royals with the second pick in that winter's Rule 5 draft
. In four seasons with Kansas City, Soria's racked up 108 saves, a 2.15 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Six years before Soria, the Padres lent an 18-year-old Oliver Perez to the Mexican League. In August '03, the Padres packaged Perez, as wild then as he is now, with Jason Bay to acquire Brian Giles, whose name litters the franchise's all-time leaders lists
So it is not without precedent that the Padres' Juan Oramas
, a 5-foot-10 lefty signed out of Unsa, Mexico, in 2006, has put himself on the prospect map with a fine first half for high Class A Lake Elsinore, the hottest team in the minors
In 10 appearances for the Storm, Oramas has gone 5-0, 1.88 with 50 strikeouts, 12 walks and just two home runs allowed in 48 innings. It's an astonishing performance for a 20-year-old pitcher whose previous experience amounted to two years in the Dominican Summer League and another in the Mexican League.
Last season, San Diego loaned Oramas to the Mexico City Red Devils, where at age 19 he finished second in the Mexican League ERA race (2.31), fourth in strikeouts (89) and first in opponent average (.219). Had he won the ERA crown, he would have been the first Mexico City hurler to do so in more than four decades. For perspective, this would have been akin to a Rockies pitcher winning the National League ERA crown in the pre-humidor days of Coors Field. But even that may not be a fair comparison—the elevation of Mexico City exceeds that of Denver by about 2,000 feet!
So if the Padres had has been attuned to Oramas' talent, then why lend him to a foreign league to pitch in a hostile environment? Director of player development Randy Smith explains San Diego's decision:
"Oramas was scheduled to pitch the '09 season in the (Rookie-level) Arizona League when (Mexico City manager Robert) Mansur and the Red Devils approached us about loaning Oramas to them for the season," said Smith, who continues as the Padres' director of international scouting even after his offseason promotion.
"We felt the experience Oramas would gain pitching in Mexico City—the innings, altitude, environment, etc.—would be beneficial to his development. So we agreed to loan him to Mexico City for the summer."
The experience was a complete success. Not only did Oramas thrive, but he did so against much older competition. The average age of a Mexican League player in '09 was 29, which is roughly two years older than the average Triple-A player.
Mr. Perfect . . . Almost
According to Smith and Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano, Oramas has quality stuff, but the uncanny life on his pitches separates him from the pack.
"At his best, he throws in the 91-93 (mph) range—sometimes 94—but it's the life at the end of his pitches that makes the difference," Lezcano said. "The ball just explodes at the end."
Smith notes that Oramas' velocity can dip into the high 80s at times, but that, overall, he mixes three pitches for strikes with an excellent feel for pitching. "He is extremely poised and mature beyond his years," he said.
"His fastball runs 89-93 (mph) with deception and late life that hitters have difficulty adjusting to. Oramas also throws an average downer curveball and a changeup that has good action. His ability to keep the ball in the yard, especially in the Cal League, is impressive combined with his strikeout-to-walk ratio."
Oramas' most impressive achievement this season came in start No. 4 for the Storm, on May 17, when he came within two outs of pitching the third perfect game
in the California League's 69-year history. He completed 8 1/3 innings, striking out nine, before he allowed his one and only hit to Lancaster outfielder Brandon Barnes.
Because Oramas faced a 90-pitch limit that day, the hit spared Lezcano from making a tough decision as to when to remove his pitcher, who clearly stood at the top of his game.
"I know he faced some experienced hitters in the Mexican League," Lezcano said, "but he was outstanding that day. The only hit was a broken-bat single. I've never seen anything like it."
History Is Prologue
To the avid Baseball America reader, Oramas was anything but anonymous entering the 2010 season. While bemoaning the absence of elite prospects in the Latin American winter leagues, J.J. Cooper hit upon Oramas' performance for Hermosillo
in the Mexican Pacific League. He noted that Oramas showed "dominant stuff in the playoffs" and that he was "worth watching as he likely returns to the U.S. this year to pitch for one of the Padres' Class A teams."
Indeed, San Diego began Oramas with low Class A Fort Wayne, where he worked five three-inning relief stints as he piggybacked off a few of the TinCaps' more experienced starters. Additionally, the Padres sought to control the young lefty's workload after a stressful '09 campaign that included a run through the Mexican League as well as the Mexican Pacific League, its playoffs and, finally, the Caribbean Series. Through it all, Oramas racked up 157 innings.
"Oramas showed us during spring training that he had the moxie and stuff to pitch in High-A," Smith said, "but we wanted to be cautious with his first experience pitching in the States. In addition, there were five starters that we wanted to give the first opportunity to in Elsinore.
"We believed he would be the first guy ready to move to Elsinore once we had an opening in the rotation. The five dominant appearances in Fort Wayne certainly proved that he was ready once (righthander Chris) Fetter went on the DL in May."
Padres scout Robert Rowley recommended that the organization sign both Oramas and Soria, who had been pitching for Mexico City in '05 after being released by the Dodgers the previous fall. San Diego also has enjoyed a long working relationship with the Red Devils and their manager Robert Mansur, who mentored both Oramas and Soria.
No team scouts Mexico more thoroughly than the Padres, who, with Oramas, are once again reaping the rewards of their effort. And considering that just four players who signed from Mexico made our most recent Prospect Handbook—Yankees lefty Manny Banuelos, Athletics righthander Arnold Leon, Royals lefty Edgar Osuna and Phillies catcher Sebastian Valle—there's definitely room for one more.