TGB Client Fuenmayor Named Indy League Player Of Year

c/o J.J. Cooper

On a pretty regular basis, Balbino Fuenmayor would come up to Quebec manager Patrick Scalabrini this year and just say, ‘Thanks.’

When you’ve been released from affiliated ball, you quickly realize what you’re missing. Fuenmayor had spent most of his first year out of affiliated ball on a travel team, so he was quite happy to have a regular home with the Can-Am League’s Quebec club.

He was thankful for a job playing baseball. He was thankful for another chance. He was thankful for getting to provide for his wife and 2-year-old daughter by playing the game he loved.

Talk to Fuenmayor, 24, for more than five minutes and the thank-yous pour out. He’s thankful to Jon Hunton, an indy ball pitcher/player-development official who helped him land a job with the travel-team Frontier Greys. He’s thankful to Greys manager Brent Matheny for helping him develop last year. And he’s thankful to Scalabrini and the Capitales club for helping him take a big step forward this year.

But in reality, Scalabrini says it’s the club who should be thanking Fuenmayor. After all, he hit .347/.383/.610 this year with 23 home runs in 95 games with Quebec. He finished second in the league in batting, second in home runs and first in RBIs (99). With that kind of production, he was more than earning his keep.

He also earned the Baseball America Independent Leagues Player of the Year award, becoming the first Can-Am Leaguer to win the award since future Twins big leaguer Chris Colabello won it in 2011.

When Scalabrini picked up Fuenmayor in time for the Can-Am playoffs in 2013, it was with an eye on putting him in the Capitales lineup for 2014 as well. Scalabrini thought that Fuenmayor, a former Blue Jays prospect who had quickly gone from intriguing youngster to a stuck-in-Lansing, former prospect, could help the club by providing power. But the expectations were pretty limited.

“We thought he’d be a good guy to have to produce some power. He’d hit sixth or seventh, but his flaws would be evident,” Scalabrini said.

Fuenmayor had always struck out a lot. He’d never hit for average. And because of that, his power numbers had never matched his lofty power potential.

When the season began, Fuenmayor batted eighth. But a 2-for-4 Opening Day chock full of impressive at-bats quickly convinced Scalabrini to move him up to the sixth spot in the lineup.

A week later, he was hitting cleanup. Scalabrini and the rest of the Can-Am League were learning that the old scouting reports on Fuenmayor were no longer applicable. Pitches on the outer half were no longer being rolled over on mistaken attempts to pull the ball. Fuenmayor’s two-strike approach went from grip and rip to a shorter, controlled swing.

“The power was always there,” Scalabrini said. “I think he struck out a lot on offspeed before. Now most of his home runs are on offspeed pitches. He doesn’t miss twice on the same pitch. Now he makes that adjustment rapidly.”

Time On His Side

Most stories about an indy ball hitter taking a step forward are accompanied with a twinge of sadness. Often, it’s a 29-year-old who unfortunately figured out hitting too late to get another good shot at affiliated ball.

But in Fuenmayor’s case, that’s not the case at all. Signed as a 16-year-old, he was released by the Blue Jays when he was 23. At an age when many college players are just getting ready to make their pro minor league debuts, Fuenmayor was told that his career may be over.

It’s hard to fault the Blue Jays for letting go one of their most expensive Venezuelan signees ever. Fuenmayor, who signed for $750,000, was brought in under general manager J.P. Riccardi’s regime. Alex Anthopoulos’ front office saw a first baseman who had spent the past five years shuttling between short-season Vancouver and low Class A Lansing.

When Fuenmayor hit .208/.297/.306 in his first 23 games of the 2013 season, the Blue Jays decided they had seen enough.

The raw power that Fuenmayor was expected to turn into towering home runs never showed up for the Blue Jays. The hitting ability he was projected to have as a youngster had been buried under too many overly-aggressive swings on pitches outside the zone.

Has Fuenmayor made a significant step forward? We won’t know unless he gets another shot at affiliated ball.

At 24, he’s young enough that it’s quite plausible that an improved approach and confidence at the plate that comes from experiencing success could make him a significantly better hitter. He’s going to play with Caribes in the Venezuelan League this winter to try to catch scouts’ eyes again.

“If one door closes you have to work doubly hard to open another,” Fuenmayor said. “I have to play every game as if it were my last.”

If he does get another shot, his new club will be sure to hear plenty of thank yous from Fuenmayor.