Luis Arraez had just arrived in the visitors’ clubhouse in Kansas City on Saturday when he was approached by Twins teammate Jonathan Schoop.
“I don’t feel good,” said Schoop, who had stepped awkwardly on second base the night before and watched his right foot swell up overnight. “Be ready.”
The 22-year-old Arraez filled in for Schoop at second base, going 1-for-3, scoring a run and drawing a walk. He was back in the lineup Sunday, putting together his first four-hit game to raise his average to .436.
Arraez is ready, has been ready and will be ready, to hit. His .331 batting average in the minors suggests so. And his major league career is off to a roaring start, with hits in 13 of his 15 games.
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The native of Venezuela doesn’t simply swing at pitches. He waves his bat like a wand, and the ball finds holes. And he can play some short and third base as well as second.
Because he doesn’t hit for power, he’s never been listed among the Twins’ top prospects. But Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, in his first season in the organization, has been awfully impressed.
“He’s a natural-born hitter,” Baldelli said. “I don’t think he’s getting lucky. Obviously nobody’s going to hit whatever he’s hitting — .500, .400 — over the course of the season. But the things that he does will always play. He’s been this type of hitter his entire career from the day he walked into pro ball … a lot of the things that he does in the box, you can’t teach.”
On May 21 in Los Angeles, Arraez dug in at the plate against the Angels. He anticipated when Trevor Cahill was going to throw a breaking ball and moved up in the batter’s box in an attempt to hit the ball before it dipped out of the strike zone. It was an audacious move. Not only does a player rarely do that in today’s game, but it’s unheard of for a rookie.
“You could go years without seeing a guy do that in a game,” Baldelli said. “At least live.”
When Arraez — pronounced ah-RISE — steps to the plate, his head is on a swivel like a quarterback going through his progressions. He’s looking at the defensive alignment to see where he can hit the ball.
“Some people can hit,” said first base coach Tommy Watkins, who managed Arraez for 48 games at Class AA Chattanooga last season. “And he is one of them. It’s cool when he steps to the plate and looks around the field. He does that a lot.”
During at-bats, Arraez will take a close pitch for a ball and shake his head from side to side as if refusing to chase them.
“I love how much he battles,” said outfielder Jake Cave, who has played with Arraez in the minors and majors. “He competes, he swings at strikes. He’s fun to hit behind because he’s on base a lot, and I like watching him a lot.”
Arraez was born in San Felipe, a city of 200,000 that is the capital of the Venezuelan state of Yaracuy and home of former major leaguers Marco Scutaro and Melvin Mora. When he was a child, Arraez’s father, Ernesto, attached a ball to a string and hung it from a mango tree. That’s how the former amateur pitcher began to teach his son how to swing.
“He used to teach me how to hit righthanded,” Arraez said, “but I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
When Arraez reached his teens, the Twins, Rays and a few other teams showed interest in signing him. But there was a problem: No projected power.
“He was small and a below-average runner,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president in charge of player personnel, “which is not good match for a young free agent.”
Arraez was living and working out at the Twins facility in Bejuma, Venezuela, at the time, and scout Jose Leon had some bad news. He had no money to sign Arraez.
“He come to me and said, ‘I don’t have any money for you, and you need to go home,’ ” Arraez remembers. “I said OK, I don’t want to play baseball anymore. I told my mother that I want to go to school now.
“I went out with my brother. And when we came back to the house, I saw Leon. He’s in my house. He said, ‘Hey, you want to sign?’ And I signed right there.”
The Twins got Arraez in May 2013 for $40,000. Signed as a switch-hitter, he focused on batting lefthanded within a year and has hit at least .298 at every stop on the way to the majors.
He started this season batting .342 at Class AA Pensacola before he was promoted to Class AAA Rochester. He went 5-for-14 for the Red Wings when the Twins called him up to replace an injured Nelson Cruz. Arraez got six hits over his first six major league games and was batting .375 when they sent him to back Rochester when Cruz was activated. He was recalled Wednesday.
It wasn’t his only smooth transition to the majors. Twins officials have been impressed with how Arraez does not act like a rookie. He’s respectful of the veterans, punctual, and communicates with the trainers and coaching staffs daily.
“You can’t compliment Luis Arraez enough on his maturity, his character and the way he handles himself in everything he does,” Baldelli said. “He has a lot of strengths as a player, but the guy that he is I think is even his greatest strength.”
Arraez will make it difficult for the coaching staff to return him to the minors in the coming days as his teammates come off the injured list. And the future is intriguing. Some think he could bat leadoff next season and play second base. He also could draw the attention of teams with pitchers to trade before the July 31 deadline, as he appears to be major league-ready with nearly six seasons of club control remaining.
The Twins have options with someone who has made an instant impact.
“I’m happy because I’m playing,” Arraez said. “I come here because I want to play every day and I’m doing my job here.”