In 2001, the Los Angeles Dodgers won a bidding war to sign a 16-year-old Dominican named Irving Joel Guzmán, paying him a Dominican-record bonus of $2.15 million. Guzmán had impressed scouts with his raw tools and projectable body since a very early age, but in his first two years in the minor leagues, he failed to fulfill the great expectations those tools created.
In 2004, the Dodgers sent Guzmán to the High Class A Florida State League, a difficult level for a player who had yet to dominate any circuit. The young shortstop responded to the challenge with an excellent season that earned him a promotion to Double-A, where he continued his advance, eventually winning the organization’s minor league Player of the Year award.
This winter, Guzmán had his first experience in the Dominican League, playing shortstop for his hometown team, the Estrellas de Oriente. In the Dominican, Guzmán hit .298/.341/.412 in the regular season and .293/.356/.390 during the playoffs, a performance that, while not dominant, was very solid for a young man with limited experience.
We sat with Joel at the Tetelo Vargas Stadium of San Pedro de Macoris days before his departure to Vero Beach for spring training.
Baseball Prospectus: Tell us about your origins, and when you began playing baseball.
Joel Guzmán: I’m from the municipal district of Quisqueya, a little town where years ago there used to be a sugar mill. It is about a 20-minute ride from San Pedro de Macoris. I played baseball from a very early age, but not exactly in an organized way. You know, every little kid plays baseball in this country, and I was no exception. I played sandlot games with my friends, also Little League, but baseball wasn’t really the sport I was most interested in growing up.
BP: What was your favorite sport?
JG: It was basketball. I played a lot of basketball and was the sport I was most advanced and developed. Obviously I was very tall for my age, the size helped me a lot and I was a good player.
BP: Why has your interest turned to baseball?
JG: Well, baseball is the main sport in the country and there are more opportunities playing it. As I told you, I played with my friends, and as I advanced in the Little Leagues people started to take notice. When I was around 13 or 14 years old I started to make tryouts, and several organizations showed interest when their scouts saw I had talent. Finally, in 2001, I signed with the Dodgers.
BP: Your first two years playing in the U.S. were difficult, and perhaps a little bit disappointing. How do you evaluate those years and what experience did you gain from them?
JG: It is an adaptation process, and a hard one. I was a very young boy, just 16 years old then. It is tough to go to another country, leave your family behind and see a completely different culture. As you said, I didn’t meet expectations, but the Dodgers organization understood I was very young, and that it was an adaptation and maturation process. They thought it was going to take a couple of years for me to handle that and get comfortable, and fortunately I had a good year in 2004 and the fruits of that patience are starting to show.
BP: What kinds of adjustments have you made between 2003 and 2004 that helped that maturation process you mentioned?
JG: Well, it is basically a matter of playing more baseball and gaining experience. I signed at a very young age, and played more basketball than baseball when I was a kid, so I lacked experience in the game. Thank God I adapted very well to the Florida State League last year, started to put in practice what I’ve learned from my coaches. It’s a slow process, and you must avoid getting frustrated when you’re not successful in putting in practice your coaches’ recommendations, and you must be confident in your abilities. I think I’m more mature now, and with the knowledge of where I want to go and what I want to become in baseball.
BP: Since you signed, the Dodgers have had some important changes, with new ownership and a new general manager. Have you noticed any changes in the organization so far?
JG: Yes, I think there’s been a change. Maybe people from the outside are not able to perceive it, but us inside the organization can see the changes. These new people are trying to return to what has been the history and tradition of the Dodgers, especially giving the opportunity to the young talent developed in the organization and emphasizing the development of players. That’s part of the new philosophy, and the new owner Mr. McCourt and GM Paul DePodesta are young and enthusiastic people. I had the opportunity to meet them, they’re very nice people and I’m convinced the changes will continue for the good of the organization and many good things will come in the future.
BP: Is there anything special that the organization wanted you to work on in the Winter League?
JG: Sure, the Winter League is important for a young player. Sometimes after a long season in the minor leagues you come here and feel a little bit of laziness, you don’t work really hard or the way you should work, and when spring training comes you’re not in very good shape to start. They instructed me to come here and try to win a position with the Estrellas, stay in good shape and keep working on the things I learned during the minor-league season. Thank God the Estrellas gave me the chance and I think I had a good winter and I’m ready for spring training.
BP: Many people think that because of your height (6’6″) there’s a very good chance you’ll end up in another position, maybe third base, maybe one of the outfield corners. Does that worry you? Is it something that you think about, moving from what’s been your position so far?
JG: (Smiles) Well that’s a question I’ve been answering since the day I signed, so it’s not surprising you’re asking the same question. I’ve been told since the day I signed that because of my height my days at shortstop were numbered. The thing is, I’ve been playing shortstop for three years now, I had a good season last year playing the position and I’m not thinking about changing. But of course, if the Dodgers organization decides that I must change positions, I’ll be ready to do it. If it benefits the team and my career I’ll move without complaints, be that to third base or any other position.
BP: Let’s talk a little bit about the winter season. You had a very good year for a player your age in a league that’s proven to be difficult for young players. I noticed that you were very focused on using the entire field in your hitting approach. Was that the case? Is that why a player with your power potential showed just average power?
JG: Yes, that’s something that I didn’t mention when you asked the question about the adjustments I made. One of the things that most helped me last season was learning to use the whole field, especially going the opposite way with outside pitches and avoiding trying to pull the ball with those pitches. I tried the whole season to handle those pitches that way. The great right-handed hitters hit to the opposite field with ease – guys like Julio Franco and Manny Ramirez. I won’t say I was consciously trying to hit all the pitches the opposite way here in the Dominican, but I kept working on it with my hitting coach here every day and thank God the results were good.
BP: What plans do the Dodgers have for you in 2005? Where do you expect to play at the start of the season?
JG: I don’t really know right now. Sometimes it depends on how you look in spring training, in what shape you arrive in. My goal was to work hard during the winter to be in good physical shape for the spring, and maybe surprise them in a positive way and influence a change on any previous plans they had for me. I want them to see that I’m in good shape and have a lot of desire and enthusiasm for playing.
After they see that, then they’ll decide.
BP: How do you evaluate your experience in this league, and how do you compare it to the others you have played? How do you see the differences among high Class A, Double-A and the Dominican League?
JG: They’re all different stages. Rookie League is the baseline, the first professional baseball you see and play, the first experience. As soon as you start to climb in the system, the baseball is different. Pitchers are more experienced; they throw to you in a different way. The experience in the Winter League was an important step for me, because you see different kinds of pitchers. You can see a guy from Class A and also a veteran major-league pitcher with a lot of experience. This is a very good league and playing in it is going to help me a lot. If I have to tell you, I think this experience has had the most impact on me. To share the clubhouse with veteran guys like Julio Franco, travel to the other cities and watch All-Stars like Miguel Tejada, it is definitely the best league I’ve played in my career so far.
BP: Do you have any childhood baseball heroes, players you’ll try to emulate? A player about whom you said “I want to be like him when I grow up.”
JG: Well, we’ve had a lot of shortstops here in San Pedro de Macoris, and I loved to watch Tony Fernandez play when I was a little kid. As the time passed, other kinds of shortstops appeared, and obviously Alex Rodriguez was my favorite.
BP: You’ll probably start the season at Double-A, and maybe finish it at Triple-A. Do you visualize a scenario coming September in which you get called up to get your first experience in the big leagues?
JG: You have to be mentally prepared and ready for catch the opportunity and maybe earn a position. When I was in Los Angeles receiving the organization’s Player of the Year award, I talked a lot with Paul DePodesta and some other people from the front office, and they told me to keep working on my preparation, being healthy, mentally prepared and ready for a long season in 2005. I just hope to be healthy and maybe have a chance in September to be in the big leagues.
Carlos J. Lugo is a broadcaster for ESPN Deportes, covering the Dominican Winter League. He can be seen and heard on Winter League telecasts throughout the offseason. You can reach Lugo here.