The Reds wrapped up their four-bus, five-state, 17-city caravan Sunday at Florence Mall. And even though Raisel Iglesias, one their many young starting pitchers, was not on the trip, his name drew considerable attention.
He's been one of those Reds mentioned prominently in early, preseason stories. Many experts feel he is primed for a breakout season.
"A single 2015 development may turn out to be the counterweight to all of (the Reds') negativity (forecast for 2016)," wrote FanGraphs' Tony Blengino. "If early returns are to be believed, (Iglesias' 7-year, $27 million signing) could be an incredible steal."
Reds manager Bryan Price wouldn't disagree.
What is it that made Iglesias so special in his first season in the big leagues last year?
"When we had Bronson Arroyo here," said Reds manager Bryan Price, "it was almost what I'd call a backyard style of pitching. Iglesias is (similar) in that he has all the weapons and isn't afraid to use them... He competes in the strike zone. That to me is the most important thing.
"When you have young pitchers who are willing to throw the ball over the plate and attack the hitters with good stuff, you've got a chance to have an exceptional group of young pitchers. My other thing with (Iglesias) is that he now has at least part of one season at the major league level under his belt. He was only getting better. I anticipate him having a huge career here."
Anthony DeSclafani is, of course, the odds-on favorite to get the ball Opening Day, but if he were to falter this spring, nobody would be covering their eyes to see Iglesias on the mound.
"I think the only way DeSclafani doesn't start Opening Day is if Homer Bailey makes a miraculous come-around," said broadcaster Jeff Brantley, grinning, because such a turnaround is highly unlikely.
The former pitcher cited DeSclafani's 31 starts and 184 innings, each twice that of Iglesias.
Praise abounds for both.
"(Iglesias) understands what pitching is," said broadcaster Chris Welsh, himself a former pitcher. "He changes speeds and arm angles; he's not afraid to pitch inside; he pitches at 90 percent, and then when he needs a little extra, he's got it in the tank."
Added Price, the longtime major league pitching coach: "He has feel. From a technical standpoint, pitchers either have feel or they don't. As much as we talk about mechanics, I'm a firm believer that a pitcher has to have the guts to throw the ball over the plate and the feel, so that you can vary your arm slots. Mike Leake could do that, Johnny Cueto, Arroyo. David Cone. Juan Marichal. It's taking advantage of your stuff and finding new ways to utilize it. It comes from confidence, trust and feel. (Iglesias) has all three... He's fun to watch, isn't he?"
Said Brantley: "He has an innate ability to read swings. That's really hard to teach. That comes over a period of time when you're growing up. Probably for him, he was never a guy who threw it by everybody. He does stuff that you don't see out of guys until they've been up here two or three years."
Undoubtedly, said Welsh, Iglesias learned it from watching veteran pitchers in Cuba.
"He wasn't a product of clinics and camps and everybody trying to fit him into a pigeon-hole of a certain delivery," Walsh said. "He just pitched. He probably stayed out of the weight room his whole life."
Give the Reds credit for this: Back when Iglesias first defected from Cuba, team brass foresaw him as a future starter, not a reliever as did most other major league organizations.
"(We) saw him with the Cuban (national) team, and felt that even though he'd been pitching mainly in relief, once he built his endurance back up again, he could be a starter again," said Walt Jocketty, the Reds' director of baseball operations. "He had four pitches, different angles, better-suited for pitching out of the rotation."
True, Iglesias pitched only 95 1/3 innings last season, and gave up 81 hits, walking only 28 and striking out 104, a strikeout rate of 9.8 per nine innings. That's almost two full strikeouts better than the National League's earned run average qualifiers (8.05). That strikeout rate put Iglesias in the 85th percentile in the league.
"(Iglesias) is a young, developing hurler," wrote FanGraphs' Blengino, "and plenty could go wrong as his workload is extended over a full 162+ inning season. But his upside is substantial, enough to potentially pay off his contract many times over."
Other reasons to like Iglesias, Jocketty said: "Positive, upbeat approach to everything he does. Quick learner, hard worker. Always has a smile on his face."
One thing I learned last December while visiting Cuba to begin work on a baseball book about the Reds' deep connection in Cuba — before Fidel Castro nationalized practically everything in 1960 — is that for Iglesias to have emerged as a baseball player from the Isla de la Juventud is no small thing.
Since 1911 — when the Reds debuted the fair-skinned Cubans, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida — there have been only two Cuban players born in Isla de la Juventud to play in the majors, both pitchers.
They are Iglesias and Philadelphia Phillies reliever Dalier Hinojosa.
Isla de la Juventud, second biggest island in the island country of Cuba, is 30 miles south of the mainland and 100 miles south of the capital city of Havana.
Juventud has a population of 100,000, a land mass 850 square miles, and is big enough to have its own baseball club in the 16-team "Serie Nacional," the Cuban majors.
All 15 provinces in Cuba, plus Isla de la Juventud (it is not a province), have teams in the Serie Nacional. The rules are that players in those places must either have been born there or live there to play for a team there.
Some notable American major leaguers have played for the Juventud team, but have not been from there. Among them is pitcher Livan Hernandez, who won 178 regular-season games in 17 major league seasons (1996-2012), including two as Most Valuable Player in the 1997 World Series for the Florida Marlins. He pitched for Juventud as a 17-year-old during the 1992-93 season.
His half-brother, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, won 65 regular-season games with the New York Yankees (1998-2002 and 2004). He pitched in five World Series, including 2005 with the Chicago White Sox. Before that, he was a star with Industriales of Havana in the Cuban majors.
Juventud is better-known for its political prisoners than its baseball players. It used to be called "Isla de Pinos" (Isle of Pines), site of Cuba's largest prison, and Castro (who himself had been imprisoned there in the mid-1950s) renamed it the "Isle of Youth" when he took over.
The prison is a museum now, and that's how Iglesias would have known it as a boy growing up in Juventud.
The signings of Iglesias and, before him, Aroldis Chapman, hearkens back to a heady time in Reds history.
The Reds were huge on the island in the 1950s, having forged connections with Cuban baseball men Bobby Maduro, Reggie Otero, Preston Gomez and Tony Pacheco, who managed the Havana Sugar Kings in 1958 and signed Tony Perez in 1960. The Reds' Triple-A farm club from 1954-59 was the Sugar Kings.
Maybe the Reds can be big there again, if and when things open up more. But even without all that much of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba baseball relations, the Reds have done well in the signings of Chapman and Iglesias.
John Erardi has covered baseball in Cincinnati for 31 seasons.