TORONTO — When you combine today’s social media landscape with the fan-driven demand for prospect coverage, Yosver Zulueta is about as mysterious as it gets.
As the 23-year-old Cuban with wide shoulders sits down in the Toronto Blue Jays’ worn out Zoom room this past week alongside team translator Tito Lebron, he looks a touch nervous and a little bit confused.
Almost like, ‘Why do you want to talk to me with George Springer, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. around?’
Well, Yosver, your fastball has been speaking for you.
And it’s loud.
Right off the bat, when the strange journalist in a hooded sweatshirt from Toronto says nice to meet you, Zulueta responds in almost perfect English: “Nice to meet you, too.”
That’s the extent of his English to this point, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
The country of Canada isn’t as foreign as you might think, and it’s actually where his link to the Blue Jays organization begins.
He’s been to Quebec before, in 2017, which is the first time Blue Jays’ brass laid eyes on a skinny, 19-year-old kid who was sitting 88-91 mph with his fastball as a member of the Cuban National Team on a barnstorming tour that brought them to the Can-Am League, organized by Quebec Capitales leadership.
The scouting report went something like this: Decent velocity, good body, sound delivery, but didn’t really jump out.
It wasn’t the first write-up the Jays had, either.
As a member of the 15-and-under Cuban team in 2013, a report was filed from an event in Mexico that had Zulueta throwing his fastball anywhere from 77 to 83 mph as a young teenager.
From the age of 15 to 19, there wasn’t much that screamed $1 million signing bonus, which is the nice round sum the Jays would hand Zulueta to get his name on the dotted line in June of 2019.
More than a year after his tour through Quebec, Zulueta defected in from Cuba in late 2018 and ended up in the Dominican Republic via Haiti.
While it wasn’t the time to dig into the details about the trip, it’s your typical defection story that’s been told by just about every young Cuban with dreams of playing Major League Baseball.
Some are harrowing and extremely dangerous, and Zulueta shares some details of what’s obviously a very personal story, one that involves leaving family behind and a whole lot of unknown.
“The most difficult thing was when we went from Cuba to Haiti through the ocean,” said Zulueta, who hails from the same area in Cuba as the late, great Jose Fernandez, Leonys Martin as well as former Blue Jays infielder Aledmys Diaz. “It was very, very difficult. Dangerous, I guess, going through the ocean.
“There were three more people with me. It was like a regular 20-footer boat, medium-sized, I guess. Of course, the people in charge of the boat and another baseball player and he’s actually still playing in the Dominican right now.
“It was kind of like mixed feelings. It was kind of a relief when I got to Haiti, but as you hear about Haiti, it’s kind of … it’s a little bit tough, also, so it was a little bit scary arriving.”
After defecting safely and taking a few months to get his mind right and his arm ready, a showcase was set up for Apr. 26, 2019, where Zulueta would throw two innings for interested teams.
That day in the Dominican, the wiry righty was featuring a fastball in the 92 to 97 mph range, sitting 95, with a power curveball and some feel for a changeup.
Five days later, he came back on regular rest hitting 98 with the same sort of stuff, tossing three innings for scouts.
“The first thing that really stood out was the velocity,” said Blue Jays’ vice president of international scouting Andrew Tinnish. “Even prior to knowing that he had any sort of arm issue, he was 92 to 97 (mph) and sat 95. Five days later, he was 94 to 98, again sitting 95. So that’s hard to do. But anytime you have a 21-year-old pitcher who you think can be a starter who has that type of velocity with some ability to spin the ball, with the body and athleticism, there’s not a lot of those guys on draft boards every year is probably the best way to put it.”
Scouting-wise, he was being evaluated against the crop of college pitching in the draft rather than a typical international signing who might be a half-decade away.
The Blue Jays, who had traded Dwight Smith Jr. to the Baltimore Orioles for $500,000 in international bonus pool money and then flipped Kendrys Morales to the Oakland A’s on the eve of the 2019 season for an additional $1 million — the Jays also added Dutch pitchers Sem Robberse and Jiorgeny Casimiri with that cash — were in a good position to cut Zulueta the biggest cheque, if that’s what they wanted to do.
After watching his showcase, it was a no-brainer.
Considering they only had a couple months to spend the money and there was thought to be a handful of other teams interested, they acted fast.
Eventually, Zulueta was flown to Toronto for a physical, where they discovered a torn UCL. Despite the knowledge that a year would be lost to Tommy John surgery immediately, the upside outweighed the risk.
“In a conversation with my agent, we talked about it and he told me the minor league system in Toronto was great and my development was going to be faster,” Zulueta recalled. “So right then, I made the decision to become a Blue Jay.”
More than a year went by before Zulueta’s name was uttered in prospect circles as anything more than a player who had signed.
That started to change last fall when he began ramping up in Dunedin.
In November, about 14 months removed from his surgery, Zulueta’s velocity quickly returned. So quickly, in fact, that coaches had to tell him to take it easy and back off during his early bullpen sessions.
“It was just the emotions of being back on the mound and I was feeling great and I was just pumping gas and they would just tell me to slow down,” Zulueta said with a big smile.
The radar gun readings were eye-opening and a November live AB session against Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who was in Dunedin preparing to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he featured a 99-mph heater caught the attention of everybody, and also gave Zulueta some confidence.
“It was a great, great experience facing a hitter like Vladimir and it was a big challenge for me,” Zulueta said. “I wanted to test myself and see if I was at that level and I was still working on my recovery from Tommy John, but mentally I wanted to see if I could be at that level and it felt pretty good.
“When you’re coming back from Tommy John, you have your doubts if you’re going to get the same velocity. Then when I started throwing, I was a little bit surprised, but I’ve been working very hard and I’m very confident in myself and I’m glad I got my velo back after the surgery.”
The late 2020 ramp up was enough to convince the Blue Jays that an invite to a unique, pandemic-driven major-league camp was the best way to test the 23-year-old, and the buzz has been building ever since pitchers and catchers took the field Feb. 18.
Jays pitching coach Pete Walker hadn’t seen Zulueta live until a couple weeks ago.
Colour him impressed.
“Heard a lot of great things about him from our player development guys and just obviously laying eyes on him for the first time and watching him throw and watching the hitters react to it, the life on his fastball was pretty impressive,” Walker said. “Very mild mannered, kind of even-keeled pitcher on the mound, but with an explosive fastball that just seems to pick up speed as it gets closer to the plate and he’s had some bad swings early in camp from hitters.”
The gas has topped out at 99 mph, while his lightest fastball in his first live at-bat session was clocked at 96.8 mph.
Even Zulueta says he hasn't hit triple digits as of yet, but with his first Grapefruit League appearance on the horizon, all eyes will be on the radar gun readings when he takes the mound.
It’s no surprise he grew up idolizing Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban king of velocity.
“When I had a chance, I loved to watch Aroldis Chapman,” said Zulueta, noting MLB games weren’t exactly easy to find in his homeland. “His velo, that’s great, but his work ethic, I used to see that and the way he works and goes about his business.”
Zulueta comments that he’s been watching Nate Pearson and Ryan Borucki — he loves the lefty’s off-speed stuff — during camp so far.
While the impressive Rapsodo readings are exciting and all, it’s the silky smooth delivery that has the Blue Jays projecting him as a starting pitcher.
It’s hard to find elite velocity and a compact delivery with a short arm stroke all wrapped into one neat 6-foot-1, 190-pound package.
“We project him as a potential starter, he just hasn’t pitched that much as of late, competitively,” Walker said. “He needs to pitch and get his rhythm back and just make sure he gets that feel for pitching back. But right now, we continue to develop him as a starter and he’s the kind of guy that, obviously, with a Cuban background, he knows how to pitch, so I don’t think it’s going to take him that long to get back in sync.”
Zulueta feels the same way.
“In Cuba, I’ve always been a starter and I feel like I’m a starter,” he said. “But if the organization wants me to be in the bullpen and be a reliever, I don’t have a problem with that whatsoever.”
That’s not a part of the plan right now. This is the package of a potentially elite starter if things go smoothly.
But developing starting pitching isn’t easy.
Things can go sideways and detours can happen at just about any point in a young arm’s development.
Expectations need to be tempered in a way.
That’s not going to be easy with the type of reaction Zulueta’s stuff is getting early on in camp.
Putting a label on what Zulueta is going to be when he hasn’t pitched in a real game with a box score in nearly two-and-a-half years is close to impossible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dream.
“At the end of the day, he still has to go out and play the game, and it’s been a while for him,” Tinnish said. “This season is going to be a great experience, just sort of getting back in the routine of pitching every fifth or sixth day and building up pitch counts and refining the breaking ball and changeup and getting in a routine that we hope and think he’ll be able to do at some point at the big league level.
“His ceiling is definitely high. I don’t really know what that is. I just want him to be healthy and go out and get some innings under his belt and develop a good routine and he’s off to a good start from that perspective.”
The stuff is enough to generate hype, but there are things outside of the expected triple-digit velocity that has Walker optimistic.
“He’s very mature and composed and just very under control,” the 51-year-old pitching coach said. “He’s just a mature kid on the mound. He exudes confidence. He’s very much in control of what he’s doing physically, his mechanics are sound. I think it really just comes down to him pitching competitively and I have a feeling he’s the kind of guy that would move fast.”
In a perfect world, moving fast might be a late 2022 arrival.
When you add up his age, time with the Cuban National Team, and just his life experience, you start to realize Zulueta isn’t overwhelmed by his first big league experience this spring.
He’s been fazed by nothing so far and it’s that mental makeup that gives him a great chance to navigate the ups and downs of trying to get to the majors.
“It definitely feels good,” Zulueta said of his first spring training experience. “It’s a huge step in my life being here in camp and, you know what, that’s not my goal. My goal is to be in the big leagues.”
When that happens, the mystery will be long gone.
Truthfully, his cover has already been blown.