The legend of right-handed pitcher Michael Ynoa began the moment he signed a then-record $4.25 million contract with the Oakland A’s in 2008 as a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic. Because of recurring injuries, he has pitched only a total of 39.2 innings in the five seasons since landing that landmark deal, assuming the identity of a real-life Sidd Finch. Already cursed with having to bear the weight of so many expectations, the load just got even heavier for Ynoa, who despite his rawness was just recently added to the A’s 40-man roster. Earlier this summer I had a rare opportunity to meet this enigmatic player, but left feeling like I had even more questions about the intriguing prospect and what his future ultimately holds.
Ynoa had no shortage of suitors as a youth in the Dominican. His agent, Adam Katz, supposedly had a $2.7 million handshake deal in place with the New York Yankees before attempting to renegotiate after finding other teams were willing to pay more, and the Bombers pulled put.
The Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers each offered more lucrative contracts, but Ynoa ultimately chose to accept the A’s offer because he believed they could help him develop quicker, telling ESPN.com’s Enrique Rojas, "After careful thought, my parents and I decided that Oakland has a better pitcher development program, and that will be more important for my career in the long haul."
The baseball world buzzed after Ynoa finalized his deal with Oakland. Raymond Abreu, then Oakland’s Director of Latin America Operations, announced his opinion that Ynoa was the best Latin prospect since Felix Hernandez. He also gushed about his tools, stating, “As a pitcher, he has effortless mechanics with loose arm action on all his pitches and a clean, easy delivery. He's an exceptional athlete and he throws a very heavy fastball."
At the time of the signing, Baseball America reported that a number of scouts believed Ynoa was a “once-in-a-generation talent,” with an arsenal of a mid-90’s fastball, breaking ball and changeup that put him on par with pitchers far older and more experienced.
The high hopes for Ynoa stalled as quickly as they started. Instead of making his pro debut in 2009 as expected, he missed the entire season with elbow problems. The A’s decided it was prudent to be cautious with the teenager and not risk major injury. Unfortunately, that strategy couldn’t prevent what was to come.
Ynoa struck out 11 batters in 9 innings in 2010 with Oakland’s instructional league team in Arizona, but was once again shut down with arm injuries. This time it was discovered he needed Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss all of the 2011 season.
At the age of 20, Ynoa finally got his professional career underway in 2012, four years after first signing with Oakland. He started in instructs, but was moved up to the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters in late July to get his first real taste of minor league baseball.
Since Vermont is my home team, my excitement knew no bounds when I initially heard Ynoa was making his way to the Green Mountain State. Having eagerly read about him for years, but having virtually no tangible information to go on, his arrival for a baseball nerd like me was akin to getting an opportunity to see a unicorn rubbing his horn against a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
If you only go by the sheer numbers, Ynoa struggled with Vermont. In 8 games, he went 1-3 with a 6.97 ERA. Although he struck out 19 batters in 20.2 innings, he also issued nearly a walk per inning.
Despite the lack of consistency and results, Ynoa’s vast potential was easy to see. His fastball varied between 88-95, and his breaking ball occasionally made hitters look absolutely foolish, while at other times being flatter than an expired Miller High Life. Because of his lengthy time off from any meaningful baseball activities, such results were not only excusable, but expected.
Being a curious sort, I determined that I was going to do whatever it took to speak with Ynoa and find out more about the mysterious pitching savant. It was easier said than done.
Vermont’s players are typically on the field at least an hour before game time, stretching, playing games of pepper and generally unwinding before first pitch. However, unless it was his day to pitch, Ynoa rarely emerged from the clubhouse until mere moment before the ceremonial call of “Play ball” echoed over the loudspeakers.
One evening I decided to wait until after the game, when players finished showering and wandered off for the night. I silently congratulated myself when after about 30 minutes I saw an impossibly tall and lean figure slightly duck to exit out of the clubhouse and on to the concourse.
The first thing that struck me about being that close to Ynoa was his imposing presence and size. He has piercing grayish blue eyes that literally make it uncomfortable to make eye contact with him. At 6’7”, he towered over me. The program listed him at 205 pounds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were 20 pounds lighter than that. His comically long arms put the goofy thought in my head that if we were on the playground and he decided to snatch off my cap, I would have virtually no chance of getting it back.
After I introduced myself and stated that I hoped to ask him some questions, I could tell he was quietly sizing me up. When he spoke, his voice was a methodical and deep rumble, reminiscent of famed professional wrestler Andre the Giant. He agreed to speak with me, but asked if we could chat after the game the following night. I agreed but assumed I would never speak with him again.
Before walking away, Ynoa shook my hand, with his enormous paw engulfing mine so fully that it made me feel dainty for the first time in my life.
Following the next game I dutifully waited by the clubhouse, as Ynoa had requested, determined to give it only 10 minutes past the deadline, before giving up on my quest as a lost cause. For some reason I just knew I was going to get blown off. However, Ynoa strode outside precisely at the time he had made the appointment and walked right up to me.
English is not Ynoa’s first language, but since being in the States he has learned enough to competently communicate. Despite being happy to find out we would be able to talk, it didn’t take long for it to become obvious that he is a man of few words.
I first asked Ynoa the obvious question of how he was feeling, now that he was finally able to really start his career. He gave me a big smile that belied his happiness about finally being able to pitch, before replying, “I feel great after surgery and everything that happened to me. I just want to pitch and keep doing well and throwing my fastball without problems.”
I was curious about what it was like for Ynoa to have left home at 16 to start his professional life so far away from home and unable to speak the language. It’s a foreign concept in today’s America, but so commonplace among Latin ballplayers. He admitted his naiveté after signing his first contract. “I didn’t know how to do it because it was my first year in professional baseball. I felt a little bit afraid the first time.” These challenges are often ignored or glossed over, as people tend to focus on his injury since joining the Oakland organization. It’s clear Ynoa had to deal with even more significant challenges than his physical ailments.
Ynoa revealed only a little of how he felt these past few years about his inability to be on the field, when he described this inner turmoil after the injuries started popping up. “The first surgery was a little hard,” he explained. “Every night I was praying; praying to God.”
Through healing, luck or divine intervention, Ynoa is finally back at the starting line, four-plus years after he expected. Being added by the A’s to their 40-man major league roster added even more weight to the already-onerous burden he has borne since being signed by Oakland. The move protects him from being chosen in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft by another team looking to snipe talent on the cheap. The A’s are obviously not ready to give up on their already substantial investment, and believe that Ynoa can still develop into a major league pitcher.
Teams view 40-man roster spots like gold nuggets. The A’s designating Ynoa to one of those closely guarded spots speaks volumes about in how much regard they hold the pitcher. They clearly believe that he can still live up to his vast potential despite the many bumps he has encountered since entering pro ball.
About to enter his sixth season since signing; which most minor league players would consider an eternity, Ynoa still has plenty of time to get where he wants to be. He will only be 21 during the entire 2013 season, still relatively young by prospect standards. Now that he has health and the clear backing of the A’s, what he needs moving forward is game experience. Pitching on a regular basis will be the best way for him to grow and hone his pitching skills.
Ynoa may fall by the wayside like so many prospects before him, or he might make good and justify all of the A’s support and investment. The important thing right now is that he finally has a chance, and the outcome largely lies in his massive hands.
One can imagine a 16-year-old signing a multi-million dollar contract would be over the moon simply having the money in-hand, but it’s obvious that Ynoa wants more, and has yearned to prove he was worthy of his huge bonus and accolades. “I feel excited that I am 100 percent,” he told me emphatically. “Everything is good. The point is to do my work and be what I want.” What he wants is to be a major league pitcher. Only time will tell if he can fulfill that goal, which was once seen as a foregone conclusion.
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