Whether or not the Cardinals sign Luis Robert, they could already have a Cuban star on the rise in outfielder Adolis Garcia. (Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals)

By Rob Rains

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – If Adolis Garcia has any inside of knowledge about whether fellow Cuban Luis Robert is going to sign with the Cardinals, he isn’t saying.

Garcia, who signed with the organization in February and is now playing for the Double A Cardinals, is close friends with Robert, the 19-year-out free agent outfielder who is widely considered one of the two best players in the world not presently in the major leagues.

The two are from the same province in Cuba and were teammates in their native country for years.

“He was younger, but we were always on the same team,” Garcia said through a translator, teammate Dickie Joe Thon. “I talk to him almost every day.”

Garcia would not divulge any details about those conversations or whether he has lobbied his friend to sign with the Cardinals, who are rumored to be one of the teams in hot pursuit of Robert.

Robert will become eligible to sign with a major-league team as soon as Saturday. Both Baseball America and Yahoo Sports reported Thursday that their sources indicated the Cardinals and White Sox were believed to be the favorites to land the five-tool player. It also is believed the Padres still have a serious interest in Robert, with the unknown factor just how large a signing bonus it will take to sign him.

The Yahoo Sports’ report cited sources as saying the signing bonus could be close to $25 million.

While all Garcia would say is that “He’s (Robert) still negotiating,” Garcia did not hide the fact he would love to see Robert join him in the Cardinals’ organization.

“He’s looking for the right opportunity,” Garcia said. “I’m really happy for him. If he goes with us, I would like it even more. It would be great to have him around, he’s a really, really good player.”

The Cardinals have already exceeded their cap on international signings for the current period, so however much they would have to pay to sign Robert would have to be matched with a dollar-for-dollar penalty.

That wasn’t the case when they outbid four other teams – the Reds, Giants, Astros and Rangers – to sign the 24-year-old Garcia, whose $2.5 million signing bonus was not subject to the bonus cap because of his age and experience in Cuba, where he was the MVP of the country’s top league last year.

That was a season which saw Garcia also play in Japan, a fact which he said has helped ease his transition to American baseball and culture.

Garcia is off to a good start with the Cardinals, alternating between center field and right field, and has shown an aptitude to make quick adjustments as he learns about the differences between baseball in the minor leagues, compared to baseball in Cuba and Japan.

“He still has a lot of Cuban in him,” said manager Johnny Rodriguez, who like Garcia is a native of Cuba. “He’s very raw now. We’ve got to take baby steps with him, but he’s going to be there (St. Louis). He is going to impact St. Louis, I know that for a fact or I wouldn’t be saying it. He’s got everything you want including toughness you’ve got to have to play at that level.”

One of the adjustments Garcia has had to make is the level of preparation and work that goes on every day.

“All I want to do is focus hard on working, trying to get better,” Garcia said. “It’s a different culture, a different system, but baseball is baseball. I’m just trying to adjust and correct things as quick as I can.

“The training philosophy is a little different and the way of playing is a little different.”
One of those differences, said Rodriguez, is how much time is spent at the ballpark before a game even begins.

“In Cuba they (players) get there at 6:30 and play at 7,” Rodriguez said. “We get here at 3 to play at 7.

“He will make adjustments. One of the first things he picked up was his spacing and throwing from the outfield. He needs to make a few more offensively. He’s not ready yet for Triple A, but he will be. Right now he is not a plus defender but he has the ability to be. He’s just learning angles and routes. It will come with experience. He can run and he can throw.”

Other than Garcia’s makeup and character, what has impressed his new manager the most is the quickness of his hands while at the plate when he falls behind in the count.

“He takes the ball to right and right center,” Rodriguez said. “He has very strong, quick wrists and strong forearms and biceps. He’s never going to be a pull hitter; he is going to be more of a gap hitter. I’ve seen him look foolish on a breaking ball or a fastball beat him, but then he sees a ball away and doesn’t chase or the pitcher tries to throw 94 and he hits it up the middle with backspin.”

Garcia’s development is aided by the fact his manager speaks his language, as do several or his teammates. Garcia, whose pregnant wife is with him in Springfield, also is learning English in classes offered through the Cardinals.

“I know how to treat him, when he’s going to do something wrong I know why he’s doing it so I’ve been able to nip, nip, nip,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve told him, ‘You might see your other Cubans do certain things but that’s not the Cardinal way.

“He’s very respectful; his dad taught him to respect his elders. When he’s done something wrong I bring him in and talk to him and tell him why he shouldn’t do what he did. It might be on the field or wearing the wrong shirt. I tell him he needs to anticipate more and not just react to the play. He’s gotten better. If you talk to him and explain to him, he listens.”

Garcia also is close to the player who started the Cardinals’ pursuit of Cuban players a few years ago, Aledmys Diaz. The two talk frequently on the phone, and Garcia also is in almost daily contact with his brother, Adonis, who plays for the Braves.

Diaz and Adonis Garcia played together in Cuba for four years before both left the country in pursuit of their baseball dreams.

The younger Garcia is now charting his own course toward the major leagues and is putting the advice of his manager, his brother and Diaz into action.

“I told him to trust in the process,” Diaz said. “He’s going to make a lot of adjustments and I told him to work on things; know the league, learn how baseball is played here. It’s very different than the way we play in Cuba. It’s going to be a tough year, but I think it will be a good year.”

Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development, has been pleased with how well Garcia has responded, and adjusted, on and off the field in his first two months in the organization.

“The first thing that stands out, he’s adjusted to the changes well,” LaRocque said. “He’s been very patient, and it’s allowed him to stay focused on baseball really well. He loves playing the game. When you watch him in the game, what stands out are his tools. He does a lot of things well that will help you win games.

“As a player you learn how to play to the level of the league and then you learn how to be better than the league and he’s clearly on track to doing that. His work ethic is really good, and you can see offensively where the improvement is going to come, once he learns the strike zone. He’s very aggressive in the strike zone.”

Garcia is one of four Cubans signed by the Cardinals since last July. Randy Arozarena, another outfielder, is playing in Class A Palm Beach while the two younger players, pitcher Johan Oviedo and outfielder Jonatan Machado, are both in extended spring training and likely will join a short-season team next month.

The question now, which should be answered soon, is whether Robert will join them.
Whether Robert signs with the Cardinals or not, he will still remain close with Garcia, and there is one American custom Garcia already has fallen in love with which he no doubt will introduce to Robert when he arrives in the United States – waffles.

“Ever since I got here I got hold of waffles,” Garcia said. “I never had waffles before. Now I want them every day – as many as I can get.”

And whether or not Robert soon becomes a Cardinal, LaRocque and Rodriguez know the Cardinals already have another Cuban prospect on the rise in Garcia.

“It’s all about getting into a comfort level and getting into a routine,” LaRocque said. “It’s really good to see how he has adjusted so quickly. That’s what is going to help him on the field even quicker. He’s a sharp young man and very focused.”

Added Rodriguez, “When I first met him in big league camp and was talking to him during batting practice I said, ‘This kid is a winner.’ This is a kid who is going to give you everything he has. He’s almost like Diaz – and I think could be a bigger talent.”

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