The Tampa Bay Rays wouldn’t be playing in the World Series if not for Randy Arozarena, an unheralded Cuban rookie who supplied the Rays’ entire offense this month. And it’s possible that Arozarena wouldn’t be on the Rays if not for a glowing report from J.D. Elliby, the first Tampa Bay scout to see him.
On Friday, for Game 3 of the World Series, the two men were in the same place again for the first time since Arozarena became a Ray. Arozarena in the heart of the lineup, Elliby high along the third-base line, watching the potential he saw on backfields come to fruition on the biggest stage — as the Rays lost but Arozarena homered to continue his assault on the postseason record books.
“Did anybody have the crystal ball, including myself, that he would be this impactful in the postseason?” Rays director of pro scouting Kevin Ibach asks rhetorically about the unstoppable success of the charismatic 25-year-old Arozarena.
Arozarena defected from Cuba in 2015, matured into a talented player in the Mexican League, was signed by the Cardinals for $1.25 million and made a brief debut for St. Louis in the majors last year.
A little more than a year later, after getting a late start on a short season because he tested positive for the coronavirus, Arozarena slashed .382/.433/.855 with seven homers and 10 RBIs for the Rays in 14 games across the first three rounds of the postseason. The rest of the team combined went .185/.277/.343 during that stretch. The pitching has been strong, the defense flashy, but the Rays are competing for their first World Series win because of Arozarena.
“Long story short, we absolutely liked the player,” Ibach said. “We tried several times to acquire him over the years. But, as I said to somebody else the other day, if I was that smart, if our group was that smart in general, we should all be buying lottery tickets every night and cashing those in.”
No one could have quite seen this level of performance coming. But someone with the Rays had to see the potential in an as-yet-unproven Arozarena to compel the front office to trade for him in January — and give up their 6-foot-4, first-round pitching prospect, Matthew Liberatore, in the process.
“The first segment of it I wanted to identify what role that I thought he would play,” said Elliby, a scout since 1997 and with Rays since 2012. He was impressed after watching Arozarena in May 2018 and wrote a compelling report. “I just put: Toolsy everyday center fielder with plus athleticism and confident in-game flair.”
At the time, Arozarena was a 23-year-old in the Cardinals system. It was his second year in affiliated ball. The last line was where Elliby really drove it home: “An exciting tool set with the chance to impact the Major League club as soon as September 2018. Definite acquire.”
Something else he wrote during that extended look?
“Possibly needs to tone down the cockiness, but it's organic.”
“But I want to let our player development know, it’s not a false cockiness. This guy is a quiet type A,” Elliby says now. “It was like he wanted to show that he belonged.”
Arozarena’s talent shines through
That May wasn’t the first time Elliby saw Arozarena. As a Cuban defector who had made it to America and signed for a sizable amount, he was on the scouts’ list even in his first spring training in 2017.
The Cardinals had good pitching to test Arozarena in intrasquad games and Elliby was impressed by his ability to pick up spin, identify the pitches so as not to look silly against the off-speed stuff and to catch up to the fastball, even on two strikes.
“In the backfields you can get closer and I was like, this guy is built like Starling Marte. He’s strong like a middleweight boxer, you know, really strong hands, but he’s not stiff and bound up. And that’s all I put down was like, I need to follow this guy.”
And so he did, spending a week watching him the following year. Elliby didn’t care so much that Arozarena didn’t swing up.
“Launch angle was the new thing that was coming into the game, but I was focused on how hard the ball exited from the plate,” he said. “I wasn’t walking around with a Statcast in my pocket, I could just see if it was on the ground, it was getting by an infielder. If he’s going to both gaps, it was splitting both outfielders.
“The strength, man. He’s not a big burly guy, but he’s packaged to where cylinders fire really, really crisp and sharp.”
‘A little piece of fate’
Elliby never spoke to Arozarena. That’s just the nature of pro scouting.
“I always say, you gotta at least get close to smell a player,” he said. That, however, is as close as the two men have ever come to meeting.
He wants you to know that he doesn’t take credit for Arozarena’s success, either. In fact, he’ll laugh at the mere suggestion.
“It’s not easy, walking on earth and stepping out of bed and picking up the rotation and the ball and then putting the bat on it consistently,” he said about the big-league careers he’s played a small part in. “The level of respect that I have for what those guys do every day is tremendous.”
Still, the Rays recognize that part. Elliby lives in Arlington, when he’s not on the road — which he was before Thursday, scouting the Rangers’ and the Royals’ instructional leagues in Arizona. After the Rays clinched the AL pennant, Ibach called Elliby and told him he had to come home, the team was playing in the World Series practically in his backyard. He couldn’t miss this.
“That’s probably a little piece of fate there that he was the first one to see Randy for us,” Ibach said.
And so Elliby took the last bit of video he needed and drove 15 hours across the desert to watch the team he had a small role in helping to assemble, and the star he spotted on the sort of backfields where everyone is either related to the player or scouting him. He would love to meet Arozarena someday, but for now he’ll settle for feeling just a little bit of pride watching from the seats.
“Like if Randy runs into a couple, oh yeah he’s gonna get that type of fastballs,” Elliby said. “Yeah, I’ll feel great about that.”
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