DENVER - On Saturday in Scottsdale, two teams comprised of the brightest stars of tomorrow representing five major league organizations apiece faced off in the late autumn classic known as the Arizona Fall League Championship Game.
Starting at third base and batting second for the East Division Champs, the Salt River Rafters, was a player whose name had been unfamiliar to - and overlooked by - many fans at the start of the season. He is a player that has risen to prominence through his unique combination of work ethic and, as some could say, deep-rooted genetic gifts.
On Tuesday, the Colorado Rockies placed the 25-year-old on their 40-Man Roster, along with outfielder Sam Hilliard, starting pitcher Ryan Castellani and relief pitcher Justin Lawrence, protecting Fuentes on the same roster as his superstar cousin Nolan Arenado.
Now, he can’t be ignored.
After being named an end-of-year All-Star to little fanfare in 2017 for the Double-A Eastern League - even being subjected to the Rule 5 Draft for any of the other 29 team to poach - Fuentes stepped up his game another level, both literally and figuratively, during his 2018 season in Triple-A Albuquerque.
It began with a selection to the Triple-A All-Star Game as the Pacific Coast League’s starting third baseman and earning the game’s MVP Award after a 2-for-3 night that included a home run and two runs batted in to lift his squad over the International League.
Fuentes said of this career highlight, “That was something special, just because I thought coming into Triple-A that I was never going to play everyday. The fact that I got to the All-Star Game and the MVP was awesome. I had my parents there. It was special. Something I’ll never forget.”
Such prestige immediately put the alumnus of Missouri Baptist University in the on-deck circle for becoming only the second Spartans player to reach the major after three-time All-Star and fellow undrafted free agent Nate Colbert.
Not to be outdone, his first half success continued into the warmest months of the season in the second half to earn not only the Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year, but the Most Valuable Player Award.
In winning an award that dates back to 1927 as the PCL’s top honor, Fuentes placed his name beside current major leaguers Adam Eaton, Chris Owings and Joc Pederson, and alongside some of the all-time greats of the game, such as Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Tony Perez.
These newest set of career highlights completely altered Fuentes’ offseason plans as the Southern California native was set to play in the Caribbean Leagues for the second year in a row.
After getting his first taste of the winter leagues in Mexico in 2017 with the Tomateros de Culiacan, Fuentes was prepared to tackle another of Latin America’s finest baseball institutions, the Dominican Republic.
As Fuentes described, it was all but a done deal:
“I was talking to (Carlos) Estevez - he’s been on one of the teams - and he was talking to one of the coaches. This year, I want to challenge myself and see what I can do there.”
But before Fuentes could get a chance to fly to the capital city of Santo Domingo, the Colorado Rockies had other plans for their blossoming young infielder.
In September, the Rockies announced a small group of prospects from their organization - a group that included Hilliard, Castellani and Lawrence, as well as Jesus Tinoco, Mitch Horacek and Tyler Nevin - who would travel to Salt River Fields and take part in the prestigious Arizona Fall League.
Since 1992, the best and brightest young players from all thirty major league organizations have headed to the Phoenix-area to take part in the Arizona Fall League and see if the crème de la crème could rise any higher.
Hundreds of major leaguers have come through the AFL, including several Cy Young Award winners and MVPs. Coincidentally, the last four World Series MVP Awards were won by former Arizona Fall League players: Steve Pearce (2007), George Springer (2012), Ben Zobrist (2006)) and Salvador Perez (2010).
Since 2012, several current Rockies have honed their craft in Scottsdale with the Salt River Rafters, including the likes of Kyle Freeland, Trevor Story, Raimel Tapia, Ryan McMahon, Pat Valaika, Noel Cuevas, and Yency Almonte.
In September, during the midst of the Rockies historic run to the playoffs, Arenado shared a little about his own AFL experience in 2011 as a 20-year-old, which culminated in winning the Joe Black Award as the league’s MVP.
“Have fun. I love the Fall League. It was so much fun. It’s a lot of baseball. A long year,” Arenado added before parting a few tips to his younger cousin. “Just be (Josh Fuentes). I don’t feel I need to give him advice. He’s a confident kid. He’s going to enjoy it. If anything, just be yourself and he’s going to be just fine.”
Fuentes has been more than fine during his six weeks in Scottsdale among the top minor leaguers in the game.
He finished the season with a seven-game hitting streak, homering in the final regular season game to give him a .301 batting average to go along with an .837 on-base plus slugging percentage, third highest on the Rafters behind teammates Tyler Nevin and Sam Hilliard, respectively.
In the AFL’s Championship Game, Fuentes delivered by reaching base safely in three of five plate appearance, singling once and drawing two walks in what was ultimately an extra inning loss for his squad.
Also on the display for Fuentes in Arizona were his defensive talents at the hot corner..
“I think that’s just how we grew up, being good on both sides of the ball,” Arenado explained. “As we’ve gotten older, we’ve learned to take more pride. You want to be a complete baseball player. We always talk about that. Being something on offense and being something on the defense. We always talk about that. I know he takes pride in that also.”
If Fuentes is going log significant innings with the Rockies in 2019, he will likely have to do so at a position not occupied by a perennial MVP candidate, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger recipient.
Though he played around the diamond in college and feels comfortable in the middle infield, Fuentes has taken a lot of reps at first base since becoming a professional, 126 games of repetitions or about a quarter of his time in the field.
Late in the 2018 season, he spoke about his ability to play and the ease in which he plays defensively from the other infield corner:
“I played first when I was in High-A; I played first like fifty games. So, I wouldn’t say I’m super comfortable, but if I play there more, I think I can get it. It’s simple as just getting your reads and getting comfortable to a new position. If they want to put me there more, that’s great.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much to Fuentes which position he’ll take on the field so long as it’s located in one of thirty major metropoles across the U.S. and Canada.
On November 20, Josh Fuentes took his next step toward that goal by becoming a member of the Colorado Rockies 40-Man Roster.
By March 28, Opening Day, Fuentes may find himself a member of the 25-Man Roster, position be damned.
Because in his words, “Whatever I’ve got to do to play is what I’m going to do.”