MESA, Ariz. — Someday he may be starring in green and gold, his memorable one-word nickname burned into the minds of Bay Area fans.
Right now the days are long for Lazaro Armenteros, and they’re anything but glamorous.
The 17-year-old outfielder from Cuba, known simply as “Lazarito,” wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to get to the A’s minor league facility. He doesn’t get home until well into the evening, after his English language classes that run Monday through Friday.
Most of Oakland’s minor leaguers have their hands full just trying to make a good impression between the lines. Armenteros, the youngest player in camp, is learning a new country, a new culture, a new language, and a new way of approaching the game.
In his first interview since arriving at spring training, Armenteros said he’s tackling the task with enthusiasm.
“I’m really excited. It’s always been a dream of mine to come to the United States and play,” he said exclusively to CSNCalifornia.com through interpreter Juan Dorado. “Thank God I finally get the opportunity to live out that dream fully here in the States.”
Armenteros was one of the most sought after players during last summer’s international signing period. The A’s landed him with a $3 million bonus, their largest for an international amateur since shelling out a team-record $4.25 million for pitcher Michael Ynoa in 2008.
He’s quite the physical specimen already — 6-foot-1 and a chiseled 200 pounds — with power and speed said to be his best tools. The comparisons have ranged from Yoenis Cespedes to Bo Jackson to Willie Mays.
Ridiculously premature, but you get the point.
Armenteros defected from Cuba in 2015, established residency in Haiti and eventually settled in the Dominican Republic before signing with Oakland.
The A’s signed four other highly regarded international amateurs last July — shortstops Marcos Brito and Yerdel Vargas, outfielder Kevin Richards and third baseman George Bell — who all will arrive in the United States shortly to take part in extended spring training.
Because of the unique, and chaotic, road Armenteros has traveled, the A’s thought it best to get him here early. A group of four coaches form a support team away from the field — Ruben Escalera, Gabriel Ozuna and Gabriel Ortiz are on the coaching staff of the A’s rookie league team. Juan Dilone is the hitting coach for low Single-A Beloit.
“They’re mentors, and they have to discipline too,” said Keith Lieppman, the A’s director of player development. “There’s a whole lot of things going on. You try to communicate. You try to help them understand the importance of being on time, all the things you have to do to be a baseball player.”
Added Armenteros: “It’s given me an opportunity to learn from them, outside the game and inside the game. When they tell me something during the game, I listen and get better because they know what it’s like to be in professional baseball.”
His father started calling him “Lazarito” when he was younger, and it stuck. With help from one of his early representatives, he even acquired trademark rights to a “Lazarito” logo.
Asked how he likes the food in the United States, Armenteros smiled.
“I go to the supermarket and make my own food,” he said. “I like to make some eggs, some rice, and then cook some pork. Or just chicken and rice.
At the time of Armenteros’ signing, A’s assistant general manager Dan Feinstein — who heads the team’s international scouting — called Armenteros “the most physically imposing young player we’ve seen in a long time,” with great bat speed and raw power. A right-handed hitter and thrower, the A’s project him as a corner outfielder.
In his early impression, Lieppman has been impressed with Armenteros’ hitting approach.
“He’s sort of matched up with our philosophy as far as plate discipline without ever saying anything to him.”
Figure it will be several years before fans can look forward to potentially seeing Armenteros in Oakland. The A’s are in no rush with him. The plan is for the outfielder to stay in Arizona through spring training and extended spring training, and then head back to the Dominican Republic to play in the Dominican Summer League. If he fares well, he would probably return and join the A’s Arizona-based rookie league team.
Not surprisingly, when asked who his favorite major leaguers are to watch, Cespedes — the former Athletic and a fellow Cuban — are among those he mentions.
“He does it all,” Armenteros said.
As for his own skills, the teenager projects confidence and doesn’t hold back in his self-assessment.
“I do think of myself as a five-tool player,” he said. “I think of myself (as having) speed, power, glove, arm … all the tools you would need to succeed in this game.”