It has been a tricky journey to the major-leagues for pitcher Yoan Lopez, with more than the usual share of detours along the way. He was initially signed by GM Dave Stewart in January 2015. The $8.27 million bonus he received was so far above the MLB limits that the D-backs not only had to pay a 100% surcharge on the overage, they also had severe limits placed on their international spending for the next two years. But such was Stewart’s opinion of Lopez’s talents that he didn’t care (or, perhaps, didn’t know!) about the harsh penalties resulting from his signing.
The problems began not long after he started his professional career in the United States, at that point as a starting pitcher. He went absent without leave from Arizona’s Double-A affiliate in Mobile, not boarding the team bus on July 2 and then departing town without informing the team. He turned up a few days later in Florida, and that year, he also posted a video to Snapchat saying “No mas D-Backs; ahora Miami Marlins.” When he turned to the team, he hit Dansby Swanson in the face during a simulated game, leaving our former #1 pick needing 14 stitches. Lopez was chaperoned for the rest of the season by Double-A coach Larry Pardo.
2016 didn’t go much better. It was almost exactly at the same point that Lopez again went AWOL from Mobile, this time intending to quit baseball entirely. Dave Stewart said at the time the team believed Lopez was dealing with serious emotional issues: “It’s the escaping, crossing the water in a raft -- or however he got here -- living in Haiti and then going to the Dominican, leaving family members -- it’s all of it. He’s really not having a good time.” He eventually returned to the organization in August, but with a 4.76 ERA over his first two seasons with the Diamondbacks, and a K:BB ratio of only 78:56, it looked likely Lopez could become another Cuban bust by Dave Stewart.
Yoan didn’t pitch in the minor-leagues in 2017 until July. However, at least this time, the problems were physical and not mental, with blister issues and a shoulder problem delaying his entry. Perhaps key was Lopez’s transition to the bullpen, He pitched 30.2 relief innings for High-A Visalia, allowing only three earned runs, for a 0.88 ERA, with a much-improved K:BB ratio of 56:9. And there was off-field improvement too, Visalia pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru reporting, “He was a different guy. Guys liked him. I had guys coming up to me, I wouldn’t even ask, ‘Yoan’s been great. He’s doing a lot better.’ He was trying to speak English with them as much as he could. That was huge.”
This year, the now 25-year-old Lopez began the season back at Double-A Mobile, and for the first time in his professional career, was able to pitch a full, uninterrupted season. Over 45 games and 61.2 innings, he posted a 2.92 ERA, with 87 strikeouts and 26 walks and was names to the All-Star Futures Game roster. The strikeout rate of 12.7 batters per 9 IP ranked Lopez second (min 60 IP) among pitchers in the D-backs’ organization, behind Kevin Ginkel’s 12.9 rate. And now, Yoan has been called up to the major leagues, beginning the next chapter in a quite remarkable story of redemption.
A player who almost departed from the sport entirely, now stands on the cusp of its highest level. I’m excited to see what he does for us, now and in future years.