When scouts look at prospects there are certain things that are easy to measure. Height, weight, velocity, etc. One thing that’s a bit more difficult to measure however, is a player’s heart.
In 2014, pitcher Jorge Lopez showcased the heart of a champion as he battled through adversity off the field, to turn in his finest season since being drafted by the Brewers in the second round in 2011 out of Caguas Military Academy in Puerto Rico.
While Lopez thrived on the field at High-A Brevard County, his mind was always on his one-year old son Mikael, who was battling a severe illness off the field.
After being born prematurely, Mikael had only been home for about a week when Jorge and his wife noticed complications with their young son. They rushed him to the hospital and that is where Mikael Lopez has remained for most of his young life, while battling a still unknown intestinal disease.
When Jorge was assigned to Brevard County last season, Mikael was transferred from a children’s hospital in Puerto Rico to Miami, Florida. While Mikael and his mother stayed at the hospital, Jorge pitched for the Manatees, a few hours away in Melbourne, Florida, and made the drive to Miami on days he wasn’t pitching to be with his family.
On the field, Lopez made 25 starts for the Brevard County Manatees, the Brewers Class-A affiliate in the Florida State League. He went 10-10 with a 4.59 earned run average and struck out a career high 119 batters. Lopez is quick to credit coaching for the continued progress he made last season. “I learned so much from my pitching coach (Dave) Chavarria and I just feel like I needed to work on my delivery all year and I kept working hard and I had a really good season.”
So good in fact, that Lopez was chosen to represent the Brewers, pitching for the World team, in the Futures Game at Target Field in Minnesota, where he retired the only batter he faced.
“That was a proud (time) for me” said Lopez. “I never expected to go there and play with those guys. Play with a lot of prospects like Jose Berrios, Javier Baez, (Francisco) Lindor. It was my first time playing in a major league ballpark and I was nervous the first couple of hours but after that I just said hey, it’s a ballpark, it’s not anything different, just keep with your routine and do what they want you to do.”
With his 2014 season, Lopez took a big step forward and showed why the Brewers were willing to take a chance on the six-foot-four right-hander despite the fact that he was more known for his ability on the volleyball court than on the baseball diamond coming out of high school.
After signing with Milwaukee following the draft in 2011, Lopez made four appearances for the Brewers AZL squad in Maryvale, Arizona. He returned to Maryvale in 2012, but after struggling through his first seven outings, the Brewers sent Lopez down to the Dominican Summer League to finish out the season.
The move served a dual purpose as Lopez explained. “They moved me there because I had a lot of problems with my control” he said, “and they just wanted to send me to work out and play and develop myself with how those guys learn. And because the guys over there speak Spanish. I couldn’t communicate too much (in Arizona). I was a player who came to the United States and never spoke English. I never learned how to speak English in school. It’s hard sometimes when you need to speak to a coach and you need to ask questions and you need to find someone who speaks English (to translate) to try to understand everything. I went there and learned so much and when I came back to instructionals I felt ready. I felt strong. And they were happy with my work over there.”
So happy with the progress Lopez made in fact, that the Brewers skipped him over Helena and sent him to Low-A Wisconsin to begin the 2013 season. That move presented a whole new challenge for Lopez.
“I’d never seen snow and never felt that kind of cold” said Lopez. “Those first couple of months were hard for me, but I learned so much about how to have a routine and be a professional. After that in the summer it felt more like it does in Puerto Rico. I feel more comfortable with hot weather and I always know how to pitch with hot weather, but that was pretty hard for me those first couple months of (learning) how to get my routine and feel comfortable pitching in the cold.”
Despite the cold weather, Lopez handled the jump to full season ball and showed much better command in 117 innings of work for the Timber Rattlers. That success served as another stepping stone for Lopez, who built on what he had learned and resulted in his breakout 2014 season at Brevard County. Now Lopez is looking to take another step forward in 2015 with hopes of one day pitching at Miller Park.
“I’ve got a lot of goals. I just want to keep working and try to play in Double-A or Triple-A and hopefully play in the big leagues. I just keep working hard and trying to get to the big leagues.”
As Lopez continues his climb towards the big leagues, his mind remains fixed on Mikael. They still don’t have all of the answers and more doctors and more tests will be coming, along with a probable move to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, one of the top children’s hospitals for treating intestinal issues, in the coming weeks. But there is reason to remain optomistic, after all, he’s got his father’s toughness and determination.
“He’s getting better” said Lopez. “Abut six months ago his life was hard because he had an intestine operation, but right now he’s getting better and bigger. We’re still in the hospital, but he feels happy right now and he has a lot of happy days.”
That’s terrific news for everyone who has been praying for Maikel to make a full recovery and Jorge wants those people to know how grateful he is for all of the support from family, friends, the Brewers, their affiliates and fans everywhere.
“I really appreciate how everyone keeps praying for Maikel” said Jorge, before offering up a genuine and heartfelt “thank you” to all of those thinking about him and his family.
Having gone through so much at such a young age, Jorge Lopez is mature beyond his years off the field and that can’t help but carry over on to the diamond as well. His toughness and determination are traits that he’s already passed on to his son and will hopefully, someday soon, lead to a happy and healthy Maikel watching his father take the mound at Miller Park.