‘Proud’ Urena soaking in big-league experience with Blue Jays

Richard Urena talks about hitting his first career home run and settling in with the Toronto Blue Jays

TORONTO – Richard Urena had just finished packing up his belongings for the trip home to the Dominican Republic when Gary Allenson, manager of the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, called with some totally unexpected news. The Toronto Blue Jays, in need of middle infield help to cover off September, were calling him up. Immediately the 21-year-old phoned his mother and let her know that his return to San Francisco de Macoris was taking a detour.

“My mom has always been a warrior, she’s always been really great for us, always been there for my family,” Urena said in an interview through interpreter Josue Peley. “She wasn’t sad at all, even though she wasn’t going to see me. She knew that I was happy and I knew that she was happy, as well.”

Since then, the good times have just kept coming for Urena, who in his sixth big-league game Saturday found himself batting leadoff, delivering two hits, a walk and some more solid defence in a 5-4 win over the Detroit Tigers. He doubled Sept. 1 in his first big-league at-bat, walked three times and scored in his first start Sept. 3, and hit his first home run Friday night, the milestones coming fast and furious. “I feel very proud,” he said, “and very emotional.”

Still, as impressive as he’s been, this big-league stint is more a growth experience than audition for next year. The Blue Jays needed someone to support Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney up the middle this month, especially given Rob Refsnyder’s defensive shortcomings. With no 40-man roster candidates for the job at triple-A Buffalo and fellow prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s season truncated by injury, Urena made the most sense.

“The more we talked about Richard, we felt like he was in a good enough place defensively and he had the right mindset offensively,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “What we challenged him with in this opportunity with skipping a level and not coming off a monster year was to focus on your work, focus on your process, we feel like you’re good enough, this is a piece of your development. You’re not coming here to impress us, you’re coming here to continue your development.”

Next year, that development is likely to resume at triple-A Buffalo, where he’ll offer a layer of on-the-doorstep protection the Blue Jays lacked this year. Where he goes from there will be up to him and be largely dictated by what he does with the bat, with a point of emphasis for him reining in his free-swinging ways.

A career .277/.320/.404 hitter in the minors, the switch-hitter batted just .247/.286/.359 in 551 plate appearances at New Hampshire, but Atkins said that “incrementally we were seeing progress.”

“We never want to take away aggressiveness, we want to get you more aggressive on pitches you can drive,” he continued. “Don’t just put the ball in play because you can. Always think swing, always look in a certain area and be aggressive, and if you can’t drive it, wait until you get to two strikes.”

Despite the numbers, Urena felt that was the area in which he made the most progress with the Fisher Cats, feeling he was “having better at-bats, getting better counts to hit in – instead of always being 0-2, being 2-0 or 2-1 and not swinging at bad pitches.”

“I feel like I can get in better counts now and mostly I can look for better pitches to hit,” he added.

Defensively, Urena has looked steady, smooth and completely unfazed by the big-league environment, a key factor in the club’s decision to promote him. The main difference he’s noticed between the majors and minors is that the pace of the game is faster at the big-league level, something that he’s adjusted to by “getting ready a bit earlier, being more focused and being prepared a little more before the games. You have video and more stuff up here it’s a little bit easier to get prepared.”

The Blue Jays feel he can make both routine and exceptional plays thanks to his arm strength, agility and range, but Atkins feels the “hardest thing for any young major-league player is recognizing the intensity of the focus.”

“Guys in the major-leagues, after games, especially every day position players, are exhausted because of the level of focus that is needed to use all the information in this game given to you with the expectations magnified on the stage,” Atkins added. “As much as you can develop someone for the big-leagues, there’s nothing like being exposed to it.”

Urena is certainly making the most of his exposure to this point, showing he’s at least capable of holding his own in the majors, with the potential for so much more. With Troy Tulowitzki coming off a major ankle injury, Devon Travis returning from a knee injury and Barney bound for free agency, the Blue Jays have needs up the middle this winter and Urena is sure to find his way into the mix at some point.

“You cannot expect anything in the future because that’s something you can’t control,” he said. “What I can control is to work hard and compete every day, do the best I can and try to show these guys that I have my place here next year, and try to make the team next year.”