LOS ANGELES – Yosver Zulueta is moving fast this season so it makes sense that his Futures Game experience would zip by in a flash, too.
Called on by the American League to clean up a first-and-third, two-out mess in the second inning of Major League Baseball’s annual prospect showcase, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander needed just one pitch, a 96.9 m.p.h. heater, to end the frame.
New York Mets catcher Francisco Alvarez grounded the offering weakly to second base, the type of efficient, rally-killing relief work every team covets.
“I don’t have too much experience, to be honest, coming into that situation like a reliever. But they said, hey, get in there, and I was ready to go,” Zulueta said through San Diego Padres interpreter Danny Sanchez, who was helping MLB at the event. “I had a great time.”
Unlike fellow Blue Jays pitching prospect Ricky Tiedemann, the lightning armed lefty who threw a three-up, three-down fifth and is expected to join Zulueta at double-A New Hampshire after the all-star break, the 24-year-old from Cuba wasn’t scheduled to pitch Saturday.
He was on backup duty, in case needed, which it turned out he was.
The same may eventually apply up the ladder, too, as Zulueta’s big-velocity profile and looming Rule 5 eligibility means that if he dominates double-A the way he did at low-A Dunedin and high-A Vancouver earlier this year, the Blue Jays are going to have an intriguing choice to make.
A stone’s throw from the majors, for a club desperate for an arm like his, and with a 40-man roster spot earmarked for him this fall anyway, the possibility is on the brain for him and others in the organization.
“Always – I mean, that's what you work for, so it's always top of mind,” said Zulueta. “That's the goal. That's what I'm trying to get to and hopefully someday soon.”
Among the wave of young pitching percolating up the farm system in high-A and double-A, Zulueta and Fisher Cats teammate Hayden Juenger appear the likeliest candidates to help this season. Tiedemann, just 19, has the raw stuff for it but probably not enough of a buildup to get organizational sign-off for such a jump. Trent Palmer and Adam Kloffenstein are also at New Hampshire but not as advanced, while Nick Frasso, Sem Robberse and Alejandro Melean are among those making strides at Vancouver.
At the same time, they’re all potential future Blue Jays, they’re also capital, too, and word that the Washington Nationals will consider trading Juan Soto after he turned down a $440-million, 15-year extension, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, set the Futures Game abuzz. The leak was no doubt timed to trigger speculation at a showcase featuring the type of talent integral to any such deal, and perhaps hijack much of the discourse during the all-star week ahead, too.
The Blue Jays have twice traded players they sent to the Futures Game only a couple weeks later – Jairo Labourt in 2015 as part of the package for David Price and Austin Martin in the deal for Jose Berrios last year – and their system is still deep enough to engage on anyone from Soto on down.
They’re said to have had contact with the Nationals in recent days but every contending club will be kicking tires there, if they haven’t already. Whether the Blue Jays would ante up half-a-billion dollars or so to extend Soto long-term is an interesting question. But notable is that they tried to engage Gerrit Cole when he hit free agency, undeterred by a price tag they knew would extend north of $300 million because it was a generational talent.
Regardless, the Blue Jays will be making deals before the Aug. 2 deadline in an attempt to augment a team that’s underperformed to this point, leading to Wednesday’s firing of manager Charlie Montoyo.
Zulueta isn’t being counted on to be part of the solution, but the Blue Jays won’t mind if he happens to emerge as an option for September reinforcement. Despite his age, that would still be an aggressive timeline given that he’s made only 11 appearances across three levels in what is essentially his first pro season since signing for $1 million in the spring of 2019.
Using extra international bonus pool space acquired in deals sending off Kendrys Morales and Dwight Smith Jr., the Blue Jays plucked him out of a showcase in the Dominican Republic. They had some history on Zulueta from his appearance at the world junior championships and a stint with the Cuban senior national during its tour of the Canadian-American Assocation in 2017.
But his stuff played up at the showcase, and when the Blue Jays discovered he was pitching with a tear in his elbow, became even more impressed that he was touching 93-97 m.p.h. and sitting 94-95 despite it. As they ran him through testing at their complex in the Dominican, they built up enough faith to buy in even though Zulueta was going to need Tommy John surgery.
“We have a history of drafting players in the first round who are going to have T.J., or are recovering from T.J.,” said Andrew Tinnish, the team’s vice-president of international scouting. “There's no question there’s risk. Having seen him throw twice and do what he did, if we didn't have that, we wouldn't he wouldn't have done that.”
Zulueta said he’d have soreness after he threw but not when he pitched, which he attributed to adrenaline. He called the surgery a blow, but once he recovered, he was at big-league camp with the Blue Jays in 2021 and left an impression by touching triple digits, even if he was wild.
Set up for a rapid rise with a placement at low-A Dunedin, he blew out his knee covering first base against his first batter of the season. An offline throw forced him to reach back against his momentum and he didn’t pitch again in 2021.
“Obviously it was very hard,” he said. “But I worked my tail off to get back here and it was a tough process. I wanted to get better and get stronger. I was more concerned after the elbow surgery compared to the ACL surgery. Once the surgery on the arm went well, I wasn't too worried about the velocity coming back.”
This year, he finally got untracked and has taken off. Complementing his fastball with an improved slider, curveball and changeup, he’s got a chance to feature four legitimate big-league pitches. The lost time raises questions about whether he can start, but if he’s a reliever he’s got a chance to be a dominant one.
“I don't think that we're ruling anything out with him and it's hard to predict exactly what his role is going to be,” says Tinnish. “He's Rule 5 eligible at the end of the year. As we sat there in spring training and he was healthy, you're kind of hoping that the kid puts us in a position where it's like, oh, we need to make a call on this. And at this point, he's certainly done that. From where we stood at spring training to now, it's hard to ask for more.”
For different reasons, the same can be said about Tiedemann, who has gone from third-round pick last year to top-100 prospect in the blink of an eye. A SoCal kid who grew up cheering for the Dodgers, his only time pitching at Dodger Stadium before Saturday was during a pre-draft workout.
Taking the field there against many of the game’s best prospects was “a dream, honestly.”
“It's a dream come true to just to step in a big-league ballpark and to be able to pitch against other teams,” he added. “It was a great experience.”
It was also a bit of a measuring stick for himself and “for other people to see how I gauge against other prospects, just because I haven't pitched at the double-A or triple-A level yet,” he said. “So it was cool to kind of gauge where I'm at and I think I'm in a good spot.”
As is Zulueta, long a tantalizing talent starting to emerge as a reality.
"When I got to double-A I was a little surprised because I was rising so fast,” he said. “But truthfully, I’m very happy. I've worked hard to get to where I'm at, I'm excited and I'm happy to be here.”