On the final day of the 2018 regular season with the fate of the NL West hanging in the balance, a certain bright-eyed minor leaguer showed up to Coors Field to witness the potentially historic game.
Standing behind home plate during batting practice watching the Rockies – former teammates, current friends and associates – he said almost the unthinkable. Off-handed, humorous and even deadly serious, it was his brand of commentary.
“If they clinch tonight, I’m getting on that field.”
Hot off an MVP season in Triple-A that helped put his name on the map, it’s still unclear how much Josh Fuentes was joking.
The improbable journey to the majors for Fuentes goes back many years and while it has long been detailed, it simply can never get old to retell or reconsider.
After going undrafted out of a small NAIA college and slogging his way through the lowest levels of the minors, he finally pulled it together before the idea of retirement became a reality. His first major success came in 2017 at Hartford and he followed up his selection as a Double-A Eastern League Post-Season All-Star with a 2018 Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
In less than a six-month span, Fuentes experienced quite the whirlwind. One day it was watching a Rockies game in person to winning multiple post-season awards the next, to making the 40-man roster to experiencing his first major league Spring Training camp to missing six-weeks due to injury, to making his major league debut.
“This has definitely been the most grindiest year of my life,” he said of the 2019 season.
“I’ve never really been injured,” Fuentes continued. “No major injuries. And I was injured twice this year. That was big. There was stuff I never really realized coming back from injury is how tough it is to come back and perform at a high level. I learned. I learned from my mistakes. I think this year has been a lesson for me. To still get the call up and still play some games has been awesome. I want to be healthy and I want to build off it.”
In a span of twelve months, his surreal life to have gone from minor leaguer in 2018 to starting at 1B during the final string of games in 2019:
“Obviously, it’s amazing. Especially because I didn’t have as good of a year as last year in Triple-A. But, to come up here… and obviously I wasn’t killing it, but to prove myself and have some good games. That’s what it’s all about, kind of showing coaches and players that you can come up here and compete. And I feel like I did that. That was big. I’ve got a little bit of momentum going into the offseason. There’s definitely some stuff I need to work on, but it’s been awesome coming up here competing, being with the guys and getting a feel for it.”
While Fuentes saw his power numbers increase in Triple-A last season, he struggled to make contact, striking out nearly 10% more and watching his batting average dip .073, owed much to a BABIP that came down almost as much.
The next step for Fuentes may be the most challenging one of this career: sticking in the majors.
“Everyone says, ‘The hardest part about the big leagues is staying there.’ I think that is a big jump, but I feel like I can compete. If I work hard and if I stay focused, I can do it. I’ve come this far, you know? Why not go further? It’s been nice knowing where I stand and what I need to do and where I need to be to make a team.”
With the addition of a 26th player in the dugout and a maximum limit of 13 pitchers – a number Colorado was familiar with for most of 2019 – the opening on the roster could very well be a player with infield-capabilities.
With David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, Charlie Blackmon and Ian Desmond all but assured a spot in the outfield, room for a fifth could be a challenge. Sam Hilliard was better than advertised in September and the 6’5″ slugger-with-speed could force Bud Black’s hand to carry another left-handed hitting outfielder.
However, considering Garrett Hampson is capable of time in the great expanse of Coors Field, an extra infielder may be the beneficiary of MLB’s latest rule change.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in the infield,” Fuentes said of adding a first baseman’s mitt to his arsenal. “Out here, playing it more, every start was at first. I think I really got the groove of it. They think I can do well there. I’m definitely going to work on it more this offseason. Still go third and second, just in case, but definitely work on first and see if I can play there.”
The fight for the 26th spot is one of only a few battles for a team returning it’s previous year’s roster for the second straight season. Former Diamondbacks infielder Chris Owings and 28-year-old Eric Stamets, veteran of four seasons in Triple-A, will also factor in the conversation for a place on the plane heading to San Diego for Opening Day on March 26.