Normally, the news of the Rays signing a pitcher who had never made it beyond the AAA level, and had spent the last two seasons in the Mexican League, would not even rate in the news, aside for a brief blurb. However, Juan Sandoval is much more than a career minor league player.
Prior to the 2006 season, Sandoval was a solid prospect in the Seattle Mariners system. In 2005, he went 9-11 with a 4.03 ERA for the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League, and was hoping to earn a spot in AAA for 2006. However, Sandoval’s life changed forever on February 4, 2006. While he was dining in a restaurant in his hometown of Bonao in the Dominican Republic, a drunken patron and the bouncer of the restaurant got into an argument. The customer left, but returned moments later with a shotgun. As Sandoval turned to see what was happening, he was hit in the upper torso and face with the shotgun blast.
Three of the pellets lodged in his right eye, leaving it permanently blind. His baseball career now an afterthought, as he was concerned with whether or not he would lose his vision completely. After almost a full year, two surgeries, and two visits to e retinal specialist in Seattle, Sandoval needed to relearn how to pitch and field his position with only one eye. Yet, he managed to make it all the way back, being a non-roster invitee to the Mariners’ major league camp before being sent down to the minors again.
Converted to a reliever, Sandoval bounced around the minors before playing the last two seasons in the Mexican League. While he struggled in 2011, producing a 3-7 record with a 4.12 ERA and a strikeout to walk rate of 1.59, Sandoval improved immensely this past season. In 67 games between Guerreros de Oaxaca and Diablos Rojos del Mexico, he had a 7-3 record with a 2.97 ERA and a strikeout to walk rate of 2.59. Sandoval then played with Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League, where, after a rough start to his season, he ended the regular season without giving up a run in his last ten appearances. While his overall numbers, 0-1 with a 4.63 ERA and 6 strikeouts against 4 walks in 17 games, may not be overly impressive, he has allowed only 3 hits and 1 walk over his last 7.1 innings of work.
Now, Sandoval is getting another chance, having signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have taken on several reclamation projects in the past, but few have been the long shot that this one appears to be. Yet, given their track record of success, who knows? Perhaps the Rays will have found yet another diamond in the rough.
If nothing else, Juan Sandoval is getting another chance to fulfill his dream of making the major leagues. Should he be able to build off of his success in the Mexican League and his recent stretch in the Dominican Winter League, he might be able to get a look during Spring Training. If Sandoval is able to even appear in one major league game for the Rays this season, he would become the ultimate reclamation project.