When you think of the countries of the world with the biggest baseball foundations, countries like the Dominican Republic, Japan, Cuba, and yes, the United States immediately come to mind. Among the last countries you would think of would be Brazil, which is much better known for its soccer and just about every other sport before baseball. But this past November, Brazil shocked the world, beating Panama to qualify for the World Baseball Classic, a huge step in the development of baseball in the country. Brazil is happy just to be in the WBC. But it also is going to give the tournament it’s best effort and is going to rely on a pair of Rays prospects to help them do just that.
Leonardo Reginatto‘s stats in 2012 for the Short Season-A Hudson Valley Renegades were not all that impressive. The 22 year old third baseman and shortstop managed just a .276/.329/.323 line with 8 doubles, 1 homer, 29 RBI, 8 of 12 stolen bases, and a 26-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 254 plate appearances. But when it matters most, Reginatto always seems to come up huge. Reginatto slammed a go-ahead 2-run homer in the 9th inning to guarantee the Renegades their first New York-Penn League playoff berth since 1999 and then proceeded to have a huge postseason including a game-tying homer in the 9th in one game and 2 hits in the clincher as the Renegades won the championship. Then for Brazil in World Baseball Classic qualifying, he was even better, going 7 for 12 (.583) including a 3-hit game as he tied for the highest average among all players in qualifying minimum 10 at-bats. Reginatto just has the clutch gene in him and the Brazilians are going to be relying on him a lot to keep delivering. And after Reginatto has really come into his own ever since the stakes got high for the Renegades and for Brazil, the Rays have to be keeping a careful eye on him wondering whether something has finally clicked and 2013 could be a breakout year for him.
Iago Januario, who celebrates his 20th birthday today, does not have nearly Reginatto’s track record and spent all of 2012 at the Rays’ Venezuelan Summer League affiliate. But one thing that Januario does have is quite a bit of power. A big 6’6″, 205 first baseman, Januario clearly has raw parts of his game after hitting .232 in 52 games for the VSL Rays, striking out 73 times versus just 24 walks in 217 plate appearances. However, even while Januario struggled so mightily, his big-time raw power came out in earnest as he slammed 11 home runs, the most in the Venezuelan League. Januario’s pitch recognition skills are not yet up to par, but he features power and bat speed and the ability to do something not a single Brazil player did in three qualifying games: hit a home run. As a player who was already a year too old for his league last season when he was 19, the World Baseball Classic is a big opportunity for Januario to prove that he deserves an opportunity from the Rays to play professional ball in the US and show what he can do. And although Januario will probably come off the bench at least initially for Brazil, the Brazilians are hoping that at least a transient flash of Januario’s potential can come through and he can their team a lift with a big home run.
It’s crazy to think that a Brazilian team that will be one of just 16 teams from around the world competing in the World Baseball Classic will be relying on players from the low minors to play key roles on their team. But as Reginatto and Januario show, the ability is there from them and you never know what can happen. The Brazilians face an uphill battle, but if Reginatto can stay clutch and Januario can bring out his power as part of an enormous team effort, they may just surprise.