Team Netherlands was the talk of the World Baseball Classic.
19-year-old pitcher Juancarlos Sulbaran was the talk of Team Netherlands. And yes, it’s spelled “Juancarlos,” one word.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but watching this guy pitch in the game against Puerto Rico was one of the highlights of that tournament for me. I already knew a lot of the veteran players and coaches (hi Bam Bam! Hola Sir Eugene!) but was unfamiliar with Sulbaran.
However, since I was working on the Cincinnati Reds organization preview at the time, I definitely took notice. In fact, I think I looked like one of those cartoon characters whose eyes pop out of their head (lovely image, no?).
Sure, he finished the tournament with the highest ERA of any of the 13 pitchers on that impressive Dutch staff, allowing three runs total in 2 2/3 innings over two appearances.
But you can’t expect a teenager who has yet to make his pro debut to dazzle while facing Major League stars.
Or can you?
Sulbaran, Cincinnati’s 30th round pick in 2008, made quite a World Baseball Classic debut when he came out of the bullpen in the sixth inning against Puerto Rico in a first-round game.
Inheriting men on first and third with two outs and a 1-0 lead, the first batter he faced was Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, a free agent who was showcasing his hitting skills.
Sulbaran struck out Rodriguez on three pitches.
“When I came out of the bullpen I didn’t know I was going to face him, I just knew that there were men on first and third and everyone in the stands was screaming,” he recalled. “Then I saw him standing there so I just focused on my catcher and didn’t think about anything else.”
One inning later, after loading the bases on a double, a single and a hit batter, he got out of the jam by getting Carlos Beltran to ground out to end the inning.
So who is this kid anyway?
The Curacao-born Sulbaran was impressive enough in his home country in his teens that teams began approaching him to turn pro. But his dad, Jorge, had other ideas.
“I was 16, before my junior year in high school, and my dad didn’t feel I was ready to go and play and live by myself,” Sulbaran explained. “So instead we moved to Florida so I could finish high school there and then get drafted.”
The Sulbaran family moved to the Miami area in 2006, where he attended American Heritage High School, a team that featured such talented classmates as first baseman Eric Hosmer, the third pick overall last spring by Kansas City, and catcher Adrian Nieto, the Nationals’ fifth-round selection.
Sulbaran, honored as the Miami-area pitcher of the year for 2008, fell to the 30th round due to his commitment to the University of Florida but the Reds eventually signed him with a $500,000 bonus, a record for that round.
Not that Sulbaran was idle that summer. Having caught the eye of the Dutch Olympic team’s coaches during an earlier international tournament when he limited the opposing club from Cuba to one hit over seven innings, he was invited to join the squad and pitched for Team Netherlands in Beijing.
In the Olympics, he once again faced Cuba, this time a slightly older and more experienced squad, allowing two earned runs over 4 2/3 innings in a loss to that squad.
And that showing pretty much wrapped up his invitation to join the World Baseball Classic squad where, once again, he was the youngest member of the team , three weeks younger than fellow pitching phenom Dennis Neuman of the Red Sox.
While both experiences were rewarding in their own ways, Sulbaran thinks the World Baseball Classic may have been more educational.
“In the Olympics, there were fewer professional players and they weren’t at as high a level as the players in the World Baseball Classic,” he said. “Pitching there, any mistake you made, you pay for it.”
Sulbaran, whose repertoire includes a hard sinker, a good curveball and a changeup, remains in Reds camp in Sarasota nursing a blister which will likely push his pro debut back a bit longer, until he can go six or seven innings.
He can’t wait till he can get out there and officially start his pro career, expected to be at Class A Dayton, but don’t think that facing Midwest League batters will change his game plan.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re facing, if I make a mistake they’ll hit me the same way,” he said. “So I just have to focus on keeping my pitches down and staying ahead in the count, whether I’m facing a rookie or a Hall of Famer.”
Our “Beyond the Boxscore” interview was shorter than usual because of technical issues (don’t you hate excuses like that) and also because I couldn’t ask him some of the usual questions about his minor league career thus far, but I am really hoping to get the chance to cross paths with him this season, watch him pitch again, and do a more in depth interview.
MLB: Of what accomplishment, on or off the field, in your life are you the proudest?
Juancarlos Sulbaran: Finishing high school. In Curacao, everyone leaves school when they’re 15 and never finishes high school. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m really glad that my dad made that decision for me.
MLB: What do you think you’d be doing now if you weren’t playing baseball?
JCS: Probably working with my dad for his contracting company.
MLB: Everyone has a “hidden talent.” What’s yours?
JCS: I have soccer skills.
MLB: Do you have other hobbies or creative outlets aside from baseball?
JCS: I like watching movies, playing soccer, and just hanging out with my friends.
MLB: Complete this sentence: It would surprise people to know that I…
JCS: Don’t like pitching that much! I was a first baseman and third baseman. And for me, baseball was always more about how to get on base, steal a base, slide, get dirty and make diving catches. But I’m learning more about pitching now.
MLB: Who is the most unusual character you’ve met in your pro baseball career?
JCS: (Dutch teammate pitcher) Sidney Ponson. Whateer he says, whatever he does, it always makes you laugh.
MLB: If you were commissioner for a day, which one rule would you change?
JCS: Let all the pitchers hit!