Pedro Ciriaco, surprise sensation
Bobby V has to consider keeping Sox spring star on Opening Day roster
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- His given name is Pedro, but for the purposes of this column he can be called only one thing: Caramba! Ciriaco.
Roll it off your tongue once, and you'll understand why.
We dare say that if Pedro Ciriaco's mother, back in the Dominican Republic, had been able to foresee 26 years ago the things her son would do in Boston Red Sox's camp this spring, she might have altered his birth certificate then and there.
Caramba! We mean it in the same way MacMillan's online dictionary does: "expressing your excitement, pleasure or enjoyment."
How can you not enjoy a non-roster free agent -- who has spent six years in the minors, has already washed out with two teams and has a total of 31 games in the big leagues to his credit -- who's having the kind of spring Ciriaco has had for the Sox? He is batting .441, with as many hits as anyone else in camp, has stolen a team-high five bases, is slugging .676 and has played short, second, third and even a couple of innings in center field.
He was rated the best defensive shortstop in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system, where he last played, and as having the best infield arm in the Arizona Diamondbacks' system, where he began his career. The Red Sox signed him to a minor league deal on Dec. 15, one of those transactions that receive one line in the small type of a newspaper's sports section.
"How about Ciriaco," manager Bobby Valentine said the other day. "I'm telling you. Everyone's talking about the shortstop situation. He's a very good player. I'm telling you."
Valentine has raved about the slender Ciriaco on numerous occasions this spring, but a couple of weeks ago tempered his praise by saying that as well as Ciriaco has played, there really wasn't a spot for him on the major league roster.
But with a few days left in spring, Ciriaco is still in big league camp, and there are indications that with Carl Crawford opening the season on the disabled list, Valentine's last roster spot might come down to non-roster outfielder Jason Repko or Ciriaco, who could give Valentine a late-inning option as a pinch runner/defensive replacement at short.
There are only a few other options. Ryan Lavarnway has had a terrific camp, but just as with Jose Iglesias, he'll be best served by opening the season in Pawtucket for a little more seasoning. The hometown boy, Nate Spears, who was born in Fort Myers and grew up in Port Charlotte, played three games for the Sox in September and played six different positions for the PawSox last season. Or Valentine could elect to take another pitcher.
But Caramba! has made as strong a case as anyone who remains in camp.
Every year, there is a player like Ciriaco, not only for Boston but for every team in the big leagues, a guy who plays way beyond what anyone imagined leading up to spring training. Usually those players are eventually exposed and come crashing back to earth, but for six weeks in spring they look like they're on the fast track to Cooperstown.
The gold standard for spring phenoms remains Chris Pittaro, a young third baseman that Sparky Anderson fell in love with when he managed the Tigers.
"He's going to be a great ballplayer," Sparky proclaimed, "and that's etched in cement."
Sparky looked like a genius when the kid broke camp with the Tigers and had three hits on Opening Day, though that turned out to be the highlight of Pittaro's resume. Within a couple of years, Pittaro's career was encased in cement shoes, as he played just 53 games in the big leagues.
But the Red Sox have had more than their share over the years. Spears, the past couple of seasons, was a particular favorite of Terry Francona.
"Fun to watch, worked hard, I think he grew on everybody," Francona said last spring. "Every single coach was like, 'Damn, this guy can play.'"
Here's what a reporter wrote at the time: "This is the kind of move guaranteed to make the Yankees nervous, especially because they had Wily Mo Pena first. They know better than most that David Ortiz isn't exaggerating when he says Wily Mo hits the ball harder than anyone, 'including me,' and that Pena's Reds teammate, Rich Aurilia, who used to play with one Barry Bonds, says he has never seen anyone hit the ball so hard."
Pena wound up hitting 16 home runs while playing parts of two seasons with the Red Sox before they gave up and traded him to Washington, having wearied of watching the player strike out 34 percent of the time (148 times in 432 at-bats). The reporter who had gushed about Wily Mo? That would be me.
Adam Stern, dubbed the Canadian Babe Ruth after going deep in the World Baseball Classic. Morgan Burkhart, who played for the independent Richmond (Ind.) Roosters and hit a humongous home run off the light stanchion at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. Cesar Crespo, who won a job in 2004 when Nomar Garciaparra injured his Achilles tendon. Rudy Pemberton, who was the Opening Day left fielder in 1997 and lasted 27 games. Arquimedez Pozo. Go back even further, and throw in the name of Sam Horn, one of the great spring sluggers of all time.
"The reason you see guys like that every spring," one wise scout said the other day, "is because pitchers aren't thinking about working a hitter, they're just pitching to their own strengths and executing pitches, which means a guy sees a lot more hittable pitches than he will in the regular season, when a pitcher has a scouting report and develops a plan."
But in the meantime, enjoy Caramba! Ciriaco. And if he should make the big league team for his first Opening Day ever, celebrate along with him.