Suarez flashing potential under Vizquel's tutelage
Tigers' young shortstop learning from one of the game's all-time defensive greats
CHICAGO -- As a kid in Venezuela, Omar Vizquel grew up idolizing Davey Concepcion, the shortstop on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine. Then one day he was on a baseball field talking to him, one shortstop to another.
It's a memory Vizquel will have forever.
"I remember when I was a kid, I had Davey Concepcion as my hero, and I had him next to me," Vizquel remembered. "It was, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this guy is talking to me.' "
Now, Vizquel is on the other end of that relationship, trying to pass on his knowledge to Eugenio Suarez, the Tigers' 22-year-old shortstop from Bolivar, Venezuela. The early returns on that work, and Suarez's play in general, have been excellent.
Brad Ausmus, Detroit's manager, says Suarez "carries himself like a big league player," and that says a lot. Time will tell if he can do the rest, but it's clear that a lot of people are pulling for him.
Fourth in line to replace the injured Jose Iglesias as the Tigers' shortstop, Suarez has homered twice in four games while fielding his position solidly. It appears that he paid attention while working alongside Vizquel, who is Detroit's first-base coach. They spent some time together with Leones del Caracas in the fall and then worked daily in Spring Training.
"We split up the teams into two different teams," Vizquel said. "Obviously, there are the guys who have a chance to make the team, Group A, and then Group B, the guys who supposedly go to the Minor Leagues, and he was always stuck in Group B. … I think a lot of people were ahead of him, even though he is well liked here. They were trying to push him to be the regular shortstop. But obviously his bat wasn't mature enough. He was going to have a little bit of trouble. They decided to keep him down there to get some confidence and wait."
Suarez is not one of those thin, rangy shortstops who eat up ground balls all across the left side of the infield. He lacks the explosive first-step quickness that helped Vizquel win 11 Gold Gloves, but he has soft hands and a strong arm. Suarez has added upper body strength over the last couple of years, becoming a dangerous hitter.
But Suarez didn't have the greatest Spring Training, hitting .212 and failing to seize an opportunity that presented itself when Iglesias was diagnosed with stress fractures in both shins. So he went to the Minor Leagues -- first Double-A Erie and then Triple-A Toledo -- and waited his turn while the Tigers auditioned Alex Gonzalez, Danny Worth and Andrew Romine
Every day, Suarez worked on things Vizquel had suggested to him.
"He had me working hard every day on my defense," Suarez told MLB.com's Jason Beck last month. "He told me, 'Keep playing hard, just complete the routine plays, take the outs.' That's what he told me. 'You have good defense, good hands, so keep working hard every day.' "
Vizquel said Suarez made an impression on him when they first worked together in Caracas.
"We started taking ground balls together, seeing what kind of talent he had," Vizquel said. "Very quickly I noticed he has some good hands, great arm, some abilities to play defense. … He has very good confidence on his defensive skills, obviously. He can go to his left and his right very good. He probably doesn't have the range of Jose Reyes, or somebody like that. He's not a quick guy, but he gets to a lot of balls, and I think his arm balances everything out. Every ball he gets to, he's made a very good, accurate, hard throw to first base."
This was Suarez's second Spring Training in the Tigers' big league clubhouse, and it was clear he was not intimidated. That says a lot considering that the cast around him included Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and a deep cast of veterans, including pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
"He's seen the success of the Tigers the last several years," Vizquel said. "Obviously, he's going to have a little bit of excitement, a little bit of pressure, but he doesn't seem to come across that way."
It helps that Suarez was dealt into the clubhouse card games and sometimes provided his own soundtrack. Upon request, he can imitate the noises made by many animals, with his turkey calls generating howls of laugher around the room.
"The fact that he knows a lot of these guys from Venezuela, he knows them from big league camp, helps him slide in," Ausmus said. "The players in this clubhouse, the players here before he arrived, they like [him]. He was a well-liked guy from the get-go.They liked him in Spring Training. They laughed with him. Sometimes they laughed at him. He's a good kid. As a player, he handles himself well. He looks like he's been at the Major League level longer than he has by the way he carries himself, his body language."
Looking the part can be the toughest part.
"When you're a young kid, some guys are timid, shy, something like that," Vizquel said. "This kid seems to have a lot of confidence in himself, knows what he's doing. It's nice to see in a young guy like that."
No one knows for sure how Suarez will hit over an extended time in the American League. He batted .264 with 10 homers between Class A Advanced Lakeland and Erie last year, and he appears to have made a significant adjustment working with hitting coach Wally Joyner and others this year.
Vizquel sees Suarez's hitting in the high Minors this season (.288 with eight homers and an .870 OPS in 54 games) as a sign that he could be in the big leagues to stay.
"Obviously, everybody questions his bat," Vizquel said. "He didn't hit enough in Spring Training. But whatever he took from Spring Training, whatever these guys asked him to do, he took it down to the Minor Leagues and worked at it. Now he looks better. His swing is a little shorter. He's laying off breaking pitches. It's good for him."
If Suarez can fill one of baseball's biggest voids, it will be good for the Tigers. Maybe even better than good.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.