Shortstop trio putting Curacao on the map
Profar, Simmons, Gregorius bringing star power to new 'Baseball Island'
There's a park in Mundo Nobo, Curacao, just around the corner from Jurickson Profar's grandmother's house and a five-minute walk from the house where Andrelton Simmons grew up, where bragging rights are earned each year.
The sport of choice is soccer, not baseball. The format is four-on-four and in these games, mouths run just as fast and as long as the legs.
"I dominated Profar when we were kids," Simmons, 23, Atlanta's rookie shortstop, recalled. "He was good, but we beat his butt all the time -- him and all of his friends."
That's not the way Profar, MLB.com's No. 1-ranked prospect, remembers it.
"Don't let Simmons lie to you," said the Rangers' 20-year-old shortstop, who was promoted to the big leagues on Sunday. "I was better than he was. He would just come over with all of his soccer friends to play all my baseball friends and that's the only reason he would win."
The pair trash talk like brothers, but agree on one thing: D-backs shortstop Mariekson "Didi" Gregorius, who grew up about 15 miles from Mundo Nobo in Tera Kora, is the group's best basketball player. But, they say, that's only because Gregorius, the D-backs' No. 3 prospect (No. 59 overall) had a basketball hoop in his backyard.
What is certain is that the three childhood friends represent the latest wave of up-and-coming shortstops in the big leagues, and they all refuse to say who's best.
"That's a good question," said Profar. "I don't know."
What is known: Curacao is a small island off the Venezuelan coast in the Caribbean Sea and it is emerging as a baseball hotbed that one day might rival the Dominican Republic in terms of talent.
There were three players from Curacao on Opening Day rosters this season, including Simmons, Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina and Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen. There were 32 players from the island in the Minor Leagues, including another budding shortstop, Jonathan Schoop, the Orioles' No. 3 prospect and No. 99 on MLB.com's Top 100 list.
Overall, Curacao has produced 13 big leaguers, including former Braves star Andruw Jones, since Hensley Muelens became the first with the Yankees in 1989.
The number is impressive when you consider that the population of Curacao is approximately 145,000 and soccer is arguably as popular as baseball. By comparison, there were 89 players from the Dominican Republic on Opening Day rosters this season and there are 896 from the island currently in the Minor Leagues. The population of the Dominican Republic is approximately 10.2 million people.
|"These are very small communities with good kids, good morals and parents who really educate their kids. It all starts with the home life and the Little League structure these kids start at age 6. You want to talk about coaching and makeup? These kids speak and understand English, Spanish, Dutch, Papiamento and some French. Smart kids with the perfect baseball bodies. They don't walk, they bounce."|
|-- Rangers scout
Jesus "Chu" Halabi
"This is the new 'Baseball Island,' and in the next 10 years there will be a lot more big leaguers from over here in Curacao," said Rangers scout Jesus "Chu" Halabi, 67, who has scouted Curacao for 32 years. "It's plain and simple. The kids here have the physical tools, communication skills, coachability and their ceilings are so high. They play baseball their entire lives starting at tee ball and once they get professional instruction, they explode."
Halabi, who grew up in Curacao, should know. He suited up for the national team in his teens and later played collegiately at Springfield College in Massachusetts. While in college, Halabi met scout Tom Giordano, then with Baltimore. The meeting led to a 24-year relationship with the Orioles that ended in 2005. While with the Orioles, Halabi signed 15 players from Curacao and Aruba. Nine of them made it to the Major Leagues.
"These are very small communities with good kids, good morals and parents who really educate their kids," Halabi said. "It all starts with the home life and the Little League structure these kids start at age 6. You want to talk about coaching and makeup? These kids speak and understand English, Spanish, Dutch, Papiamento and some French. Smart kids with the perfect baseball bodies. They don't walk, they bounce."
It was Giordano, now senior advisor to Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who convinced Halabi to work for the Rangers in 2007. Halabi brought two decades of scouting notes with him and a lifelong relationship with a Little League World Series hero named Jurickson Profar, then 14.
Jurickson's great uncle, Shonki Nicasia, played with Halabi in their younger days and the families remained friends.
"Chu is like a grandfather to me," Profar said. "He's family. I would do anything he wants me to do."
The Orioles' loss was the Rangers' gain and now Profar is ready for the big leagues. The Rangers signed Profar's younger brother Juremi out of Willemsted when the international signing period began last July and it would surprise no one if the youngest Profar brother also signs with the Rangers. Judrick Profar is six years old.
Some wonder how long Jurickson Profar will stay at shortstop or if he will stay in the organization after the Rangers signed shortstop Elvis Andrus to an eight-year, $120 million contract extension last month, but for now, he's also seeing time at second base.
"He's got it all," Triple-A Round Rock manager Bobby Jones said. "Sometimes, he's out of position and sometimes he looks out of control, but all that comes with being a kid. He's young and he's learning to play the right way. He's a great kid."
Profar, who hit .287 with four home runs and 19 RBIs at Round Rock before his promotion, knows he has work to do. He had three hits in 17 at-bats in nine games for the Rangers in the big leagues last year, including a home run in his first at-bat.
"I'm doing fine and working hard," Profar said of his season with Round Rock. "It's different than the big leagues or Double-A, because the pitching is different and you don't get a lot of pitches to hit, but I'm adjusting. I'm having fun."
When Profar was 11 years old, Halabi told a newspaper that he would be the next great star from Curacao. But like many scouts, Halabi saw Simmons as a pitcher and had doubts about his ability to hit.
So far, Simmons is proving everyone wrong. The shortstop has a sub-.250 batting average, but also has five home runs and 17 RBIs, primarily out of the top two spots in the lineup. His glove work has been dazzling, but it's been remarkable since his childhood, when he played shortstop and Gregorius played second base for the Marchena Hardware and Liga Vruminga youth teams. The pair was a middle-infield tandem for 10 years starting at age 6, which explains why Gregorius didn't start playing shortstop until he was 16. The two also played on the same high school basketball team.
"I don't think you'll ever see 6- or 7-year-olds turn double plays like we did," Simmons said. "It was crazy. We were really good."
But not good enough to sign at age 16 when they became eligible. Simmons had all but given up on baseball and was ready to focus on soccer when a coach from Western Oklahoma State Junior College came looking for a shortstop. The rest is history. Gregorius signed with the Reds at 17 while playing in an international tournament.
Gregorius had hoop dreams, but he was destined to be a baseball player. His grandfather was a 6-foot-7 pitcher who went by the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "Little Man," and his father pitched in the amateur leagues of Curacao well into his 40s. Halabi signed Gregorius' older brother, Johnny, for the Orioles.
Gregorius' father and brother also answer to the "Didi" nickname, which can be as confusing around the dinner table as you might think, the shortstop said.
"Dad made me play against guys that were 25 and up because he wanted me to mature and know how to play the game," Gregorius said. "He said to work hard and try to impress, because every team is watching. If I don't make it with one team, I can make it with another. Dad was right."
Gregorius, 23, was acquired by the D-backs as part of a three-team trade with the Indians and Reds that sent pitcher Trevor Bauer, a former first-round Draft pick, to Cleveland. He has shined on defense and has surprised many with his offense since taking over shortstop full-time on May 5. He was hitting .354 with three home runs and six RBIs in his first 21 games entering play Monday.
"He has made spectacular plays and he has made the routine plays. He looks very under control for a young guy and you don't see that," said D-backs third baseman Eric Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner. "I don't want to say he's making it look easy, but he's making it look pretty easy."
The three have remained close since leaving the island.
Two weeks ago in Phoenix, Gregorius and Simmons played against each other for the first time as big leaguers when the D-backs hosted to the Braves at Chase Field. Profar also made an appearance in Arizona the same week when Round Rock traveled to Tucson to take on San Diego's Triple-A team.
On Monday, Profar's Rangers will travel to Phoenix for a doubleheader against Gregorius and the D-backs.
Last winter in Curacao, Simmons and Profar squared off in a game of four-on-four by grandma's house just like they did when they were kids. If all goes according to plan, they'll do it again this winter.
Gregorius will be watching from a distance. The shortstop now spends his free time as an artist, drawing and sketching instead of shooting hoops from inside the paint.
"I guess you can say all of us are the best from Curacao right now," Gregorius said. "There is a lot of potential and I think we are opening a lot of eyes."