Luis Curbelo: Looking forward to 2019

Luis made friends with our fur baby Venus that day, it was “bark in the park” night

“Hey Luis, will you sign my ball?” a young fan calls out to Intimidators starting shortstop Luis Curbelo as he makes his way toward the locker room following a game. “Sure, no problem,” Curbelo responds flashing a smile. Another fan follows and Luis continues signing autographs and chatting it up with the Kannapolis faithful. As he signs he talks to the Intimidators boosters. One of the autograph-seeker’s parent calls out, “Luis, give him your bat.” Without hesitation Curbelo reaches into his equipment bag and hands off his weapon of fastball destruction to the smiling young boy. “I feel bad,” Curbelo says, and I ask him why. “Because another kid asked me for a bat earlier and I didn’t give him one.”

That’s just the kind of person Curbelo is. In a time where athletes are often accused of being self-centered and unappreciative, he is the opposite, generous to a fault and very thankful that people support him and his team. “Fans make us” he tells me. “I’m all about making somebody smile and making someone’s day.” Luis is a fan favorite and a prospect baseball fans can cheer for.

Taken in the 6th round of the 2016 MLB draft, Curbelo was signed to a $700k bonus to steer him away from his commitment to play college baseball at the University of Miami (the slot allocation for that pick was $287k). At the time, MLB Pipeline had him ranked as the 104th best draft prospect in the class, equating to a late 3rd round grade. The infielder spent his junior year of high school at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, which received attention for cultivating the talent of Houston Astros’ All Star shortstop, Carlos Correa. After attending the academy for his junior year, he transferred to a high school in Cocoa, Florida. When I asked Luis about this, he suggested that the move was made to receive more draft exposure and because the baseball-heavy approach at the academy was mentally taxing. Curbelo summed up his experience saying, “They stressed a balance between baseball and academics, but there was so much baseball there that you didn’t have time for anything else.”

The move to Florida was easy for him as he had laid the groundwork years earlier. When the Puerto Rican native was 12, two coaches arrived in Puerto Rico planning to build a team to participate in the Elite 32 World Series at the Disney Complex in Orlando, Florida. They didn’t end up assembling a whole team, but they picked two players, one of which was Curbelo. He joined a squad that also rostered future prospects Bo Bichette(Toronto), Mauro Conde (Cincinnati), and Carlos Cortes (New York Mets). Former major leaguer Dante Bichette acted as the hitting coach, and Cortes’ father Juan was the manager. The younger Cortes and Curbelo became fast friends. Curbelo explained, “I told my mom I wasn’t coming home and that I wanted to stay in Florida.”

Curbelo spent that summer honing his baseball skills and sharpening his English, while his mother and sister prepared to move from Puerto Rico to Florida where he would attend middle school before moving back to Puerto Rico prior to his high school freshman year. “In the house, we were only allowed to speak English, if we spoke Spanish we had to do ten push-ups; we read books on the way to tournaments.” As a result, Bello (as his teammates refer to him) speaks flawless English and often acts as an interpreter for his Latino teammates and their English-speaking counterparts.

In the time leading up to the 2016 draft Curbelo assumed he was going to be taken by the Yankees, Marlins or Dodgers. The Yankees had invited Curbelo to four pre-draft workouts, while a Marlins area scout had assured him that he was giving the team glowing reviews and they were going to be interested. “I had a pretty good senior year, I think I hit about .425 with seven bombs, twenty steals, and ten strikeouts.” He also shared that he really wanted to be taken by a team that held spring training in Florida due to his family living there and because of its proximity to Puerto Rico. Ultimately the White Sox were able to present the offer necessary for Curbelo to sign his name to a contract.

After posting mixed results in the AZL (Rk) in his pro debut (.226 AVG, .303 OBP, .323 SLG) he missed nearly the entire 2017 season due to a torn meniscus which required surgery. Having lost an entire year of development he came into 2018 playing “catch-up.”

This season has produced more mixed results which Curbelo is trying to improve. In the field he possesses a slick glove and a quick first step to cover the ground at his position. His range is plus and surprising for a larger-framed shortstop. Standing at 6’2” and listed at 202 lbs, he is wide across the chest and it is apparent that he takes his conditioning seriously. Curbelo made 24 errors in the field in 2018 – ten at third-base and 14 at shortstop – but looking beyond the stats and watching him play, one can recognize his soft hands and range. Most of his errors have come on throws as he admits to them being timing lapses more than anything else, either rushing throws or delaying them. Draft evaluators have questioned whether his size will move him to third base eventually, but I see nothing to suggest that he can’t handle the defensive rigors of playing shortstop. Curbelo stated that he has been working with his teammate Ramon Beltre and making a conscious effort to make throws from multiple angles and arm slots. You can often see the two of them working on this during pre-game warm ups.

On the base paths Curbelo is an above average runner and has a goal to steal more bases going forward. “I don’t consider myself a base-stealer, but I can steal a base,” he offered. His stolen base total of zero in 2018 wasn’t due to a lack of tools, but rather an organizational desire for him to stay healthy and not risk losing time by re-aggravating his knee injury. He expects to be given the green-light with some degree of frequency in 2019. He swiped four bags in his 45-game AZL stint in 2016.

The tools that pique the most interest are Curbelo’s bat speed and power potential, as both are alluring. He was among the Intimidators’ leading hitters in exit velocity in 2018, which is promising when considering that most of his teammates are older, more physically mature former college players. Right now, his offensive profile shows tools over results, but I believe that trying to evaluate him based solely by stats is an injustice to his ability and his development path.

As we look ahead to 2019, I would not be the least surprised if Curbelo were to repeat in Kannapolis, and burst onto the scene much like his fellow White Sox prospect  Micker Adolfo did in 2017. When taking into account their similar ages at the level, body sizes, injury history and amateur pedigree it is easy to identify a parallel. I would suggest that White Sox fans focus on the positives rather than the stat line as Curbelo has been able to maintain his health for a full season for the first time as a pro and get the reps needed to spur his development.

When putting this into context fans should recognize that some of Curbelo’s fellow 2016 MLB draftees include Mickey Moniak, Zack Collins, and Corey Ray. These three players have already exceeded 1100 plate appearances from which to gain experience. Curbelo has roughly half of that, and is three years younger than both Ray and Collins. When Adolfo broke out for Kannapolis in 2017 he came into the season as a 20-year-old with 574 professional plate appearances; Curbelo will enter 2019 as a 21-year-old with 545 plate appearances. Deep diving into the stat lines of the two players, Adolfo had a .219 AVG, .269 OBP, 5 HR and 88 SO and 14 BB in 265 plate appearances at Kannapolis the year before his breakout. In his first season at Kannapolis, Curbelo put up an eerily similar line, hitting .237 with a .282 OBP, 3 HR, with 87 SO and 18 BB in 343 plate appearances.

Curbelo has set some lofty statistical goals for 2019 – he said expects to hit .325 with 15+ home runs and 20+ stolen bases. Some might think that those are too optimistic, though 2018 teammate Luis Gonzalez made a similarly ambitious projection going into his season and achieved it. Like Gonzalez, Curbelo is a supremely confident player and knows they are within his reach. Fellow baseball writer Kim Contreras, who has observed Curbelo since his debut in pro ball summed him up by saying, “He’s confident but not cocky, he knows his place.”

Luis has a trip to Florida planned for the end of December, where he will be working out and hitting with Blue Jays super-prospect Bo Bichette, his brother Dante Bichette Jr, and their father, former Rockies outfielder Dante Sr. He said that in talking with Bo, his friend since childhood, “I told him, you are 20 years old and killing it at AA. I want to work out with and hit with the best players of my age group.” Curbelo Sees the 2019 season as a crossroads. “This is my fourth season and I’ve got to put up the numbers, that Rule Five is coming.”

I am confident that White Sox fans are going to see the version of Luis Curbelo that the organization expected they drafted him in 2016. His health issues are behind him, and his body has gotten stronger while he has accumulated professional reps and experienced the grind of a full season. Perhaps most importantly, Curbelo is motivated and dedicated to becoming a contributing piece of the White Sox rebuild.