On February 4, 2015, the Colorado Rockies traded Jayson Aquino, once a top-ten prospect in the organization, to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for a minor league pitcher. Aquino had been designated for assignment five days earlier. In five years with the organization, he only pitched 12 innings above A-ball before he was shipped off to Toronto.
The man who came back to the Rockies in that deal, left-handed reliever Tyler Ybarra, hadn't gotten much further along than Aquino. Sure, Ybarra had impressive numbers—a 3.09 ERA over 218 career minor league innings, to go along with 233 strikeouts—but at 25 years old and brand new to Double-A, the clock was ticking.
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As is the case with most minor league trades in the offseason—especially involving relievers—the Aquino-for-Ybarra deal didn't garner much attention around the baseball world.
But as is the case with so many humans behind the transactions that come across the wire, Ybarra's story was far more complicated, and his head and heart were as far from baseball as they could've possibly been when he got word the Blue Jays shipped him to Colorado.
Rather than worry about fitting in a new organization, you see, Ybarra's focus was on his infant daughter Arianna. The reliever was notified of the trade just days before she was scheduled to undergo open heart surgery.
"It was strange timing," Ybarra tells me about the trade. "I had a lot of things going on when I first got traded. My daughter was about to go into heart surgery, so she kinda had more of my focus than the actual trade."
First family photograph. pic.twitter.com/35WPM1w1jf— Tyler Ybarra (@TYbar23) December 16, 2014
Fans and writers often forget that baseball players are real people, going through the same trials, family issues, and life challenges we all experience. Trades impact a player's life beyond just baseball, of course, and a roster move means uprooting family for another state, another gig, another employer.
"It was very surprising, I had never pictured myself being a part of a trade or playing for another team," Ybarra admits. "I had been playing for Toronto for six years and the thought just never crossed my mind of that being a possibility at that time and place in my life."
To their credit, the Rockies did what they could to make the transition a little bit easier for Ybarra and his family, especially considering the timing. Days after the trade, they sent his recovering daughter a care package to help ease the family through the stressful time.
Unbelievable care package Arianna just recieved from the @Rockies !! Thank you guys so much!! pic.twitter.com/XR2qshOvJP— Tyler Ybarra (@TYbar23) February 19, 2015
Having made it through open heart surgery and now improving on the other end, Arianna is in a much better place now—and Tyler is, too. Almost exactly one full year after the procedure, he now revisits the surgery as a past memory rather than a current reality.
"They think that should be the last part of her heart procedure that she would need done," Ybarra says, "and we go periodically every six months to check in and make sure everything is doing what they want it to do. As it stands right now, we’re hoping for that to be the last time we explore any options on her heart."
Just like Leah Still, I have my own little hero who is the toughest person I've ever met! #LeahStrong ❤️ pic.twitter.com/HD9BDQUbPk— Tyler Ybarra (@TYbar23) July 16, 2015
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On top of the personal trials Ybarra faced last year, he remained committed to his dream. That meant very quickly heading off to work for the Rockies' Double-A team, which was then the New Britain Rock Cats. Arianna's situation helped push Ybarra to give it his all on the field.
"I think my kids are always on my mind," he says. "Obviously, that’s something I believe strongly in, which is family, and that value. I don’t think it hindered my play or my performance whatsoever, and if anything it motivated me."
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But as you might expect from a young father dealing with an infant daughter's daunting health issues, the first few months of the season didn't exactly go as planned for the Kansas native. He struggled with control, walking 19 batters in 21 innings, and logged an ERA of 6.65 by the end of June.
"I think at the beginning of the year, I put a little pressure on myself, and I kinda got away from the things that I know I do," Ybarra admits.
"Being with a new team, new routines, new strength programs, new conditioning, just a whole new philiosophy. I feel like I let that overwhelm me a little bit, and I got away from things that I know that I need to do to succeed."
For Ybarra, that turned into a meeting with New Britain's pitching coach, former big leaguer Dave Burba. The two of them spent time getting the lefty's season and mental focus back on track, and the dividends soon came: Ybarra's performance improved drastically in the second half.
In his final 20 outings, the reliever walked just eight batters over 22⅔ innings, while striking out 20 and allowing only eight runs.
Now, looking ahead after a much-improved second half—and a year of good health for Arianna—the lefty's strong second half has raised his reputation in the Rockies' organization. The parent club's general bullpen inconsistency combined with Ybarra's obvious perseverance and mental toughness might well land the lefty in the big leagues one day soon. He believes he's ready to take the next step in that journey.
"If at all possible, and with all the work I’ve put in and everything I’ve done, I hope to start above that [Double A]," Ybarra says of his outlook this spring. "I’ve seen my two years in Double-A, and I hope that I can prove in spring training that I’m worthy of a higher level."
As he heads to camp with Colorado next month, there's no telling how it will play out on the field. But at least one thing is for certain: Ybarra has endured one of the toughest events of his life, and his family made it out healthy and together. Now, with the Rockies in his corner and his daughter by his side, there aren't too many challenges baseball can throw Tyler Ybarra's way that he won't be able to handle.
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Image via Scott Blanchette
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On organizational differences between Toronto and Colorado: "Personally, I don’t think that there are [differences]. They both have similar philosophies with different ways of going about executing it. In terms of what they want and expect, to be down in the zone and pitch to contact, change speeds, in and out, up and down, I think the overall pitching aspect of the game is kind of a universal philosophy but with different ways of laying it out there to their players."
On Jesus Tinoco, Miguel Castro, and Jeff Hoffman: "I’ve known Tinoco and Castro, but I was always just a little bit ahead of them, as far as what levels they were at. They were pretty raw when I was there, and I finally started to work my way up the ladder just a little bit ahead of them. I’ve known them from spring training and I thought they were good kids and had good stuff. As far as that goes, that’s about the gist of what I know of them. Of course, I got to pitch alongside Jeff this year and got to know him a little better. I think he’s a great guy with a lot of upside and I’m excited to see what he does and where it goes for him."