Adelanto, Calif. -- I'm nine minutes into a ten-minute conversation with Modesto Nuts infielder Josh Fuentes, and I haven't yet asked about his cousin. Standing outside the Nuts' dugout ahead of their game against the High Desert Mavericks on Friday, Fuentes is telling me about hitting to the opposite field and what he's noticed about the California League since the Colorado Rockies promoted him here from Low-A Asheville on May 26.
Fuentes is in a good mood, with a permanent smile plastered on his face. Perhaps it's the product of his excitement over being promoted. Or maybe he's happy he's not being asked about that thing.
But still, I reason with myself, this is the angle. I have to ask.
As Fuentes finishes telling me about Nuts catcher Dom Nunez, I deliver the question he's heard one hundred times already in his young pro career—maybe the only question he's heard.
"Hey, man, I've gotta ask," I start, not really knowing what angle to take. "You know, about your cousin. Uh, do you get this question a lot?"
Fuentes starts laughing.
"Yeah, I do," he says. "It’s definitely more positive than negative, but it’s a little crippling when they don’t even know my name. It’s just ‘hey, Nolan’s cousin.’ But it’s not a bad thing. I like hearing it, and it’s cool comparing him to me."
Being Nolan Arenado's first cousin, Fuentes has fielded questions about whiffle ball games. He's been asked about the Rockies' third baseman before he was, well, the Rockies' third baseman. We've even been guilty ourselves of immediately defining Fuentes as Arenado's cousin.
Not that it's a bad thing, or wholly unexpected; the two players — plus Nolan's little brother Jonah, playing in the San Francisco Giants' system — are extremely close. Besides, Rockies fans are far more attached to Arenado's play than Fuentes', and thus it's an easy way to introduce the Nuts' infielder. (Isn't that what I'm doing here?)
It's just that, well, Fuentes has been getting it from all angles.
"All my teammates, they always joke around, ‘oh, you hit like Nolan, even your glove looks like Nolan’s glove,’" Fuentes says, still laughing. "And it’s kind of like all right, guys, I get it. But at this level, if I can prove myself as Josh Fuentes, and not just Nolan’s cousin, that’d be big for me."
Fuentes proved himself enough last month to warrant a call-up to High-A in the first place, launching a torrid streak with the Asheville Tourists that saw him rack up 25 hits in his final 13 games in the South Atlantic League. That raised his average from .233 to .398, and by May 25 — one day after Fuentes went 5-for-5 with three doubles and four RBI — the Rockies had seen enough. The next morning, he was on a plane to California.
That hot streak was just the culmination of an interesting re-do for him in western North Carolina; Fuentes — who hit .252/.322/.383 there last year in 337 at-bats — was sent back to Asheville for Opening Day despite spending all of spring training with the group that eventually came to Modesto. And for a few weeks, it looked like Asheville was even going to be too much for him to handle after he started 1-for-19 (.053) with seven strikeouts.
"I wasn’t playing everyday, I was playing twice, maybe three times a week," Fuentes contends of his early struggles with the Tourists. "Then that week I got a bunch of hits, I started playing every single day. Of course I started hitting well, you know? If I play a game, and then sit a game, I just get off my rhythm. Usually when I play three, four games in a row, I start hitting balls harder and things start to fall."
Considering the Nuts' persistent offensive struggles and Fuentes' ability to play third, first, and even the middle infield spots in a pinch, he's going to get opportunities to play nearly every day in Modesto. And though he started slow with the Nuts, too — just 1-for-17 (.059) in his first five games — Fuentes broke out this week in Lancaster, going 6-for-12 in the series with two doubles and his first California League home run. Granted, Lancaster's ballpark is an ideal place for hitters to break out, but it'd seem that playing every day is already starting to suit Fuentes well.
"In Low-A I was batting point whatever early on, so I’m not really too worried about the results right now," Fuentes offers about his first few tough games with the Nuts. "I’m just trying to get used to it. The ball flies, which is awesome. It’s fun hitting here. I usually start slow, but it’s good, and it’s nice to see how the other teams are pitching me."
Watch the video of Fuentes below, taken last week during his second full series with the Nuts when they played at High Desert, and it'll become immediately apparent how other teams are pitching him:
But he figured something out in Lancaster, even beyond the strong wind that blows straight out and turns fly balls into home runs. For Fuentes, it all starts by going the other way — a trait somewhat unique relative to most other middle-of-the-order power hitters looking to pull the ball.
"I hit the outside pitch well, so I usually look for a heater early and away, and then I try to adjust everything else," Fuentes explains. "My power is usually opposite field, and I’m a first pitch swinger. So if I can get a first pitch outside, I want to hack at that."
That aggressiveness isn't lost on teammates, many of whom spent all of last summer playing with Fuentes in Asheville and are very happy to see him back with their group now in Modesto.
"I’m glad Fuentes is here, he’s a really good guy and a big team guy," left-handed pitcher Sam Howard (No. 34 PuRP) says after the Nuts' Friday night win in High Desert. "He always has a good attitude, he brings energy to the field, and he’s got a good glove."
"To me," Howard continues, transitioning to Fuentes' game, "he’s gotta stay aggressive at the plate. When he starts to guess, he struggles. But when he stays aggressive, he’s a really good hitter."
With that aggression, Fuentes hopes more power will soon follow; after all, he'll need it to stay at a corner infield spot at higher levels. Now in the middle of his third pro season, he's slugged .415 and racked up a .759 OPS through his first 170 games, but it seems like he's only just begun to understand the kind of power potential he has when he's right.
"It comes from just feeling comfortable, and then you start tapping into that power," Fuentes says of taking on the responsibilities of a middle-of-the-order corner infielder. "I feel like I have some decent size. I’m more of a doubles guy, but as I’m learning and growing, I’ve learned to keep better control as I’m swinging harder, and find even better pitches to swing at."
Those facets of development come over time, for Fuentes just as they did for Arenado and just as they will for any other professional baseball player slogging through the grind that is the minor leagues. But maybe, for Fuentes, that time is right now.
"My first two years, I was just kind of getting used to all this, and I wasn’t doing that well," he admits. "I was trying to figure out who I was. But I think this is the year. Now that I’m in High-A, now is the time to go after it."
"Hey, maybe if you hit about 30 Cal League bombs, they'll start asking Nolan about you," I jokingly offer.
"Yeah, absolutely," Fuentes replies, immediately breaking back into laughter. "This is a good step for me. If I can hang with these boys, then I don’t want to hear about Nolan ever again."