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Urrutia set to make impact with Orioles

SARASOTA, Fla. - The Baltimore Orioles have played games against the Cuban national team. They even visited Cuba in March 1999, a controversial trip that hasn't been repeated.

Fourteen years later, for the first time they've signed a Cuban defector. Last July, Henry Urrutia inked a minor league contract with the team, signing for $778,500. He didn't collect the bonus until earlier this month when he finally reported to the team.

In between, Urrutia, who's now 26, was stuck in Haiti waiting for a work visa. He tried to defect from Cuba in 2010, was suspended from their national team, and attempted to leave again. In September 2011, he tried to defect again, and made it to the Dominican Republic, where he caught the eye of Orioles international scouting director Fred Ferreira.

He's now at the team's minor league camp, and today expects to play in his first competitive game in nearly three years.

"It was frustrating to be there waiting and what made it worse, there weren't any fields available or places I could really go out and have a good workout," he said through Felipe Alou, Jr., the head of the Orioles' Dominican academy, who's serving as his interpreter.

Haiti is not known as a baseball-loving country, and Urrutia was unable to play.

"He tried his best to stay in shape. He knew and they were aware of the process that it was going to take some time; it was the first time that a process like that was done out of Haiti. They tried to stay patient," Alou said.

Urrutia is 6-foot-4, and he's a lean 195 pounds, though the team expects him to put on substantial weight once he gets adjusted to eating heartily.

"We have high hopes for him. It's been a while, so we got to be patient with the amount of time he's been away from it and adjustments he's got to make to life here," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. So, just because it's delayed doesn't mean it's denied. He will reach his level. And we think it's got a chance to be the big leagues."

Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said Urrutia has a good chance to play for the ballclub this season. They wouldn't have signed him otherwise, Duquette said.

"His idea is not to play [in the] minor leagues. When he got out of Cuba, his dream is to be a big league player," Alou said.

"He is not here to be a minor league player. That's his dream [to be a major leaguer] and he is going to work hard for it."

Last July, Ferreira said he thought Urrutia would begin his professional career at Bowie. Showalter said he's hoping Urrutia will come to camp to play in a few major league games later this month.

Urrutia has already picked up a few English phrases, and at his introductory news conference, he gave long answers to questions, which Alou summarized.

"He's engaged. You can tell this is a guy that's played a high level of baseball. He's a confident kid," Showalter said.

Showalter said he was impressed when Urrutia told him his favorite player as a child was Bernie Williams, who Showalter managed with the New York Yankees.

"One thing the more you are around you realize we are not on this planet alone, there are people that can play this game all over the world," Showalter said. "And we think he's got a chance to be one of those. This is a pretty polished guy. I can't tell you about baseball for sure, but I can tell you the rest of it is pretty impressive. He understands what he's getting ready to do."

NOTES: Nick Markakis' MRI revealed a slightly herniated disk in his neck. He's expected to miss another week. He was scratched from the March 3 game with neck spasms, and hasn't played since. Markakis went to Baltimore to consult with spine specialist Dr. Lee Riley, Showalter said. ... The Orioles played an intrasquad game Tuesday with Jason Hammel, Jair Jurrjens and Steve Johnson among the pitchers.

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