SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles outfield prospect Dariel Alvarez is closer to the major leagues than he's ever been, one step away from the pinnacle of a remarkable journey.
It was a journey that included his escape from Cuba by speedboat, leaving his family behind as he defected to Mexico for an opportunity to play baseball in the United States. Aside from the giant waves of international waters, the biggest risk was being caught by authorities, who would send him home to be jailed.
When Alvarez left Cuba, he knew there was little hope of returning any time soon, but with recent news that the United States is planning to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, going home is more of a possibility.
Add that the Orioles are exploring playing an exhibition game in Cuba — they did so in Havana during more turbulent times in 1999, hoping baseball would form a bridge for better relations between the countries — and Alvarez and fellow Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia hope they can one day do something previously unimaginable: play baseball in their homeland.
Players union president Tony Clark told the Associated Press on Saturday that there have been ongoing discussions about playing spring training games in Cuba, but there wasn't enough time to finalize plans to play games on the island this year.
"It's a good thing," Alvarez said through interpreter Maria Arellano, an Orioles baseball operations staffer. "If it gives me the ability or possibility of going back, then that would be great. … I'm pretty excited, along with all of the other Cuban players I know who have families back there, that we can go back to see our families very soon."
For now, the 26-year-old Alvarez can be focused only on his baseball future. He is attending his first big-league camp following a breakthrough season at the Double-A and Triple-A levels last season, during which Alvarez became one of the Orioles' top position player prospects.
"He really came on last year," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There are a couple publications that don't even mention him as a prospect, which tells you about those prognostications. We chuckle about some of them."
His transition to life in the United States has also been a process. He lives in Miami with his wife, Patricia, and his 5-month-old son, Anthony Dariel, but his family remains in Cuba.
"I haven't arrived at the finish line yet because all of my family is still in Cuba," Alvarez said. "Whenever I have my family here, that will be the final journey."
In his first full professional season last year, Alvarez posted one of the best offensive campaigns of any Orioles minor leaguer, hitting .306 with a .332 on-base and .487 slugging percentage, 15 homers and 87 RBIs with Double-A Bowie (91 games) and then Triple-A Norfolk (44 games).
He performed well playing center field at Bowie, and then played mostly right field — his likely position in the majors — at Norfolk. He posted 11 outfield assists on the season and his arm is unquestionably the best in the Orioles minor league system.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette — who gave Alvarez an $800,000 signing bonus, in July 2013, the highest given to a Cuban player — has lauded Alvarez's potential, but the player arrives in his first big league camp as a relative unknown to the Orioles' major league staff.
"I think it's just familiarizing yourself because he's the one guy we really haven't had much reps or anything with," Showalter said. "I don't think we're going to [think] 'OK, this is what he's going to be for the rest of his career' on the spring training situation. But as you've seen in the past, we play all these guys so that we're not surprised about what they could bring or should bring. … But you still lean on what they're telling you — guys who have seen them for a year or two."
Alvarez came to the Orioles with the reputation of being a free-swinger, but he struck out just 64 times in 564 plate appearances last season. Alvarez was also at his best in clutch moments, hitting .326 with runners in scoring position (47-for-144). He credits former Bowie hitting coach Butch Davis, now the first-base coach of the Minnesota Twins, for helping him shorten his swing last season.
"You hear people say he swings at bad pitches," Orioles player development director Brian Graham said. "He doesn't swing at bad pitches as much as he doesn't recognize the pitch. As he settled in a little more, then he calmed down offensively. I think his pitch recognition has improved, and he's gained more confidence. He showed you that he doesn't mind going to two strikes to hit. A lot of times he got to those two strikes by swinging, but if you look at his percentage of strikeouts, and percentage of walks it's impressive."
Alvarez said his focus is on making better decisions on defense, specifically knowing where to put a throw and getting it there accurately. Graham said just being around established outfielders in big league camp will help him.
"He has a lot of tools and we have a lot good outfielders ahead of him at the big-league level now, so when an opportunity presents itself it will be interesting to see what happens," Graham said. "Dariel is a pretty darn good-looking player. … Being around Adam Jones every day and Alejandro De Aza and all the good outfielders we have will be a tremendous help to Alvarez."
His greatest helper in major league camp might be Urrutia, who went through the transition process one year before him.
"I try to help him because I have one year more than him," Urrutia said. "When I came here, I had nobody helping me to show me how it can work here. Sometimes the coaches don't talk to you about things, so I try to help him. … When you come here, you don't know anything. You're alone in this country and you have to do a lot of stuff and you know nothing."
Urrutia, who debuted in 2013 after signing for a $778,500 bonus the previous summer, needed just 81 minor league games before making his major league debut with the Orioles. But last season, Urrutia didn't make the club out of spring training, struggled to start the season and needed sports hernia surgery.
Now, they are essentially competing against each other for an outfield roster spot — and they could be in the same starting outfield in Triple-A to start the season — but on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex, Alvarez and Urrutia are rarely seen apart. Urrutia likes to think of himself as a big brother to Alvarez.
"He kind of showed me the ropes with the cultural assimilation thing, so he's helped him out with that," Alvarez said of Urrutia. "His sincerity and honesty [means a lot] and I just learn from him, seeing him coming in early and working and [doing] his job."
Urrutia said the most important advice he can give Alvarez is that he learn to speak English, and that's coming from a player who couldn't speak a word when he arrived in the United States less than three years ago. Urrutia made learning English a priority — even moving from Miami, where Spanish is often spoken, to Sarasota — and now he conducts all of his interviews in English.
"I think it's everything, because you can communicate with people on your own," Urrutia said. "You don't need anybody by your side talking for you because you don't know how people say what you say. More importantly, I want to speak English. … Life is different in the United States. That is why I think if you come here to this country where people speak the language, you have to try it. It's good for you.
"Dariel, he's a great player and a good person," Urrutia continued. "That's why I try to help him. We're all players. The Cuban player is different. You try to help each other."
Graham has seen that Alvarez has worked hard to better his English.
"I think Henry had a head start on Dariel in the ability to speak English," Graham said. "He was able to do more. Dariel is trying."
Showalter said Alvarez will get his share of playing time this spring, and it's likely he will open the season in Norfolk, but if he continues his progress, it might not be long until his life-long dream of playing in the majors is realized.
"For me, it's very important knowing that the hard work I did last year paid off," Alvarez said.