It isn’t the impressive, raw power that’s a sudden surprise at the Giants’ minor league complex in Scottsdale.
It isn’t the remarkably quick bat speed, the strong, accurate throwing arm or the ability to handle advanced pitching, either.
When the Giants signed Marco Luciano, a gifted shortstop prospect out of the Dominican Republic, they knew all about the tools that would give him a chance to become a major league star. They expected the power, the bat speed and the ability to handle the shortstop position.
What they didn’t know is how Luciano would handle adversity.
“What was probably one of the most impressive things was in the opening game, he had five really good at-bats and went 0-for-5 and it just did not phase him and he came out the next day ready to go,” Giants farm director Kyle Haines said. “Most kids whether they’re 17 or 21 in rookie ball, they struggle handling an 0-for-5 and then being able to rebound the next day.”
Luciano, 17, opened his pro career last week with an 0-for-5 performance in the Arizona League. The next day, he finished 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.
Over the following two days, Luciano proceeded to go 7-for-9 with four extra-base hits, including two home runs. If he wasn’t born to hit like that, then he was groomed to do so from an early age.
“I grew up right next to a baseball field so as far as I can remember in my childhood, that’s what we would do,” said Luciano, through Gabe Alvarez, the Giants’ minor league operations manager who translated Luciano’s Spanish to English. “We would play games and play against friends in the neighborhood, but I really began to take baseball serious at a professional level when I turned 12.”
MLB.com ranks Luciano as the No. 3 prospect in the Giants’ farm system, behind only first-round draft choices Heliot Ramos and Joey Bart. He’s the top international prospect in the system, and the latest in a long line of international signees tasked with breaking an extended drought.
“We need him to be great,” said one Giants’ front office executive last week.
Most of the prospects Luciano’s age spend their first professional season in the Dominican Summer League, but the Giants believed they could accelerate his development by bringing him stateside. An audition at extended spring training warranted an aggressive placement in the Arizona League, where Luciano is among the youngest players.
“We sent him to extended spring just to get him some exposure to game action, more so than what he would have gotten in the Dominican spring training,” Haines said. “He did enough there to where we felt like he could go to the Arizona League and that even if he did have some struggles, that he would be able to handle them well and still develop through them.”
Luciano’s hitting coach is Casey Chenoweth, who spent last summer coaching in the Dominican Summer League where he mastered Spanish.
The staff at the Giants’ minor league complex has eased the transition to the United States for Luciano, who admits that adjusting to life away from home is the most difficult aspect of playing professional baseball.
“It’s really just adapting to a different culture and a different language,” Luciano said. “Baseball is baseball, but all of the adaption that comes with living in a different country is difficult.”
Luciano isn’t the only teenage infielder benefitting from the plan the Giants crafted. The Orange team’s third baseman, Luis Toribio, 18, is the No. 9 prospect in the organization’s farm system and one of the players who learned under Chenoweth last summer.
“With Luciano at short and Toribio at third, we thought that was a good combination as well as Toribio has the same hitting coach in Casey Chenoweth that he had last year so we thought that ability to continue those relationships and to have (Espinoza) there to help them develop on the infield would aid their development,” Haines said.
Luciano and Toribio have become fast friends, sharing van rides to the complex in the morning and batting in consecutive places in the order during games in the evening. In four-to-five years, the Giants hope to see them in the same lineup at the major league level.
“I’m really motivated and impressed by Luciano,” Toribio said. “Whenever he hits a double or a home run or whatever, it kind of motivates me to go, ‘Well if Luciano is doing that, I need to step up and match him.”
At 17, Luciano is already setting a standard. He credits teammates like Toribio and Alexander Canario, another highly-touted prospect from the Dominican Republic, for holding him accountable. Together, the group makes the long days and extended time spent away from family worthwhile.
For all the highs that come with hitting professional home runs and “climbing the ladder,” in Luciano’s words, there are lows that the prospects will hit along the way.
There are days where players feel homesick, days when a player goes 0-for-5 and days when playing in 110-degree heat in the Arizona desert make some question whether all the work is worthwhile.
No club can be sure how any teenage prospect will handle that adversity when they’re scouting them abroad. Last summer, the Giants spent $2.6 million to sign Luciano anyway, believing that his rare combination of athleticism and ability would one day make him a star.
There’s a long road ahead, but the home runs Luciano launched last week suggest the money was spent wisely. So did the way Luciano handled an 0-for-5 day at the plate.
“The highlights are always the great thing, the home runs, the doubles and triples and walks he’s had but I think what was really great to see out of such a young kid is that he handled a really tough 0-for-5 after five good at-bats and was able to bounce back the next day and keep a positive mindset,” Haines said.