Roberto Baldoquin seemed as comfortable and confident in his first media session Saturday as he did playing catch with Albert Pujols and taking ground balls with Erick Aybar, pretty remarkable for a kid who three days earlier was in a hotel room in Haiti, wondering if he’d ever get to Angels camp.
Baldoquin, the 20-year-old Cuban infielder who signed for $8 million in January, looked reporters in the eye and smiled easily as he answered questions for 25 minutes in a conference room with General Manager Jerry Dipoto and several team executives looking on.
When the interview was done, Baldoquin greeted everyone in the room with a firm handshake and thank-you. An hour later, he was fist-bumping Pujols, meeting Mike Trout and whacking line drives around Tempe Diablo Stadium.
“The thing that stood out the most to us, outside of his ability on the field, is that he’s very advanced for a 20-year-old,” Dipoto said. “I love the look in his eye, the way he interacts with people.
“From the moment he set foot in our academy in the Dominican Republic, he was a leader. He’ll likely be the youngest player on his team this year, but he will be one of the most mature.”
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Baldoquin, who played three seasons for Las Tunas in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, the top league on the island, will probably open the season at Class-A Burlington (Iowa) or Inland Empire. He hasn’t set a timetable to reach the big leagues, but the Angels believe he could move quickly.
“This is a tough job, and I realize that,” Baldoquin said through an interpreter. “My job every single day is to go out and try to get better, to learn. The ultimate goal is to be a contributor to the big league team.”
The Angels came upon Baldoquin almost by accident. International scouting director Carlos Gomez was in the Dominican Republic in September watching infielder Yasmany Tomas, who eventually signed a six-year, $68.5-million deal with Arizona.
Baldoquin and Tomas are friends who share the same trainer, Javier Rodriguez, and Baldoquin accompanied Tomas on his showcases.
“By the third time we saw Tomas, Carlos said, ‘I think I like this shortstop,’ ” Dipoto said. “He sent us some video, and we all shared his intrigue.”
Dipoto traveled to the Dominican Republic in late October to watch Baldoquin and summoned Angels first base coach Alfredo Griffin, a former big league shortstop who lives in the Dominican city of San Pedro de Macoris, to the academy.
“After seeing him take a thousand ground balls and swing until his hands were bleeding, I asked Alfredo, ‘Can this kid play shortstop in the big leagues?’ ” Dipoto said. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Now.’
“He’s 20. It’s going to take some time, but he has some things you can’t teach. He has soft hands, great feet and a wonderful internal clock on the field. We felt very comfortable with the player.”
Dipoto spent time with Baldoquin’s parents in the Dominican Republic but did not ask how the family left Cuba and established residency in Haiti. “I just know his baseball background,” Dipoto said.
Baldoquin was reluctant to discuss his flight from Cuba, saying only that he left on Feb. 28, 2014.
“That’s in the past,” he said. “It’s something I have quickly put away. I can only look forward to what is in front of me. At this point, it’s hard to even think about what happened. It was tough.”
Jay Alou, the agent who represents Baldoquin and several other Cuban players, said it’s no mystery.
“They’re all the same — they get on a boat, and some get on a plane,” Alou said. “I never asked him, but it’s no secret. They leave.”
Baldoquin grew up in the rural village of Colombia, about 10 miles west of Las Tunas. His father was a nurse, his mother a teacher.
“The people were pretty humble,” he said. “I didn’t have much growing up.”
Baldoquin said he’s played baseball “since I was in the womb,” his love of the game instilled by a pair of uncles.
“They would not even arrive at the house, and I would run to the street and ask them to start hitting me ground balls,” Baldoquin said. “From the time I could walk, I was out there waiting for my uncles to hit me grounders.”
To be suddenly rich in a new country, with pressure to live up to a hefty signing bonus, could overwhelm a 20-year-old. “He has a lot on his plate,” Manager Mike Scioscia said.
Dipoto plans to pair Baldoquin with a Spanish-speaking teammate and is confident Baldoquin is mature enough to remain focused on baseball.
“We’ll make sure he has people around who can help him, but we don’t want to coddle him,” Dipoto said. “We’re not going to give him a babysitter, someone to look over his shoulder. We trust the kid, his family, and our internal process. If there’s a need, we’ll address it.”