Before he became a slick infielder with surprising power threat for the Angels this season, Luis Rengifo spent an off-season honing his craft by playing competitively in his native Venezuela.
The months he spent after his 2017 minor league campaign working with Navagantes del Magallenes of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League preceded a breakout 2018. Once acquired by the Angels in a trade, he zoomed from high-A Inland Empire to triple-A Salt Lake. He played 46 of his 127 games at the highest minor league level, impressing Angels coaches and front office members with his speed, defensive prowess and previously latent pop. He made enough progress to earn the Angels’ confidence and become a major league player in 2019.
At 22 years old, Rengifo is not a finished product. He has struggled at times at the plate, causing his walk-to-strikeout ratio to plummet from 1.00 last year to 0.49 in 92 MLB games. He still makes mental mistakes in the field and his 12 errors lead the team.
He wants to buff out those rough edges this off-season and return to the Venezuelan league he credits with helping him take a step forward in his development.
“It’s so different from here,” Rengifo said in Spanish. “They’re intense. The fans will crucify you if you make an error. They say all kinds of things. And they don’t let you forget it, either. You learn a lot in the winter league. I thought it helped me arrive ready for spring training [in 2018] and just keep that same level of play.”
Any hope the Angels rookie had of playing this winter for his hometown team evaporated last week. MLB responded to President Trump’s executive order banning Americans doing business with the Venezuelan government by banning its players and minor leaguers from participating in the Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional.
The announcement made sense to Rengifo and countryman Jose Suarez, the Angels rookie pitcher born in the same municipality as Rengifo. Long-standing political turmoil has made playing, let alone living, in their native country a dangerous proposition for Venezuelan baseball players and their families. Wilson Ramos, a catcher now playing for the New York Mets, was kidnapped and held for ransom in November 2011. The mother of Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Elias Diaz was returned safely after being kept hostage for three days in 2018.
A more gruesome situation affected the Angels this winter: Infielder Luis Valbuena died in a December car crash that Venezuelan authorities said was caused by criminals who wanted to rob the vehicle’s occupants, though they did not suggest the criminals knew baseball players were in the car. Valbuena had just finished playing a game for the LVBP’s Cardenales de Lara when he chose not to ride the team bus home.
“There’s so much insecurity there,” said Suarez, 21. “So much travel, danger. What happened to Valbuena is in the back of our minds, too. I get that part.”
But losing the option of furthering skills in the place they’re most comfortable was no less disappointing. Suarez has never played winter ball, but he has learned from others how helpful it can be to gain experience in a high-stakes setting.
“The environment is great,” Suarez said. “It helps you become more confident. It helps you become a little more intelligent, too, because you’re learning more about the game in your own language. And you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of the fans, so you have to be extra careful to play your best.”
Suarez, who has thrown a combined 90 1/3 innings between the major leagues and triple-A this season, will rest his arm during the off-season. Rengifo was not permitted to reprise his role with Magallanes last year. The Angels haven’t determined whether Rengifo will play elsewhere this winter.
He hopes he does.
“I want to keep preparing myself. I don’t want to stop playing because I know this isn’t forever. The more reps you play, the more you grow and the better it is for you. … I need to keep playing, at least a month. After that I’ll be fine. But, like with everything, I just gotta wait.”