DETROIT — Gabriel Moreno twirled his bat in the on-deck circle as he readied himself for his fourth at-bat of the game.
The stadium announcer belted Moreno’s name over the speakers, and, this time, Blue Jays fans in the Comerica Park bleachers remained quiet. Moreno got a hearty applause from the traveling Toronto faithful before his first MLB plate appearance earlier in the game, but not this time.
It was the ninth inning and Detroit Tigers closer Gregory Soto toed the slab. With two outs, he blazed a 98-m.p.h fastball down in the zone, and Moreno sent it right back where it came from.
The kid can hit 🔥
There's Gabriel Moreno's FIRST as a Major Leaguer 👏 pic.twitter.com/jAt1Fx798P
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) June 11, 2022
The 105.2-m.p.h. liner skipped neatly into centre field, and as Moreno rounded first, he kissed his hand and pointed to the sky. The Blue Jays eventually lost Saturday’s game 3-1, but the 22-year-old got on the board with a knock.
“I wanted to get [my first hit] out of the way,” Moreno said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Thank God it happened in my last at-bat. I really wanted it.”
The Blue Jays haven’t seen a prospect of this magnitude debut since Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette both arrived in the big leagues in 2019 to rescue a jaded Jays fanbase that had experienced losing baseball for a few years.
Moreno doesn’t boast the pedigree or famous last name of a Guerrero or a Bichette, but his rise to the top of prospect leaderboards was just as impressive. Signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela in 2016 for a mere $25,000, Moreno wasn’t ever expected to drive such a powerful hype train. Now, he’s the consensus fourth-best prospect in baseball — and on Saturday he finally joined a competitive Blue Jays squad that has playoff baseball on its mind.
Lauded on offence for his quick hands and above-average contact ability, Moreno flashed some hitting talent with a 1-for-4 day. His defence, however, was arguably more impactful.
Generously listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Moreno doesn’t carry the typical frame of a major-league catcher — he was originally scouted as a middle infielder before the Blue Jays moved him behind the plate.
If you watch Moreno catch, you’ll see his infield background creep through. Everything he does is fluid, almost dance-like. His God-given athleticism, dashing footwork, sound transfer and cannon for an arm arguably make him the best-throwing catcher on the Blue Jays.
He put all those tools on display when a runner broke to steal second in the first inning. Moreno stabbed at a diving splitter and fired a bullet to Bichette covering second, who slapped the tag down in time but dropped the ball.
Some pretty impressive metrics on Gabriel Moreno's first attempt to throw out a base-stealer at MLB level
Pop time: 1.83 seconds (98th percentile)
Velocity: 81.3 mph (94th percentile) pic.twitter.com/WC3ujFBOSz
— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) June 11, 2022
The best catchers in history blend their physical skills with even greater mental prowess. Good catchers develop deep relationships with their pitchers, guide them through games, help sequence their pitches, and comfort or challenge them when things go awry.
Those intangibles are the hardest for young backstops to get a grip on, and oftentimes catchers develop those traits on-the-fly in the majors.
On Saturday, Moreno was tasked with catching Kevin Gausman, an early AL Cy Young candidate coming off his shortest start of the season. It was no small task for Moreno to debut with Gausman, the owner of a devastating splitter and a 10-year major-league track record.
Instead of fearing the challenge of catching Gausman, Moreno looked composed. He blocked and framed well during the starting pitcher’s six innings of work.
“That's kind of my big question mark anytime I have a first-time catcher is how are they going to block this split,” said Gausman, who took the loss. “And so there's a couple of times, guys on third, he had no hesitation calling it, and did a hell of a job blocking it today.”
And, to add even more emotional stimulation to his debut, Moreno played his first game against one of his baseball heroes, Miguel Cabrera. The aging Tigers legend is an icon in Venezuela and one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time, so when he requested a meet-and-greet with Moreno, it was an easy decision.
“Meeting Miguel was unbelievable,” said Moreno, adding that he and Cabrera chatted about where their families were from back in Venezuela.
— Ethan Diamandas (@EthanDiamandas) June 11, 2022
The quick but intimate moment with Cabrera offered a heartfelt bit of perspective to the youngster’s MLB debut. To the outside world, Moreno’s story is about an up-and-comer with wicked potential. To those who know Moreno best, it’s a story of a happy-go-lucky kid overcoming the odds and fulfilling a dream.
“You always see something special in him,” said Luis Hurtado, one of Toronto’s bullpen catchers, as he thought back to when he first laid eyes on Moreno years ago.
Hurtado, also from Venezuela, first managed Moreno in the Florida Coast League in 2018. The pair have remained close since, first bonding as compatriots and now sharing in each other’s successes as Moreno climbed the minor-league ranks.
“It’s a tough question,” Hurtado said, fighting back tears, after being asked how much it means to see Moreno succeed. “Especially because how hard it is for us, for Venezuelan people. For everything that happens in our country, for all the barriers that we have to [overcome].”
Moreno’s family couldn’t travel to the United States due to passport issues, but Hurtado was there for him, as was Francisco Plasencia, the Venezuelan-born Blue Jays scout who first discovered a 14-year-old Moreno and eventually signed him.
When Hurtado arrived at Comerica Park Friday, he snapped a photo of a Venezuelan flag hanging in the hallway, ensuring he’d never forget the gravity of this weekend.
“I love my country,” he said. “I was born, I was raised there, and I'm always going to be proud of where I come from. And that’s everyone that makes it to the big leagues. Every Venezuelan player is proud of their country, of our country.”
It’s been a wild journey, in baseball and in life, for Moreno. With one game and one hit under his belt, he can now officially call himself a big leaguer.
“Very emotional,” Moreno said. “I will remember this moment for the rest of my life.”
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