Detroit — Since collecting his $2.85 million signing bonus from the Tigers in July 2019, 17-year-old outfield prospect Roberto Campos has bought his parents a home near the Tigers’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. He’s worked out nearly every day, refined his diet and transformed some of the baby fat on his 6-3, 200-pound frame into lean muscle.
He also watched with immense pride his idol and Cuban countryman Jose Abreu win American League MVP honors. He was locked in on the White Sox playoff run, too, because another of his heroes, Luis Robert, was a big part of their success.
The one thing he hasn’t done, not since early March when COVID-19 shut everything down, is play competitive baseball.
“It’s been both good and bad,” Campos said through Tigers interpreter Carlos Guillen in a Zoom call Thursday. “The good side of it, it’s been very good to spend time with my family. Obviously the bad side is missing baseball. It’s what I’ve done since I was a kid. I miss it a lot.”
Talk about a dream deferred.
At age 12, Campos came to Orlando with his Cuban travel team and went 15 for 20 with five home runs in a tournament. The next year, he was most valuable player at a showcase in the Dominican Republic (Punta Cana). Instead of going back to Cuba with his team, he and his father Yuniel stayed — defected.
Soon after that he linked up with former Tiger turned trainer Alex Sanchez. Three years later, at age 16, he was given the largest signing bonus the Tigers ever handed out to an international prospect.
And then it all came to a screeching halt.
“I thought I was going to play here (in the Dominican) in the summer and then jump to the U.S. and start going up and up,” Campos said. “But this has been a year that stunted me, held me back in that sense. But here we are.”
In 2019 he was still too young to come to Lakeland. He was preparing to play in the Dominican Summer League this spring, which would have been his first taste of pro ball, when the pandemic struck.
So, some 16 months after signing, Campos hasn’t seen a single pitch or played a single inning in the field in any sanctioned professional baseball game. The only live pitching he’d seen before this week was from a couple of his friends who were competing in showcases for scouts.
“I’ve just been working specifically on my body, on the physical side of it, and on my diet,” he said.
If things go right, if the pandemic allows, Campos should finally make it to Lakeland in February and participate in minor league camp. To say the least, he cannot wait.
“I’m crazy for being there,” he said. “Just to get to Lakeland and start playing with the guys and develop my career.”
In the meantime, the Tigers’ have opened their baseball academy in San Pedro de Macoris, which is a few miles from Campos’ home. Since Sunday, he’s been participating in the Tigers Dominican instructional league, which will run through Dec. 13.
“This is what I do,” Campos said. “Baseball is the only thing I know how to do. I left Cuba to be able to play professional baseball. I have family in Cuba who are very proud of what I am doing. I will continue to work. I will make adjustments.”
Despite not having played any structured baseball, MLBPipeline still ranks Campos the 20th-best prospect in the Tigers’ farm system. That echoes the leap of faith the Tigers took on a raw, young player with line-drive, gap-to-gap power reminiscent of a teen-aged Miguel Cabrera or Avisail Garcia.
Campos is mindful of those expectations, but seemingly not weighed down by them.
“We know we have a burden on our shoulders,” he said. “This pressure — it’s the same pressure every professional athlete has. This is the only thing I know I can do. I’m dealing with it.”