Louie Eljaua looks for a rare ingredient.
He found this unexplainable characteristic — the “it factor,” for lack of better term — in 1998 as the Florida Marlins area scout for Latin America. He still calls Miguel Cabrera the best teenage hitter he has ever seen.
That’s Eljaua’s claim to fame: he found Cabrera, then 15, in the poor La Pedrera neighborhood of Maracay, Venezuela. He then signed him to play professionally for the Marlins and watched a boy develop into a generational talent.
“I haven’t seen another one like him since,” Eljaua told the Free Press.
Yet he noticed something similar when he entered Teodoro Mariscal Stadium in Mazatlan, Mexico, on Sept. 8, 2014, for an Under-15 World Baseball Cup matchup between Mexico and the United States, headlined by Royce Lewis, who became the No. 1 pick in the 2017 MLB draft.
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Eljaua, now the Chicago Cubs international scouting director, squeezed through the crowd of 12,000 fans to get a closer look at the highly anticipated matchup between bordering countries. He was perplexed to see 15-year-old Isaac Paredes, a shortstop, opening the biggest game of the tournament as the starting pitcher.
Six years later, Paredes is starting at third base for the Detroit Tigers. He was acquired in a 2017 trade deadline move and quickly worked his way up the organization’s minor-league system. Through 22 games, Paredes is hitting just .169 (10-for-59) with five walks and 16 strikeouts.
His first MLB home run was a go-ahead grand slam last month in Cleveland, and general manager Al Avila — close friends with Eljaua — expects him to do more of the same throughout his career.
[ Paredes adjusted to lift Tigers with grand slam. Here’s what he did ]
Sure, Paredes’ bat and knowledge of the strike zone are what got him to the majors, with .274 batting average and 1.39 strikeout-to-walk ratio through four minor league seasons..
But it’s what he showed on the mound in 2014 that led Eljaua to believe he is going to be around for a long time.
“He was up to 91 (mph) that day,” Eljaua said. “I’m like, ‘Man, this guy. I know he had a good arm, but he was 15 at the time. He’s bumping 91. He probably was the best player I saw at that tournament, performance-wise.”
Paredes struck out five and only allowed one earned run in four innings against the United States, eventual silver medalists. At the plate, he was 2-for-3 with a double. His status as an infielder wasn’t going to change, but his pitching performance significantly increased his value.
His competitiveness proved he possessed the rare ingredient that drew Eljaua to Cabrera. It’s the same quality he looks for in all prospects within the international market but only discovers so often — where you just know he’s going to be a big-leaguer.
“I was excited to see him in that environment, see what he was made of,” Eljaua said. “You know, how tough he was. If he could stand up to the challenge, not being a pitcher but being put in that situation. And he did.
“I was like, ‘OK, this guy is tough, this guy can handle it, this guy’s got it.’ He showed a lot of fortitude.”
Finding a position
Cubs scouting supervisor Sergio Hernandez travels Mexico searching for hidden gems, and he landed on Paredes in Hermosillo.
That’s when Eljaua officially stepped in.
He first saw Paredes in June 2014 at the Mexican League Academy in Monterrey, Mexico, where he watched him play games and go through drills. They even had a few face-to-face conversations to build a relationship.
“I liked him from the first time I laid eyes on him,” Eljaua said. “He didn’t look like a shortstop, still doesn’t. That’s why he’s been moved. But once I saw him play the position, I didn’t rule it out completely because he was so good.”
Soft hands. Unmatched instincts. Quick feet. A strong arm.
He made all the plays.
But he looked like a catcher, and still does at 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds. He can play second base, shortstop and third base, but for a moment, Eljaua thought he found the Cubs’ catcher of the future.
At least until he saw Paredes pick up the bat.
“Well, maybe catching is not such a great idea,” Eljaua remembers telling himself. “Might hurt his back. He’s a really good hitter, and his bat is going to carry him. So we won’t worry about the position for now. Let that take care of itself if we end up signing him.”
That’s how Paredes was discovered. He signed with the Cubs as an international free agent for $850,000 in July 2015.
‘Some guys naturally have that’
Single-A South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez didn’t get his first look at Paredes until spring training in 2016. Newcomers were laughing, making conversation and trying to fit in with the big-leaguers.
“That was one of the many reasons why I would make sure that we brought him into the office to make sure that he was at a place where he could say whatever was on his mind, on his heart,” Gonzalez told the Free Press. “That’s hard, especially for the Latin kids. They’re coming into a different culture, they have language barriers, they have so many obstacles, and they still have to perform.”
Although his mouth didn’t move much, Paredes’ bat spoke for him. Gonzalez said he passed on pitches “like he was a big-leaguer” and showed plate maturity “beyond his years.” Through Paredes’ first week in the majors for the Tigers, he didn’t swing and miss at a pitch in the strike zone, and his 22.8% chase rate (swinging at pitches outside the strike zone) was below MLB average.
His offensive approach made Eljaua fall in love with him in Mexico, and the same occurred with Gonzalez in spring training. By the end of camp, the entire organization knew they had a gem in their farm system.
Paredes cruised through the rookie-level Arizona League in 47 games, hitting .305 with 13 walks and 20 strikeouts. He moved up to play for Gonzalez in September 2016 for the end of the Single-A season, recording his first hit in a seven-pitch battle.
In the at-bat, he didn’t swing and miss on any of the five pitches inside the strike zone — four were fouled away; one was driven for a single to right field. And the two pitches that just missed the corners for balls? He didn’t flinch.
“Some guys just naturally have that,” Gonzalez said. “They’re just good at it, better than others. I guarantee you can’t take most 18-year-olds and do what Isaac was doing when it comes to taking pitches that are borderline.”
‘Why am I going over there?’
Ninety-two games into the 2017 season, Paredes had settled in with the South Bend Cubs. He was batting .264 and flexed his muscles with 25 doubles and seven homers. And the quiet kid from the previous year wasn’t so silent anymore.
He finished up a 2-for-4 performance in a July 30 matinee and went home as usual. But later that night, people began to congratulate him.
Paredes didn’t know why.
“It was much after the game, so I was back in my house when I got the call,” Gonzalez said. “So then I had to call Isaac. Sometimes, you got kids that don’t know how to take it, but I thought it was a great opportunity for him.”
The call was to tell Paredes he was traded to the Tigers, who shipped closer Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to the Cubs in exchange for two infield prospects — Paredes and Jeimer Candelario.
Paredes couldn’t believe it, and he neglected to see the big picture at the time. Based on Single-A West Michigan’s success that season, he thought the trade was a roadblock in his path to the majors.
“I was wondering, ‘Why am I going over there?’ I mean, they won’t give me a chance. I will be on the bench,” Paredes said. “But then, I just arrived to the team, and everything was different. The first thing they did to me was they asked me to remove my beard. … Here, it’s a little more strict, but in the end, that’s what makes you a real pro.”
By 2019, Paredes was as an everyday infielder for Double-A Erie. His continued prosperity was aided by his offseason regimen, which includes about 45 games in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. Eljaua considers the competition similar to Double-A and Triple-A with a few players who have big-league experience.
“He’s played a lot of games in his native country down in Mexico against some talented pitchers that know how to spin the ball,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said, “so he’s not overwhelmed by any means being out there.”
Even though a positive COVID-19 test barred him from participating in most of July’s summer camp, Avila thought he was ready once C.J. Cron underwent season-ending knee surgery — forcing Candelario to move to first base and opening a spot at the hot corner.
“We felt we needed some offense, and let’s give this kid a chance,” Avila said hours before Paredes’ first game. “He’s very young, but he has hit at all levels. … Hopefully, he can bring us some offense the rest of the way.”
Paredes made his MLB debut Aug. 17.
[ Why Detroit Tigers’ Isaac Paredes wasn’t satisfied in MLB debut ]
He recorded his first MLB hit in his debut, driving in Cabrera on a two-RBI single to left field. Three games later, he crushed a 386-foot grand slam. He became the first Tiger to have at least six RBIs in his first four games since Pete Fox in 1933.
Since his .318 start through seven games, he is 3-for-37 with eight strikeouts and one walk, and he was hitless in 23 consecutive at-bats before driving a single Thursday.
“The way you grow is failing,” Candelario said, “so everything’s going to be all right with him.”
Paredes only chases 24.5% of the time, below the 28.2% MLB average, and his chase contact rate is 54.3%, again below the 59.4% league average. But on pitches inside the strike zone, he makes contact 91.8% of the time, which much higher than the 82.8% league average.
“There’s a lot of great pitchers, and you’re a kid, and you’re going to get some things called that might not be strikes,” Gardenhire said, “and you have to handle them better and not let it run your AB.”
But the man who found him in Mexico is confident he will find his groove again.
[ After tough series, Tigers must ‘turn the page’ to stay in playoff contention ]
“(He) ranks in there with certain guys that over the years you see,” Eljaua said. “You’re willing to make that bet, more certain than others, that he’s gonna hit. And I didn’t have a lot of doubt in my mind that Paredes was going to be one of those guys. Just the advanced approach he had, even as a teenager.”
As does Tigers legend and Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, who helped Paredes develop through spring training and at the alternate training site in Toledo before his debut.
“Unfortunately, that’s part of baseball,” Trammell said. “The hitting part, the highs and lows, is more volatile. Hopefully, he’s going to weather the storm because we like his approach. We’ve seen it in a short glimpse that he can he, and he will hit. I’ll stand by that.”
Cabrera — the Tigers’ leader and a future Hall of Famer — has taught him to relax and enjoy the game. He empathizes with Paredes’ path, from being discovered by Eljaua as a teenager to reaching the majors in his early 20s.
And Cabrera, like Paredes, yearned for greatness.
“He likes to play, and he also likes to make jokes with everybody, especially when you’re upset,” Paredes said. “He comes to us and makes jokes, just to pull us out of there and put us in a very good move.
“Being around a superstar like him is priceless.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.