The Detroit Tigers have hired Euclides Rojas as the new Director of Latin America Player Development, according to a report from Francys Romero. This move comes in the midst of a number of major changes being made to the Tigers’ front office, as the team tries to model itself in the image of other successful baseball organizations. Rojas will be replacing Rafael Martinez, who served in that role during the 2021 season.
Rojas is a former player for the Cuban national team, renowned for his control of the strike zone. He first played as a starting pitcher before transitioning to relief and eventually becoming one of the greats in the golden era of Cuban baseball.
In one of those lovely ironic twists that history often takes, it was Fidel Castro’s extreme desire to prevent Cuban players from leaving the country that eventually drove Rojas to emigrate to the United States. After playing in Seattle, he struck up a friendship with a Chinese man, and the two began a correspondence. When the government found out, they questioned him severely, hoping to end the friendship and cut off any change of a temptation to leave.
“I realized that I was living in Cuba like a slave, not as a free man,” Rojas said in a 2015 interview. “[My wife and I] made the decision to give our son a chance to live like a real man.”
There isn’t room here to do his story justice, but I would absolutely recommend giving the article linked in that quote a read. Rojas’ journey to the United States was one, not only fraught with peril, but also entangled with his sense of national pride, family loyalty, and the love of his country’s version of baseball. It ought not be forgotten when considering the man.
Rojas was given the opportunity to play professionally by the Marlins, and although he never reached the major leagues and the organization quickly identified him as a potential coaching talent.
“At that time there were many Cuban coaches in the Marlins organization at that time and they saw my love for number baseball, my discipline and that while I was injured I always helped the boys, with the authorization of the manager. In general, they offered me the job of coach without wanting to take away my dream of playing the Major Leagues,” he remembered in a 2020 interview.
Eventually, it was that coaching role that would bring to life Rojas’ major league dreams. He first served as the Latin American field coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates before latching on in Boston as the bullpen coach. Eventually, he found his was back to Pittsburgh and lasted there as the bullpen coach for nine years, a tenure that ended after the 2019 season.
Rojas’ new job with the Tigers is one that takes place behind closed doors. It’s tough to get a clear picture, but from the outside looking in, he seems like a good fit for the culture the organization is trying to develop among its new leadership.
In the six years since general manager Al Avila has taken the top job in the front office, Detroit’s involvement in the Latin American market has steadily increased. Under Dave Dombrowski, the team seemed largely uninterested in making a splash on the international free agent market, but Avila has tacked a different tack.
Each of the past three seasons, the Tigers have broken their own record for the largest amount of money spent on a bonus for a Latin American player, and don’t seem to be slowing down.
One interesting tidbit in this whole affair I’ll be watching is whether the Tigers become more involved in the Cuban market. They recently dipped their toe into the pool of Cuban national players when they signed Carlos Pelegrín, but the country has a lot more talent to offer, and Detroit may have seen the opportunity to take advantage. [Ed.: Roberto Campos, one of the Tigers’ recent amateur free agent signees, is also Cuban.] Because he was a successful player in a heavily romanticized era of Cuban baseball, Rojas is a memorable figure in the history of the sport. He could be an excellent recruiting tool for winning over Cuban players, should the team utilize him that way.
“I have enjoyed it to the fullest. I like being a baseball coach. I always respected my superiors and counted on them before making decisions, but I managed to get my job done,” said Rojas, reflecting on his coaching career in a 2020 interview with El Nuevo Herald.
Now that he’s with Detroit, Rojas’ new home is an an organization that has transformed itself from one of baseball’s dinosaurs to a forward-thinking one that heavily relies on data to aid in decision-making and coaching. A bit of whiplash among both the players and coaches that are expected to interpret and apply the information being provided. Thus, the Tigers gave put energy into hiring “coaches for coaches,” a description that was applied to Vice President of Player Development Ryan Garko, and by extension, Director of Pitching Gabe Ribas and Director of Coaching Ryan Sienko.
“He’s a baseball genius without a doubt,” said former Pirates reliever Jared Hughes. “He does a great job of simplifying what’s going on so we can understand it. The level of communication with Euky is as good as it gets.”
It stands to reason, then, that as a roving instructor and coordinator, Rojas will serve as an intermediary for the Tigers’ top minds on the home front and the coaches that deal with Latin American players overseas on a day to day basis. Many older coaches, particularly those who were once players, have proven resistant to analytics. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Rojas based on the obviously data-driven focus of the team’s new leading voices.
Thus, the communication ability that he is praised for will be crucial in the organization’s efforts to let their face-lifted system trickle down to the lowest levels of player development. His willingness to rely on the input of his superiors will be important in the firmly hierarchal structure of a coaching tree, but he will also function as an important bridge between the organizational brain trust and the coaches on the ground.