Roberto Campos can’t help but smile as he tells the story.
He was standing in the batter’s box in the first inning July 5 for his first professional plate appearance, 734 days after the Detroit Tigers signed the Cuban-born slugger in July 2019.
Campos was supposed to play in the Dominican Summer League in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the minor leagues. The Tigers assigned him to the Florida Complex League for the 2021 season.
Not long after Campos moved to the United States, the 18-year-old faced Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Tom Sutera in his first pro game. Sutera was making his second of three rehab starts before joining High-A Jersey Shore for the rest of the year.
On the first pitch, Campos hit a home run.
“That was something I thought about before I played, when I was down here in the Dominican Republic and before the trip to the U.S,” Campos said Friday through an interpreter. “I thought about hitting my first home run on my first at-bat. Fortunately, it happened.”
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Campos had been planning to swing all along.
“If he pitches a fastball right on top of the plate, middle-middle, I’m going to swing very hard,” Campos recalled telling himself.
And that’s exactly what Sutera threw.
“Yeah, middle-middle,” he said.
Campos, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, crushed the ball 404 feet to left field with a 108 mph exit velocity. He was playing for FCL Tigers West on the Tiger Town backfields in Lakeland, Florida, where the outfielder returned Tuesday to get settled in for minor-league minicamp next week.
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Talking about the first home run makes Campos glow. It’s the best moment of his young career. But what Campos did next was just as fascinating. He flipped his bat and walked toward first base.
“It was in the heat of the moment, but it’s also part of my game,” Campos said. “I like to enjoy what I do on the field. Baseball is not an easy sport. When you do something that doesn’t happen quite often, you got to enjoy it. That’s what I did.”
MLB players are expressing themselves at an all-time high. The “Make Baseball Fun Again” movement has been going on for years. Campos’ style is no different, showcasing bat flips for more than one of his eight homers last season.
“The bat flip is something that I’m not going to do all the time,” Campos said. “It came out in the heat of the moment. And I love it. Hitting a home run is not an easy thing, and if you hit a home run, you got to enjoy it. Always in a respectful way.”
Campos’ personality and on-field potential are somewhat of a mystery. He defected from Cuba as a 13-year-old in 2016, stayed under the radar in the Dominican Republic and signed with Detroit for a $2.85 million bonus. He is now beginning to show his persona as a professional player.
He loves his family and credits them for the foundation of his career. His family lives near the Tigers’ academy in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
Campos’ father, Yuniel, taught him about baseball, although he never played professionally. The teenager trained with Alex Sanchez, who spent two of his five MLB seasons with the Tigers. He admires Jose Abreu and Luis Robert, fellow Cubans playing for the Chicago White Sox.
A smooth swing and power potential are Campos’ top qualities, along with above-average bat speed. He played center field in the FCL but profiles as a right fielder in the future.
“At the beginning it was pretty hard,” Campos said. “Leaving my family behind was a bit tough. As soon as I got into the U.S., it was just a matter of adapting with my teammates and being with people who have been in the country more times so they can teach me things.”
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The average position player in the 2021 Florida Complex League was 19.9 years old; it was Campos’ age-18 season. He hit .228 with five doubles, eight home runs, 19 RBIs, 17 walks and 41 strikeouts in 39 games.
Campos, who turns 19 in June, is the Tigers’ No. 8 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
Here’s how Campos stacked up with FCL averages: . 244 batting average (.228 for Campos), .380 slugging percentage (.441), .730 on-base-plus slugging percentage (.757), .136 isolated power (.213), 12% walk rate (11%) and 26% strikeout rate (26%).
He missed the first two weeks of the season due to a right hamstring injury that held him out for six weeks total. He also missed one week with a back injury. A left hamstring injury forced him to miss the last two games on the schedule.
“The most important thing I want is to be healthy and trust all the work that I’ve done,” Campos said. “I don’t have any expectation regarding the season, just to go out and do my job.”
There’s a lot of hype around Campos, primarily because the Tigers signed him for a franchise-record international bonus at the time. Confidence and a sprinkle of swagger could help guide him through his pro journey, but he isn’t blind to the “errors and mistakes I made” last season.
Breaking balls gave Campos trouble. He struggled at times with pitch selection and plate discipline. He said he started to “catch the rhythm” by the end of the season. Beginning Aug. 6, Campos hit .281 with four homers, 10 walks and 13 strikeouts in his final 18 games.
For midseason adjustments, he worked closely with the Latin American hitting coordinator Francisco Contreras, a 30-year-old former minor-leaguer from the Dominican Republic. The Tigers promoted Contreras to Low-A Lakeland’s hitting coach for the 2022 season.
“He understood me,” Campos said. “He knows me. He knows the way I hit. He realized and figured out immediately when I was anxious at home plate. Besides that, he knows how to talk to me and how to address things with me. One of the things I would like to highlight is the patience he had with me last year.
“He let me go with the flow in the cage, but whenever he realized that I was doing something that I shouldn’t, he taught me again, ‘Hey, stay behind with a breaking ball.’ It was just a matter of repetition with what I was doing in the cage. If I changed something, he went back to me and told me.”
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This offseason, Campos continued practicing the lessons learned from Contreras. He worked with a trainer at the field funded by Robinson Cano, a 16-year MLB veteran, in San Pedro de Macoris.
Campos returns to Lakeland for minicamp coming off a solid first step in his professional career. But the Tigers expect him to make improvements to his game and build on last year’s results.
Nothing is official yet, but Campos should start the 2022 season in Low-A Lakeland.
“I feel confident in the work I’ve done in the offseason,” Campos said. “I know I’m ready to give the best of myself.”
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