With a smile, Campos embraces challenges at Tigers minicamp

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Roberto Campos walked towards the dugout with some satisfaction, only to be called back. The Tigers’ teenage slugging outfield prospect had just laced an opposite-field line drive to right field off right-hander Austin Bergner, six years his senior, and thought his at-bat was over. But with one pitch left in Bergner’s live batting practice session, Campos was called back to the batter’s box.

Bergner finished his session with a breaking ball that sent Campos, ranked as Detroit’s No. 8 prospect by MLB Pipeline, swinging over it. The alternate ending could’ve left Campos frustrated, but he was soon smiling on his way off the field.

Campos’ smile is hard to miss. Like the Cuban-born slugger, it’s big, and it seemingly follows him around everywhere he has gone at the Tigers’ Minor League minicamp over the past week and a half. The smile reflects the same enthusiasm he showed upon hitting his first professional home run, complete with a bat flip.

For someone who had big expectations, though little was known about him when the Tigers signed him at age 16, Campos clearly enjoys being on a baseball field. So far, he’s enjoying the challenge of being one of the more highly touted prospects at Minor League minicamp.

“It’s a great experience from a learning standpoint,” Campos said through interpreter Jose Sajour. “I appreciate the different thoughts in terms of players with a lot of time in the Minors and young players like [Cristian] Santana in their first minicamp. So I learn and I try to emulate the good things from older players.”

For two years after signing for a then-record bonus, Campos was a $2.85 million mystery man. He defected from Cuba in 2016 during an international tournament, but he spent three years training with former Tigers outfielder Alex Sanchez in the Dominican Republic, away from organized games.

Campos would’ve made his pro debut in 2020 in the Dominican Summer League, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled that. His home run last July in the short-season Florida Complex League was, for some, the first chance to see him.

It was also the start of a new challenge. Not only was Campos getting used to the daily routine of pro ball for the first time, he was doing so as a teenager in a new country. He’s adjusting, on and off the field.

At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Campos’ strength stands out. But as the line drive off Bergner last week reflected, he’s learning to adjust to pitches and do more than pull home runs.

“Because of my inexperience, I came [to the U.S. last year] with the idea to swing at everything I could,” Campos said. “Now I’m watching the pitch in the zone, and I learned how to crush a breaking ball.”

Campos’ eight home runs over 39 games in the FCL last year included breaking balls. Older pitchers like Bergner and Beau Brieske still pose a challenge in their live sessions, as they have against fellow young prospects like Santana (No. 9), Jose De La Cruz (No. 29) and Manuel Sequera.

A close look as Campos discussed his hitting tweaks revealed another part of his adjustment. Though he uses an interpreter in interviews, he attentively follows questions as they’re asked in English. He’s picking up the language like he’s picking up pitches.

Campos has benefitted from lessons, but like others who have made the journey, he said he’s also learning from television and music. His favorite shows to learn from, he added, are cartoons, including SpongeBob SquarePants.

“They speak slowly, and they speak clearly,” Campos said.

The Tigers have player development officials on the back fields to help relay instructions from coaches, but Campos is working to pick up outfield instructor Arnie Beyeler’s words. Among the teammates helping is fellow outfield prospect Eric De La Rosa, who has Dominican roots but was born in California and went to college there.

“He’ll come up to me a lot and ask, ‘How do you say this in English?’” De La Rosa said. “Or if he needs something from the clubbie, he’ll be like, ‘How do I say it in English so I can ask the clubbie in English?’ He practices a lot, and he’ll come up to me a lot asking for words so he can practice.

“Even though he knows that he can say it in Spanish, he will want to say it in English, just to practice.”

The more Campos learns, on and off the field, the better prepared he’ll be as he works to climb the Tigers’ farm system. For a prospect so talented yet so young, his ceiling is still a mystery, but his enthusiasm for the challenge is already showing.

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