De La Rosa finding himself as hitter, big brother influence with Tigers

Detroit Tigers

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Though Eric De La Rosa was born and raised in California, he has Dominican roots and speaks Spanish fluently. So when teammates in the Tigers’ Minor League minicamp need help with English, he’s often there to help.

That puts him in a unique position with some of the Tigers’ highly touted outfield prospects. The Cuban-born Roberto Campos doesn’t speak English well, but he’s trying hard to learn. When he needs a hand in outfield drills, De La Rosa is often there to translate.

Campos is 18 years old. Fellow Tigers outfield prospect Jose De La Cruz, born and raised in the Dominican Republic, is 20. Both finished last season in Lakeland in the Florida Complex League, and both are on Detroit’s Top 30 prospects list, per MLB Pipeline — Campos at No. 8, De La Cruz at No. 29.

“They’re just like little brothers to me,” De La Rosa said.

De La Rosa fits the older brother type, but the more chances he gets in camp, the more the 24-year-old is forcing his way into prospect consideration, building on the underdog story that saw him rocket up the farm system last year.

The Tigers didn’t have many hits in Tuesday’s Minor League scrimmage against the Phillies, but in a lineup stocked with highly touted prospects, De La Rosa had the big blast. As his three-run home run cleared the left-field fence at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater, Fla., Detroit’s dugout erupted in celebration. Campos and Cristian Santana were waiting to give De La Rosa a high five as he crossed home plate and headed down the steps.

It was one of two hits De La Rosa had Tuesday. He added an opposite-field single later, before he was caught stealing. But as Tigers Minor Leaguers get used to game action again, De La Rosa has consistently looked ahead of the pack as he shows why he was invited to this prospect-heavy camp.

“It definitely feels like a blessing,” De La Rosa said last week. “It’s a lot of hard work, coming from the season that I had last year, just proving to the Tigers: I am a guy. I am a dude. So it’s just a lot of hard work paying off.”

The Tigers drafted De La Rosa in the seventh round in 2018 out of tiny Grossmont College, a California program that produced former Major Leaguers Marcus Giles and the late Joe Kennedy. De La Rosa is the highest-drafted player from the program since 1996. But when De La Rosa hit .232 with a .605 OPS in 53 games following the Draft, then .148 in 46 games of Class A Short-Season ball in ’19, he was simply trying to survive.

He had to get serious about finding himself as a hitter.

“Definitely some swing adjustments,” he said. “I used to have a fat leg kick. I didn’t really have a routine. I was all over the place with my mind. I was switching up my stance all the time.

“In 2019, I was just trying to get a hit instead of just being myself. So I went home, ended up connecting with a hitting coach.”

De La Rosa actually found two hitting instructors. He’s one of several Tigers prospects to work with Doug Latta, who’s known for simplifying swings and having hitters focus on creating hard contact without complications. They looked at swings from Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, Latta’s most famous client, and started to work away.

“I was hitting with Latta for a year and a half, and then started working with David Popkins, and then used both of the things that they taught me,” De La Rosa said. “And Popkins got me to feel like myself again.”

Together, De La Rosa and Popkins looked at his swing from his better days, including at Grossmont.

“I still had some of the things I used from Latta, and I just quieted my swing,” he said. “I started feeling like myself and got to be able to hit the inside pitch again. And then confidence just came right back.”

The momentum sent De La Rosa into last season ready to hit. His first few weeks at Low-A Lakeland weren’t eye-opening, but they were good enough to earn him a promotion to fill a need in High-A West Michigan.

After an 0-for-4 debut with the Whitecaps, De La Rosa went on a tear: 11-for-24 with three doubles, a triple, six RBIs, five runs scored and four stolen bases over his next six games. Three weeks later, he hit for the cycle, capped by a walk-off homer for a 12-10 win.

De La Rosa’s summer was streaky. He went 1-for-16 before hitting for the cycle, then went 0-for-16 after it. He followed that with an .894 OPS for a month that earned him a promotion to Double-A Erie in mid-August. De La Rosa finished with an .807 OPS, 22 doubles, seven triples, eight home runs, 50 RBIs and 34 stolen bases across all levels.

Ultimately, he realized he could not only hit as a pro, but how he could hit.

“I’m a speed guy,” he said. “Now I do feel like I have all five tools. I can hit a little bit. I have surprising pop. It’s just: How consistently can I show that? Right now, it’s just about getting my line drives, getting my doubles, and some of those are going to turn into homers. But as long as I can continue to grow, I think those will start to come out.”

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