Baseball is in the blood for outfielder John Lantigua. His family includes an uncle who scouted for the Los Angeles Dodgers for over 20 years. He has a cousin who pitched for the Dodgers, getting added to the 40-man roster before Tommy John surgery derailed his career. He also has another uncle who owns a professional team in the Dominican and also runs an academy for amateur players. That’s where Lantigua’s path to a pro contract really started.
Lantigua spent four years at his uncle’s academy, which is where he finally got notice from the Pittsburgh Pirates. At 18 years old, he was older than most kids in the Dominican who sign their first pro contract. We know from following the amateur draft that plenty of high school kids go from marginal prospects to the top of their class during their senior year, yet on the international side, the possibility of that happening isn’t as widely accepted. Many late bloomers have gone on to Major League careers and Lantigua hopes to be one of the next.
On July 2, 2016, at the start of the international signing period, Lantigua was one of 18 players signed by the Pirates. As with all players signed that day, he had already spent time at the Pirates academy in the Dominican and he actually agreed to sign with the team that April. Lantigua only waited until July 2nd to sign because that then gave him a contract that started in 2017 instead of 2016. We have seen recently with minor league free agents on the international side that one year extra of development can make a big difference. In the last two years, Gift Ngoepe, Dovydas Neverauskas and Jose Osuna have been added to the 40-man roster to avoid them becoming free agents, yet they weren’t ready for the majors yet.
Lantigua is a long way off from worrying about adding him to the 40-man roster, but you don’t throw away an extra year for nothing. If he signed in April of 2016 and played in the DSL, he likely would have seen limited time and returned to the league for 2017. Due to his age at the time, he was eligible to sign then. As a July 2nd signing last year, he still went right to the Pirates academy in the Dominican and played games in the Tricky League. That’s a league designed for players signed during the current international signing period. You also get the occasional DSL players rehabbing from injuries or players signed in previous years who aren’t quite ready for the DSL, but it’s mostly newly signed international players.
After playing in the Tricky League, Lantigua next saw time during the Dominican version of the Fall Instructional League. It’s similar to instructs at Pirate City in Bradenton, although it runs longer and they play more games. It’s a much smaller group of players, so they get more playing time. It also starts after the U.S. version, running from mid-October until early December. After that league, it’s on to Spring Training in the Dominican, which begins in April and runs until DSL games start in late May or early June.
It was during Spring Training this year that Lantigua’s pro debut got postponed for two weeks, and he was seeing limited time at first. He injured his left hamstring in late May and didn’t play his first game until June 13th, the ninth game of the season for the DSL Pirates. Even when he returned, Lantigua was in rehab mode. He didn’t play his first full game until June 17th and didn’t play back-to-back days until four days after that first full game.
The season never really got on track for Lantigua after that point. He also missed the first two weeks of July, then injured his right hamstring late in the year and missed the final nine games. In a season that is only 72 games long, he was able to play a total of 28 games. He batted just .214 and didn’t collect any extra-base hits, but there were some good signs when he was healthy. He drew 14 walks and struck out just 12 times in 105 plate appearances. He also picked up seven stolen bases, despite the injuries and missed time.
I got the chance to talk about Lantigua with Edgar Varela, who is the Latin American Hitting Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He said that Lantigua was a hungry young man who was ready to learn and compete. Varela also praised the mental side of his game.
“I love the football mentality he brings (played it in high school),” Varela said of Lantigua. “He’s a competitor in the box and has some ability to impact the ball. Went through some adversity with injuries this year but showed maturity as well on how to handle it.”
All of that missed time during his rookie season didn’t get Lantigua down though. As Varela said, he was ready to learn and always came mentally prepared. Lantigua used the adversity as a learning experience and motivation.
“I am very grateful that the Pirates believed in me,” Lantigua said “I continue to work hard every single day to prove that they were right by giving me a chance to live my dream of being a professional baseball player.”
That hard work paid off with a trip to the Fall Instructional League at Pirate City in September. The Pirates invited a large group of players this year to Bradenton from the DSL, but there were still plenty of players left behind. Someone like Lantigua didn’t earn it on the stat sheet, but a lot more went into the decision to send him to Bradenton than just 28 games played over three months. Players have to put in the hard work and effort, as well as show a reason for the team to send them to the U.S., and he made it after just one season.
“An unbelievable experience, I was thrilled,” Lantigua said about his time in Bradenton “I didn’t expect it due to the amount of time I spent injured during the season, but the Pirates keep believing in me and I will work my hardest to pay them back.”
I mentioned that Lantigua stole seven bases (in 11 attempts) and he did that despite his abbreviated playing time and the fact that he had multiple hamstring injuries. Speed is a big part of his game. According to him, “it always has been and always will be” a big part. So with that in mind, this off-season’s biggest goal is getting into the shape that will allow him to stay on the field and hopefully avoid more hamstring injuries, which are known for becoming lingering issues for some players.
Lantigua has a program set out for this winter that centers around strengthening his body and building stamina for the rigors of a full season. He has already added some weight since signing at 6’0″, 170 pounds, but the goal is to add more muscle now.
“I talked with my personal trainer already,” Lantigua said. “He already built a special workout plan with a very strict diet to go along with it. I’m at 180 pounds with 13% body fat and I’m trying to report to Spring Training at around 190 pounds with 9% body fat.”
Stats in the Dominican Summer League rarely tell a full story about a player. With Lantigua, it’s even tougher to get a read because he barely played and health was an issue. Teammates from the DSL talked about how he always gave full effort and played with a lot of energy. They saw flashes of potential when he was healthy. He’s a speedy outfielder with nice plate patience and the Pirates thought enough of him to bring him to the U.S. already. He has his goals set out for the off-season, which should help him stay on the field and then we could get a better idea of what he is all about.