The way Carlos Subero likes to tell it, it was the game that got him fired.
On Jan. 11, the skipper's Tigres de Aragua led the Caribes de Anzoategui, 2-0, entering the fifth inning of a game played during the Venezuelan Winter League playoffs' round-robin semifinal, and he had to feel pretty good about his team's chances that day with two-time All-Star right-hander Freddy Garcia posting zeros over the first four frames. The 15-year big league veteran -- last seen in the Majors with the Braves in 2013, loaded the bases in the fifth to face the Caribes' No. 9 hitter, a wiry 6-foot, right-handed-hitting shortstop who at 20 was the circuit's youngest regular position player. That fresh-faced No. 9 hitter also was a Brewers prospect, one who Subero had managed for five games at Double-A Huntsville during the club's brief Southern League postseason run.
That said, what Subero saw next wasn't all that familiar, but it would certainly become so.
Fans' Choice: Jacob Nottingham, Quad Cities/Lancaster/Stockton
Nottingham entered the season as a 20-year-old catcher who hadn't hit higher than .247 at a pair of Rookie-level stops in the Astros system. He finished it with a .316/.372/.505 line, 17 homers, two triples, 33 doubles and 82 RBIs in 119 games at Class A and Class A Advanced. The right-handed slugger improved his stock so much that he became part of the A's return package, along with right-hander Daniel Mengden, in their trade with the Astros for Scott Kazmir. Nottingham was ranked as the No. 22 prospect in the Houston system at the time of the deal and is now the A's No. 8 prospect, according to MLB.com. Voting results »
Orlando Arcia, who would go on to an impressive season at Double-A Biloxi the following summer and won the MiLB.com staff vote for the 2015 Breakout Prospect MiLBY, lifted a bases-clearing double to left-center off Garcia, giving the Caribes a 3-2 advantage. Arcia's went on to win, 9-6, and qualified as Venezuela's representative in the Caribbean Series. Subero's Tigres finished third in the round robin, one spot from a chance at a championship.
"I joke with Orlando, because they didn't renew my contract or ask me back after that hit," Subero said from the Arizona Fall League, where he's managing Surprise.
Despite being the Caribes' youngest position player by three years, Arcia led the club with 240 plate appearances and finished with a .265/.335/.445/.780 line, seven homers, two triples, 13 doubles and 28 RBIs in 55 games, not counting the playoffs. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but for such a young player who had put up a .738 OPS at the Class A Advanced level the previous summer, they showed marked potential for the upcoming Minor League season.
"I think that took him over, that graduated him," said Subero. "He played on a championship team in the Caribbean Series. Being in that environment, he was able to pick guys' brains and, at the same time, perform at a high level. Once he came to Double-A, that put him on the right track."
"I think that he got some experience in Venezuela that was irreplacable," said Biloxi hitting coach Sandy Guerrero. "That's where he started to learn to read veteran pitchers. Facing veteran guys, you're going to have to make adjustments. Before, he could do it at-bat to at-bat. Now, he does it pitch to pitch. Before he gets to the box, you can see his mind turning. That experience in winter ball, that's where it started."
Though the Venezuela native's bat began to show signs sprouting in his homeland, his defensive work was already well beyond his years. His range at one of the game's toughest defensive positions was an easy plus as were his hands and arm going into his first Double-A season. Jake Seiner noted in his D-Listers piece back in March that Arcia was "The Next Big Thing" behind defensive wizard and likely American League Rookie of the Year Francisco Lindor when it came to primo shortstops starting the year in the Minors, but the Brewers had plans to make him even better.
"Defensively, he didn't have to make much of a jump at all," said Brewers infield coordinator Bob Miscik. "He was a solid defender already when he came to us at 16 in . We've just made some adjustments to be more consistent and make his job easier at the position. The only thing he needed to really do was learn how to catch and throw and not use his arm so much. ... If the guy is going to be out by a sizable amount, you don't have to be max effort with the throw."
But with all those tools in the shed, Arcia, Subero, Guerrero and the rest of the Shuckers began their 2015 regular season in an unorthodox manner. You can't discuss the 2015 Blioxi Shuckers without bringing up the fact that the club played its first 54 games on the road while work on MGM Park -- the team's home-to-be -- was being completed. There were two ways the club could have looked at the obstacles of constant travel and a lack of home comforts: an excuse or an opportunity. The coaches chose to press the latter.
"We focused on taking that as a challenge," Guerrero said. "For example, we'd talk to the guys and say, 'All we have to do is play baseball and get better. If we're on the road, we're on the road.' The only way we were going to get noticed is we got better. Otherwise, everyone was expecting us to have a bad year.
"When you're on the road like that, all you have to do is go to sleep, wake and play baseball, and that was big for Orlando. It was fun to see how hot he was and how much fun he was having."
Part of that routine meant getting to the parks of their Southern League opponents 90 minutes earlier than a normal road to get in the necessary cage work, bullpen sessions, infield practice, etc. that would usually be done at home. That might be a slog, but they were perfect conditions for Arcia, who played so much the previous winter in Venezuela because he begged to do so. The contact-reliant shortstop hit .409/.468/.545 with eight strikeouts and seven walks in 20 games (78 plate appearances) in April and cooled off only slightly to finish with a .327/.379/.467 line with three homers, a triple and 17 doubles in 220 plate appearances by the time the road trip had come to a close with the Shuckers' first home game June 6.
But as tends to happen at the Minors' highest levels, the more advanced pitchers changed course against a hot, free-swinging hitter whose approach his hitting coach would later compare to Vladimir Guerrero despite Arcia's 165-pound frame. In June, he hit just .247 with a .628 OPS and saw his month-by-month extra-base hit total cut in half from 15 to seven.
"When [pitchers] first saw him, they just saw a skinny kid and thought they could just throw a bunch of fastballs by him," Subero said. "Once he showed he could hit those, they gave him a lot of breaking pitches, and it took a while before he caught on, but he did. He had to grow and lay off the pitches that got him for a month or so, but that showed the great intagibles he has -- a lot of players aren't able to make those adjustments."
By August and September, Arcia, who had participated in the All-Star Futures Game in July, was thriving once again and produced a .324/.356/.493 line with three homers, two triples and 11 doubles from Aug. 1 on over the final 36 games of the regular season and finished the season with an average over .300 (.307) for the first time as a pro while setting career highs with eight homers, seven triples, 37 doubles, 69 RBIs and 74 runs.
The timing of his return to form could not have been better for the Shuckers, who were headed to the Southern League playoffs as a result of the first-half South Division title. Arcia collected multiple hits and multiple RBIs in his first four playoff games and homered in three straight games, a stretch that ended in the Southern League Finals against Chattanooga. The Shuckers fell, 3-2, in the five-game series, but Arcia was named the SL Player of the Postseason by MiLB.com after going 12-for-30 (.300) with seven extra-base hits and 10 RBIs in his eight playoff games.
"That's him," Subero said. "Michael Jordan always wanted the big shot. That's Orlando. He would say, 'I want to hit a home run here,' and then, boom, homer. He made a diving throw in the ninth inning. I mean, Chattannoga didn't event want to pitch to him. He doesn't necessarily want attention, but naturally, he's going to get it the way he plays in those situations."
Arcia's older brother Oswaldo, a 24-year-old outfielder in the Twins system with 219 games of Major League experience, went to see his brother play after his season came to an end with Triple-A Rochester and was immediately taken aback by what happened since he last saw his brother play live, when they were teammates in the Winter League back home.
"He was with us for three or four days, and he turned to me and said, 'Wow, he's turned into a big leaguer,'" Guerrero said. "So I looked back at him and said, 'Shh -- don't tell him.' We didn't want to get things in his head yet."
Others didn't quite get the memo. MLB.com has moved him up from No. 88 among top overall prospects to his current spot at No. 12. The Brewers named Arcia their Minor League Player of the Year in mid-September, and later in the same month, Rawlings announced he had won the Minors' version of the Gold Glove award. All the months of working with Mischik & Co. on arm angles and effort at shortstop had officially turned him from a plus defender into a mettalic one.
"You need to work with this kid to understand it," Subero said. "Just his willingness to get better is such a part of who he is. We told him he was the Minor League Player of the Year, and he was happy. To me, that's a huge deal. But to him, he was even more excited for the Gold Glove. He knew the work he put in, and it paid off huge."
The easy question now about Arcia is "What's next?" The likely answer is an invitation to Major League Spring Training, a trip to Triple-A Colorado Springs to start the season and a likely Major League debut at some point in 2016, barring injury or trade. Heading into the offseason, the Brewers employ Jean Segura at shortstop, but the 25-year-old has taken steps back offensively each of the last two years and has been worth just 0.2 fWAR in that time despite playing 288 games. The job is Arcia's for the seizing as early as Opening Day, if Milwaukee wants to put aside service time concerns.
But the bigger question in today's world of prospects is, "Where will Arcia fit among today's crop of young shortstops?" The Astros' Carlos Correa and the Indians' Francisco Lindor established themselves as two of the Majors' most exciting players during their rookie seasons, and Dodgers wunderkind Corey Seager played himself onto the playoff roster after making his debut in September. From a prospect standpoint, Arcia, along with J.P. Crawford in the Phillies system, seems primed to join this generation's version of Jeter, Garciaparra and Rodriguez in The Show soon. Those who know him best expect it.
"Orlando, right now for me, could be the best defensive shortstop in the Majors with Lindor," Subero said. "He's going to win Major League Gold Gloves. I don't doubt that one bit. And he's going to be special offensively. They're all different hitters, but he has definitely worked his way into that group."