The Unlonely Island: Jurickson Profar Returns from Exile
Jurickson Profar is attempting a comeback that no other top prospect has recently tried. He has a whole island betting on him to succeed.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Ask Jurickson Profar about the comeback he's working on, which is one that no recent prospect of his caliber has ever attempted, and he says, "My whole island is behind me."
You have to go back to Rick Ankiel in 2002 to find another Baseball America top overall prospect missing an entire season due to injury before turning 23. Before that, it was Chipper Jones, in 1994. Profar, a Curacao native, only turned 23 in February, and he has already lost essentially lost two years of development to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. He has also lost his position as the Texas Rangers' starting second baseman.
Outwardly, Profar is sanguine about all this. "I just worked hard every day knowing that, someday, I'm going to be playing," he says. "[It's] the way that got me here. Always [thinking] positive." There's a floodlight smile on his face as he speaks, the natural byproduct of him being a constitutionally happy guy who is adept at every facet of baseball—two things that he believes inform each other.
It's hardly that simple, of course, but in Profar's case, it's not much more complicated either. Query the Rangers about what makes him special and the answers tend to center on his uncluttered mental approach to baseball. Rangers manager Jeff Banister believes Profar possesses a "slow heartbeat." Assistant hitting coach Justin Mashore goes with "inner clock." Profar delights himself in constantly mining for adjustments at the plate but, apart from that, nothing is over-thought.
The slow heartbeat served Profar well when, for the first time in his life, he had to face doubts about his future in baseball. Profar averted what could have been an existential crisis by being himself—there is a prodigy's confidence, if notably not the prodigy's petulance, at his core—burrowing deep into his support system. He has his parents, his girlfriend and his two younger brothers—one of whom, Juremi, is also a prospect in the Rangers system. He has an organization that fervently believes that its farm system's one-time lodestar retains that incandescent talent. And, most of all, he has his island, which looks to him as the potential leader of a golden generation, the one that's revolutionized how the entire country regards the sport of baseball.
"It's already on the map but when I tell people in the street I'm from Curacao, they're like, 'Curacao? Where is that?'" Profar says. "I want to change that."
So, for the record: Curacao, a Dutch-Caribbean island with a population of roughly 150,000, is located in the south Caribbean Sea, north of Venezuela and slightly southeast of Aruba.
Profar was born in Willemstad, the capital city and epicenter of the island's burgeoning baseball boom. Andruw Jones, who for all intents and purposes introduced the island to baseball fans, is from Willemstad. So is Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens, the first icon of Curacao baseball, who ground out seven years in the big leagues by virtue of brute strength at the plate and has distinguished himself in his current job as the Giants' hitting coach. Meulens also holds baseball development clinics back on the island and has played an integral role in ushering a crush of talent to prominence.
Just 14 Curacao-born players have played in the big leagues, but eight have been on a major league roster within the last five years. The talent level is increasing, too: The same place that occasionally produced roster flotsam like Yurendell DeCaster, Ivanon Coffie and Wladimier Balentin now churns out major league cornerstones like Andrelton Simmons, Kenley Jansen, Jonathan Schoop, and Didi Gregorious, who was born in Amsterdam but moved to the island at age five. Soon enough, they'll be joined by Braves farmhand Ozhaino Albies, a consensus top-100 prospect at shortstop.
But none were as coveted as Profar. Meulens first learned of him when Profar was six years old. Five years later, he starred on the Curacao team that won the Little League World Series, clubbing a home run during the championship game against the team from Thousand Oaks, California. Years later, Profar credits that experience—"being 11 and playing in front of 48,000 people"—with steeling him against the pressures of professional baseball.
Equally important were the scarce games he got to play back in Curacao that no one saw. There are no school leagues on the island, a fact that's begun to push many of the brighter talents to the United States for high school in order to compete year-round. "I recommend people do what they're doing now," says Jansen, who, like the rest of Profar's generation, did not make the move. "You can adjust a bit to the culture, to more games played, you see more types of pitching. You'll see like two pitches only [in Curacao]. You see velocity."
The players who stay behind have only 16 or so games per year during which to prove their worth to professional scouts, compared to the mounds of game time players accrue in other countries. Unsurprisingly, Meulens says, "The games are vicious." And because he was so precocious, the pressure on Profar ratcheted up to levels that might have crushed a less stress-proof talent. "He had scouts following him ever since he was 11, 12 years old, up until he signed when he was 16," Meulens says. "He was on the radar really fast, because he was that good."
Then as now, Profar's uniqueness stems from the breadth of his abilities. There is no singularly dominant tool on par with Simmons' once-in-a-generation glove, nor does he produce an aesthetic experience as breathtaking as watching hitters flail aimlessly at Jansen's hellacious cut fastball. But the platform that made Profar baseball's most coveted prospect always rested less on all the things he could do than the dearth of things he couldn't. Profar has never been projected to crush 30 home runs, but he pretty reasonably could approach 20. His legs aren't quite swift enough to contend for a stolen bases title, but they're more than sufficient to make him a magnet for pickoff attempts and to get him from first to third in plenty of time. He's a plus fielder anywhere in the infield and, at least prior to the two-year layoff, his arm was well above average, too. All of that comes packaged with the tool that mattered most—hitting. Profar's highest career batting average in any minor league season is .286, but he notched on-base percentages of .390, .368 and .370 at A, AA and AAA, respectively. There is nothing he doesn't do well, and as a result he has the potential to shape a franchise.
"He's a guy that, to me, is hard to really evaluate the whole practice part of it," Banister says. "He plays up in the game, and what I mean by that is he has kind of a knack of playing in the moment. The moment doesn't define him. That's special."
This bears out if you watch him on the field. There's an airy, almost languid quality to his movements that scans as uncommon ease. He sprinted and grapevined like the rest of teammates to warm up for a spring training game against the Giants. He just somehow appeared to cover ground more efficiently even as he trailed behind them. And then, when the first pitch is thrown, he jolts into hyper-aware omnipresence. He cranks out a seven-pitch walk the fourth, then coaxes four pickoff attempts to keep him rooted to first base, then goes first to third in comfort on a single. When Adrian Beltre awaits a lazy, inning-ending pop fly at third base, Profar shuttles behind him in a shadow stance that could be lifted out of an instructional video, glove at the ready on the miniscule chance that one of the best third basemen ever to field his position muffs the catch.
Beltre makes the play as usual, and on the jog back to the dugout, Profar flashes a sheepish grin Beltre's way. Still, he never switches off his eagerness. "It's always go time for me," Profar says.
Which only makes the last two years more excruciating, for fans if not for the relentlessly positive Profar. When Profar first injured his right shoulder in 2014 spring training, it was diagnosed as a slightly torn teres muscle. He was initially ruled out until June, but by May had suffered a setback that knocked him out for the season. It was only in spring training the next year that the Rangers re-diagnosed the problem as a torn labrum, and directed him to undergo shoulder surgery. The player who is so vibrantly alive during games could could only bide his time.
Profar, as is his nature, claims to not dwell on it. "I think if I look at it, like, the negative way, I don't think it's going to be good for me," he says. "Being positive has just helped me every day to get healthy."
Among the other afflictions that come with them, injuries tend to isolate the athletes suffering with them. Injured players train and rehab by themselves, locked into individualized regimens and at a distance from the games that might give them meaning. Sometimes, they see their teammates. Far more often, they only interact with the training staff. "It's a little bit of a lonely place," says starting pitcher Derek Holland, who like Profar, has missed most of the past two years due to knee and shoulder problems. "You're not around the team. You're not around really much of anything."
"When you're far from the game you love and what you've been doing since you were a little kid, you're kind of depressed," echoes catcher Robinson Chirinos, who was out all of 2012 with a concussion.
Two years of that would wear on anyone, even a player as sunny as Profar. Indeed, his best friend on the Rangers, utility infielder Hanser Alberto, allows that Profar was more affected than he lets on. "The second time was a little tough," Alberto says. "Because the first time, he was told he would be back just in a year."
Profar didn't disappear into that isolation, relying both on the calm he'd developed under the bright lights of the the Little League World Series and in those high-stakes games before MLB scouts and the friends he'd made along the way. He poured himself into executing his rehab plan down to the smallest detail. When he returned home, he'd fire up his Playstation and play FIFA online with Simmons and Schoop, together on a team they created with themselves as soccer players. At night, his girlfriend would cook him his favorite dishes from home. (His favorite is aros brua, Antillianese fried rice that, by Profar's description, includes "chicken, bacon, sausage, everything!"). His parents and youngest brother, who is still in school on the island, visited when they could.
While he worked, a different Rangers prodigy, 22-year-old Rougned Odor, installed himself at second base and starred in last year's playoffs. With each passing month, more doubt persisted that Profar could ever be the same: If the lost years of development didn't do him in, then a fried throwing shoulder would. This mostly ignored that Profar, who had been told he'd miss the entire 2015 season after the surgery, blazed through his recovery quickly enough to make it back for 32 minor league games, then 30 more as a designated hitter in the Arizona Fall League. Hardly anyone took Banister at his word in spring training when he told reporters inquiring about Profar's health that, "I haven't heard of any setbacks or complaints."
Why did it become so easy to stop believing in one of the game's brightest young talents? Rangers general manager Jon Daniels believes that some of it is as simple as Profar "fall[ing] in more of the 'out of sight, out of mind' category" after disappearing from view for so long. The rest owed itself to a widespread misunderstanding of his injury status.
"I think what people miss is that, first year, he didn't have the surgery," Daniels says. "We tried to rehab it, didn't work. Last year, he had the surgery and it was a pretty standard procedure. Pitchers that have this come back. Now, they might not throw 97—they might throw 91, 92. But they come back and they pitch. My feeling was, absolutely worst-case scenario, he may not throw quite as well. But he was plus to begin with and will still probably be average or better."
This time, Profar will be making his throws from shortstop, his natural position. It's perhaps the only silver lining of the last two years. "That was my position growing up," Profar says, and merely saying so forces a smile so wide it strained the syllables in his speech. Years earlier, Meulens advised him to sign as a pitcher on the strength of a 91 MPH-plus fastball. "But I didn't like pitching because you get to pitch one day and you sit for another four or five," Profar says. "I'm a guy that likes to do a lot of things, so shortstop is the thing." In FIFA, video game Profar is a central midfielder, because it's the soccer equivalent of the position that affords him the most influence and freedom of movement. He could play anywhere, but Profar is most himself at short.
There's no vacancy in the Rangers' major league infield, though, so Profar shuttled down to Triple-A. He's begun the year on a tear, hitting .310 with a .385 on-base percentage at the time of this writing. There's no timetable for when he'll rejoin the big league club, assuming the Rangers don't part with him to shore up other needs. (Daniels, for his part, isn't too concerned about Profar finding his way back. "I've yet to hear about a team that has too many good players," he said. "Still waiting on that one.")
Regardless, as usual: it's all fine by Profar. The prospect of starting over in the minor leagues is almost immaterial to him, so long as he's back playing every day at the position he adores. "At some point, I'm going to be playing shortstop somewhere in the big leagues," he assured reporters this spring.
A week later, unprompted, Profar reiterated a similar message of confidence. "I feel like I didn't lose anything."
The crown jewel of Willemstad is the Queen Emma Bridge, a footbridge otherwise known as The Swinging Old Lady. The bridge connects the city's historic quarter, Punda, to adjacent Otrabunda; together, the two neighborhoods form the core of the capital city. Each has its own culture and history. The bridge, the connecting point between the two, is what's special.
Andruw Jones was that bridge for Curacao's baseball culture. It was Jones who proved to an island steeped in soccer that it was possible to thrive in baseball—not only making it and surviving, as Meulens did before him but, for a time, shaping the game to his will. "It's like, 'This is your idol from Curacao,'" says Jansen, who was eight years old when Jones debuted with the Atlanta Braves. "'If he can do it, why can't we do it?' Because he's the one who opened up the door for us.
"It keeps continuing. You see guys growing up now who want to be playing shortstop because they want to be Andrelton Simmons, they want to be Jurickson Profar, they want to be Didi Gregorious, they want to be Jonathan Schoop. If guys want to pitch, they want to be like me, striking out a lot of hitters in the big leagues."
The result, Profar contends, is that soccer no longer engulfs baseball the way it once did. "I think it's even now," he says. Jansen carries it a step further. "The way we can dominate that sport, I think that's our number one sport in Curacao," he says. "Just think about it, man. We don't have a lot of people in the big leagues, but we're not average players in the big leagues."
It's the natural continuation of the process, from one dynamic player in Jones to a cadre of standouts, with more players like Albies on the horizon. A depth of talent has pushed baseball to the forefront in Curacao, which begs the question of what could happen if those numbers are augmented with a legitimate superstar on par with Jones. What if Jurickson Profar, after everything, finds his ceiling and reasserts himself as Jones' heir?
The possibility fuels him. He knows that the next generation of Curacao players look at him the way he once sought to emulate Jones. Already, he has followed Meulens' lead and returns to the island each summer to teach—sometimes weeklong clinics with the youngest kids, other times doing more advanced work with the older crowd. His favorite part of the game to teach is hitting. "See the ball the best they can, and they're ready to hit every time," he says. But more than that, he wants to demonstrate perseverance. "It makes me work harder every day to make the best of myself for them, too," he says. "To show them that they have to work hard and then they can reach their goals, no matter what."
Now that he's healthy and back in baseball, there's room to once again watch Profar and imagine the possibilities. "I don't know why you'd possibly write this guy off," Daniels says. "He's 23 years old, he can hit, he has tremendous makeup, he can defend. Isn't that what you're looking for?"
Perhaps Profar can be Andruw Jones on the field and Hensley Meulens in his post-playing career, teaching major leaguers how to sharpen their swings. He still has the talent, if everything breaks right, to be an All-Star many times over. Dream bigger, and he could still become the first Curacao player in the Hall of Fame. He's that good, and we still know so little about how great he might still be.
"Sky's the limit," Profar says. He punctuates it with a smile.