At just 17 years of age, right-hander Roniel Raudes took the mound in game two of the 2015 Gulf Coast League Championship series. He had pitched just four games for the GCL Red Sox since coming to the United States less than a month earlier.
Although he was one of the youngest players on the field, Raudes dominated the Blue Jays Rookie League affiliate, throwing five shutout innings while striking out seven and leading the Red Sox to a 1-0 victory and their second consecutive Gulf Coast League title.
“I was very nervous,” Raudes admits. “Before I got out to the game, I prayed and asked God to help me. I told Him that [the game] was for my family and for my people, the people of Nicaragua.”
Raudes hails from the city of Granada, a sleepy colonial-era town on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Even though it is a baseball-crazy country, Nicaragua has lagged behind other Latin American and Caribbean countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic in producing major league prospects.
Even with the success of players like Dennis Martinez, Marvin Benard, and Everth Cabrera at the game’s highest level, no MLB team has established a permanent academy to train prospects in-country and scouting of the country remains minimal. Due to the lack of baseball infrastructure, instruction, and development, only twelve Nicaraguans have ever played in the big leagues. Despite humble upbringings, Raudes aims to be the thirteenth.
“I did not always have equipment,” he says about his childhood. “But with my dad’s support, I had a glove and I had shoes. I never complained about it. The only thing that mattered was playing baseball.”
Even without access to proper baseball equipment growing up, Raudes was able to catch the eye of Boston Red Sox scouts with a fastball that can touch 93 miles per hour, an advanced curveball for his age, and a lanky frame (6’1″, 160 lbs) that will allow him to add velocity as he grows into his body.
Although Nicaragua has produced relatively few major league prospects, the Red Sox invested in his potential, giving him a $250,000 signing bonus at the age of 16. He was sent to the Dominican Summer League to develop but was quickly called up to the Gulf Coast League after striking out 63 batters and walking only two in 11 games in the DSL. He posted a 0.90 ERA in four starts for the Red Sox Rookie League affiliate after being called up, capping off his tremendous first season of professional baseball with his performance in the GCL championship.
Despite all of his success on the field, adjusting to life in the United States has been challenging for Raudes.
“I had to leave my family behind. It’s hard. It’s something that hurts every day I am in the United States. I spend the majority of the year here and only get to see them every seven months. I pray every day for the strength to keep fighting for them.”
Raudes has also struggled to adjust to speaking English and find ways to continue his education around his baseball career.
“The truth is, it’s very hard. I know almost no English. I study a lot just to learn a few new words every day,” he explained.
A lack of education and English-language skills are two of the most common challenges for Latin American and Caribbean baseball players who make it to the United States. Most top prospects from Nicaragua are trained in for-profit baseball academies that house, feed, and coach promising young players in return for a significant portion of their signing bonus, if they sign with a major league team. Education is often an afterthought to the academies, leaving players grossly unprepared to succeed when they arrive in America. It’s a pattern international scout Nick Holmes has seen play out too many times.
Holmes said, “The players are pulled away from their support systems and families. They’re expected to function in the United States where they don’t know the language, they can’t do simple math, they can’t ask for anything they need, and they don’t understand the instruction they’re receiving from their coaches. If they struggle, it’s figure it out or you’re gone, even if they don’t know what the coach is trying to ask them to do.”
Bob Oettinger, founder of the International Baseball Association, echoed Holmes’ sentiments.
“Most Nicaraguan players don’t speak English. Many have limited educations. I’ve heard stories from Nicaraguan players who played in the minor leagues who were so unprepared and intimidated that they spent all of their time away from the game in their hotel rooms and ordered the same food every day because they didn’t know enough English to vary their orders.”
Raudes remains optimistic despite his struggles culturally in the United States.
“This is a great experience. I feel really good with Boston. They have been really nice to me, taking care of me, and giving me confidence. When I signed with the Red Sox, I couldn’t sleep for days because I was so excited. This is a dream coming true.”
Raudes will continue his dream in 2016 poised to be a breakout prospect in the Red Sox system. Having already had success in the minor leagues at age 17 — an age at which American prospects are still playing high school ball — Raudes could make a quick ascension through the Red Sox’s system. MLB scouts have lauded his advanced control, potential to add velocity, and promising secondary pitches, predicting he could debut in the majors by the age of 22.
Raudes hopes to return to Nicaragua after his playing career to help more young players achieve their dreams of playing in the major leagues. In the meantime, he’s focused on the 2016 season.
He hopes to start the year in Lowell, with the Red Sox Short-Season A-ball affiliate and advance at least to the Red Sox Class-A affiliate before the end of the season. Given his tremendous success already in the United States, Raudes may exceed even his own expectations for the 2016 season.
“That is my goal, to have a great year, God-willing, and put up good numbers throughout my career.”