LOS ANGELES — Most of left-hander Jesus Luzardo’s family is Venezuelan, but he was born in Peru, where his family lived for a couple years, drawn there by his father’s job. He moved to South Florida when he was a year old, and as he grew up playing baseball, his family would tease him: As far as they knew, no one born in Peru had ever made the major leagues before.
“They were saying you should be the first,” Luzardo said. “Messing around with me about that and how I could do advertisements in Peru.”
Luzardo’s representatives checked with the league, which had no record of a Peruvian-born player ever playing in the big leagues. In fact, they could not find a Peruvian-born player drafted since 1990. The Nationals chose the 18-year-old in the third round of this year’s draft. Though he was committed to Miami, he opted to go pro, passed a physical, and signed his deal with the Nationals Monday for a signing bonus of $1.4 million, according to a person familiar with the situation. His slot, the 94th overall pick, was assigned a value of $635,800.
Luzardo, listed at 6-feet-1, has a fastball in the low-90s and was one of the most highly touted high school left-handers in the draft before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late March. Until his injury, most draft prognosticators projected him as a first-round choice.
“It was definitely tough, but it was probably just that one tough day,” Luzardo said. “After that, I got a lot of support from my family, and it was kind of just like, ‘I got to get past it. There’s nothing I can do now.’ I just had to move forward.”
Instead of returning to Miami, he decided to go pro. He will report to the Nationals in Viera on Tuesday, and will continue his rehab under the Nationals’ supervision — an opportunity that played into his decision to go pro in the first place.
“Being drafted by the Nationals, they’re a great team,” Luzardo said. “And they’ve had a lot of great pitchers come back after Tommy John.”
Luzardo is not throwing yet, just strengthening, but knew exactly when he was told he could begin playing catch: July 12, about 3 1/2 months after surgery. He joins a long list of high-profile Nationals picks who fell in the draft because of injury — Lucas Giolito, Erick Fedde, etc. Should all go well with his rehab, the Nationals could have snagged a third first-round talent without having to use one of their first-round picks.
Luzardo looked up to several Venezuelan players as he was growing up, particularly former Twins Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, a regular-sized guy who still made it in the majors.
“He knew how to pitch. He would never back down for anyone. He was a pitchability guy,” Luzardo said. “He was about my height now. He wasn’t one of those guys who was 6-7.”
Luzardo uses a four-seam fastball, slider, curve, and relatively new change-up. He said he had to learn how to pitch, as opposed to overpowering hitters, because he was never the biggest guy on the team, never the hardest thrower. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said immediately after the draft that his scouts gained a good understanding of Luzardo’s approach and work ethic, and were comfortable with both.
Luzardo was comfortable with the Nationals’ approach to Tommy John surgery, too, though he said he did not have contact with them before the draft, just during it. For now, Luzardo will begin his work in Viera this week, though he likely will not make his in-game debut until the 2017 season. When he does, he will be the first Peruvian-born minor leaguer in the system, and will carry hopes of being more.
“[Being the only Peruvian player] just makes me want to work harder,” Luzardo said. “and to make it to the major leagues.”
— BHSC (@BHSCouncil) June 20, 2016
The Nationals officially announced Luzardo’s agreement Monday afternoon, along with those of 22 others in their draft class. According to the release, the Nationals have signed all but two of the players they selected in the first 10 rounds. Their second first-round choice, Dane Dunning, is still active in the College World Series with the University of Florida, but has said he expects to sign quickly. Fourth-round choice, former Texas A&M outfielder Nick Banks, has not yet agreed to a deal. Twelfth-round choice, highly regarded Texas Tech left-hander Hayden Howard, is also still active in Omaha. Find the complete list of those players signed (in bold) below.