SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You can watch Major League Baseball in Cuba. You just need to be careful who knows about it."I watched it a lot on TV," Jose Ruiz said. "But you have to be careful and hide it in Cuba. If they see you watching too many games on TV, they think you're going to leave. But I watched it every chance I could get." Ruiz dreamed of playing in the Major Leagues and, as a 6-foot-3, 225-pound first baseman, he has the talent to do it. He was a .330 lifetime hitter in the National Series, which is the highest level of baseball in Cuba. But he had a dream and decided to follow it. In July 2009, Ruiz slipped out of Cuba to the Dominican Republic -- leaving a child and wife behind -- with the intention of playing Major League Baseball.
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He is one of many players who have defected from Cuba to the United States with the desire to play in the Major Leagues."It's pretty tough," said Ruiz, who is trying to get his family out. "The worst thing is you leave your family behind and your life behind, knowing that you cannot come back. That's a big decision. I sacrificed my life to come here. I put everything on the line to be here." The Rangers want him here. They tried to sign him last season, but he went with the Rays instead. The contract was unusual. The Rays agreed to a one-year deal with a four-year, $4 million option that they had to pick up at the end of the season. They decided against it. That's when the Rangers swooped in and signed him in November to a similar deal. The club has a three-year option after this season. The money isn't as significant, but the Rangers have one season to decide if Ruiz has a future with the organization. "He's got a good-looking swing, and he's a big man," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "The question is how much power will he have?" The Rangers need power in their Minor League system. The strength of the farm system remains pitching, and the club has done well in acquiring athletic talent for up-the-middle positions. The Rangers' best position-player prospects are outfielder Engel Beltre and shortstops Jurickson Profar and Luis Sardenia. In 2010, the Rangers did not have any Minor Leaguer hitters rank in the top 100 in home runs or RBIs. While Mike Moustakas of the Royals and Mark Trumbo from the Angels tied for the Minor League lead with 36 home runs, Mike Bianucci was leading the Rangers' system with 18. "Those things are cyclical," Daniels said. "Right now, we're strong up the middle at premium positions. You need a balance, obviously, and we probably have less power than we do athleticism." The Rangers power took some hits last year. Justin Smoak, the club's No. 1 pick in the 2008 Draft and a premium power prospect, was the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee trade. That brought Mitch Moreland to the big leagues. Chad Tracy was having an excellent 2010 at Triple-A Oklahoma City and would have been among the top Minor Leaguers in everything until he injured a rib-cage muscle in July. He didn't play the rest of the season, finishing with 17 home runs, 55 RBIs and a .502 slugging percentage in 78 games. After his year was over, he had cleanup surgery on his right shoulder to alleviate some pain that had been bothering him for over a year. The Rangers also acquired first baseman Chris McGuiness from the Red Sox for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on July 31. But they still could use more offense in the system, and they moved aggressively when Ruiz became available in November. Ruiz has had four stops since his defection. He played for the Rays' summer-league team in the Dominican Republic and their Double-A team in Montgomery, Ala., of the Southern League. After the regular season was over, he played in the Arizona Fall League and the Puerto Rico Winter League. When finally done, Ruiz had played in 87 games with 325 at-bats, hitting .313 with 44 runs scored, 17 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 41 RBIs. His numbers, including a .428 slugging percentage, reinforce the scouting report that Ruiz is a disciplined, high-average gap hitter whose power potential is either unrealized or not there at all. "I signed late last year, but I was able to catch up and get some experience," Ruiz said. "I thought I did a pretty good job for the little bit of time I had." He can play left field but is primarily a first baseman. The Rangers have Moreland at the big league level with Chris Davis right behind him. Ruiz could end up at Double-A Frisco if Davis is still with the organization or at Triple-A Round Rock. Spring Training could determine much, and this may turn out to be nothing at all. But the organization has a need and the player has a dream. "I'm working hard to make the Major League team," Ruiz said. "I understand you have to start in the Minor Leagues. But whether I'm on the team or not, I'm going to try at one point to get to the big leagues."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.