Cuba's Thompson pursuing dream with Astros
Infielder could be first Cuban to play for Houston since 1978
VIERA, Fla. -- He's about as much of a blank slate as you could find in Spring Training, a Cuban national with the last name of Thompson and no professional stats. Very few in the organization knew anything about him, much less had even had a chance to lay eyes on him before this year.
Jose Carlos Thompson, a second baseman, is in Major League camp as a 23-year-old eager to get his pro career under way, hoping the long road to the United States results in him becoming the first Cuban-born player to appear in a game for the Astros since Oscar Zamora in 1978.
He has a long way to go to reach his dream, but he's already well into his journey.
"It's always been my dream, and I want to keep going forward to see what happens," said Thompson, who can speak English but felt more comfortable conducting an interview with the assistance of an interpreter.
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Thompson was signed in January out of the Astros' Dominican Academy by special assistant to the general manager Felix Francisco, who oversees Latin American operations, for $250,000. The signing came with the stipulation Thompson would get an invite to Major League Spring Training, which is something general manager Ed Wade is typically reluctant to do for first-year players.
"But there was no getting around this one," Wade said. "The fact is he's done pretty well in camp and has had some opportunities here and gotten some exposure. At some point, we'll send him back to [Minor League camp] and let him fall into what's beginning to become a pretty good mix of young infielders."
So little is known about Thompson's background; his bio in Houston's media guide is rather sparse. It mentions his one season of organized baseball in the U.S., hitting .440 in 59 games for Western Oklahoma Junior College, but the rest remains fuzzy.
Thompson says he played baseball throughout his youth and eventually found his way to Boston at 20 years old when his father, a former Cuban sprinter who has lived in the U.S. for 15 years, became an American citizen. He briefly held jobs at a bakery and Western Union before his fate changed one day.
"I was getting bored and went to the cages and started hitting and people starting watching me," Thompson said.
Among those impressed were some Dominican nationals, who urged him to go to the island nation and try out for the various clubs who have academies there. Thompson spent some time in the Dominican, but he decided to go to college to make himself eligible for the Draft.
In his one season of organized baseball, he hit .440 in 59 games, with 10 home runs, 62 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. He returned to the Dominican and began trying out for a handful of teams. Thompson walked into the Astros' academy seven times for tryouts before catching the eye of scouting supervisor Rafael Belen.
"We kept him in the academy for a week, and we had a chance to see him compete against better competition," Francisco said. "That really helps when you're going to make a decision about a guy who is over 20 years old and you don't know much about his history. We followed him for a while."
Thompson's previous representatives were originally asking for a signing bonus of $5 million, Francisco said, before he was forced to lower his demands to a more reasonable number. Francisco and the Astros didn't back down in their interest.
"It wasn't a tough sell," said Francisco, who last year signed Dominican outfielder Ariel Ovando for a club-record $2.6 million bonus. "Ed Wade is the kind of boss, he's going to trust the people he has working for him, and that's what he has done with us."
Thompson was signed on Jan. 24 and has had limited playing time in Major League camp.
"Felix talked about the plus bat speed, and we've seen that," Wade said. "Felix saw him at shortstop and thought he profiled more as a second baseman. He's shown good hands and pretty good range and seems to run pretty well. It's all short snippets. It's all pretty much drills we're looking at. We've liked what we've seen so far, and it certainly looks like he'll go to the other side [Minor League camp], and we'll pay a lot of attention to him going forward."
Thompson still keeps in touch with his family in Cuba, and even spoke to his mother last week.
"They're all crazy to see me," he said. "Everybody is so happy I got a contract with a Major League team."
How the story finishes is up to Thompson. Because of his age, he could play his first season of professional baseball at high Class A Lancaster or Double-A Corpus Christi. All he knows is he's one step closer to his dream.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.