When Jose Carlos Urena was signed by the San Diego Padres in 2011 out of his hometown of Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, his power had blossomed into local legend.
The 16-year-old outfielder had the ability hit the ball out of the park to all fields and was known to deliver his share of tape-measure home runs. Anyone who had seen the lean 6-foot-3 hitting machine would tell you there was no limit to what he could do.
But Urena, now one of the Northwest League’s most talented outfielders, quickly found out the most important thing about being a professional baseball player sitting on all that power.
He had to control it.
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“When you start thinking about hitting home runs, they never come. They never come,” Urena said as he glanced out into the deepest part of Gesa Stadium before a recent Northwest League game. “Sometimes that would happen to me, but that doesn’t work because we are nine guys out there. More than nine guys. (There’s) the bullpen, 15 pitchers and 12 position guys, and everybody helps the team. You can’t be on your own.”
Urena hit .285 with six home runs and 33 RBIs in 57 games in his first pro season with the Dominican Summer League in 2012. The next season was productive as well with the Arizona League Padres, where he led the team with with nine homers and 34 RBIs while hitting .257. Things didn’t go quite as well in 2014, when he was promoted to the Eugene Emeralds. He hit .196 with the Ems and finished seventh in the NWL with 65 strikeouts depite playing in just 44 games.
Interestingly enough, he had one of his best series of the season against the Dust Devils in early June, going 4-for-12 with a pair of doubles and two runs scored in four games at Gesa Stadium.
“My third year was a struggle, but that’s when I started to understand what I needed to do,” Urena said. “I learn (a lesson) every day. The biggest lesson in baseball and life is to be humble.”
Based on his performance this year with the Tri-City Dust Devilsx, Urena seems to have developed his understanding of the game of how to help his teammates first and himself second.
His 2015 numbers tell the story of an all-star caliber player who can hit, run and field with the best of them. Urena leads the Dust Devils with four home runs, 30 RBIs and a .419 slugging percentage. He’s also tied for third on the team with a career-high five stolen bases. In 24 starts in left field, he has fielded 44 chances without an error.
“He has improved a lot on defense, because he’s willing to work at it,” said Tri-City hitting coach Marvin Benard, a former major-league outfielder himself. “I don’t think he understands that he hits better with two strikes. It’s a mindset to have the confidence to hit with two strikes and not want to hit the ball a mile when a half mile is good enough.
“He’s a young kid still learning those things. Eventually he’ll get there.”
Urena, 20, has also shown a keen batting eye, leading the Northwest League with 27 walks.
“The kid knows how to hit. He’s a big, strong guy who can do a lot of damage. For him, the key is staying within himself and not trying to do too much,” Tri-City manager Anthony Contreras said. “When he does that, he can be one of the best hitters in the league. We just want him to play his game. The stats and RBIs will come naturally.”
A big part of Urena’s success this year has been balancing the priorities in his life. His father, Jose Urena, was a baseball player in Mexico and a big influence in his career, as is his mother and three siblings, who encourage him every day.
“I have three things: My faith, my family and my work. Those are the most important things in my life,” he said. “I’m here because of God right now. (My faith) is going to be with me wherever I go. I’m not going to leave it in Tri-City when I travel to Spokane.”
In his four seasons of professional baseball, the Dust Devils are the first winning team Urena has played on, a circumstance he is enjoying immensely and with great pride.
“Everybody put something (forward) to make this team special and win the first half,” he said. “Winning the first half was important because we’re in the playoffs. But we can’t be comfortable, because we have another half coming. We want to be even better than we are now.”