Plenty of people are surprised Jonathan Aro is in the major leagues, but perhaps none more than Aro himself.
The Dominican righthander, who made his big league debut Thursday, represents arguably the most improbable Red Sox to reach the big leagues since Daniel Nava. After all, when he awaited word about whether the Red Sox would sign him, Aro had already recognized the arrival of a crossroads.
“After my tryout that I had for Boston, I told my mom, ‘If it doesn’t work out this time, if I don’t get signed by them, this is probably it for me in baseball,’ ” Aro said through translator Adrian Lorenzo on Thursday. “Luckily, things turned out differently.”
Still, when Aro signed, he admits he didn’t think it was realistic to imagine a prospect path that would lead him all the way to the big leagues. The reality of his circumstance told him that he looked like an afterthought, that his greatest opportunities had already come and gone, giving him reason to consider a different career path.
At 20, Aro was considering studying medicine, which would have been the natural alternative to baseball given that health concerns nearly denied him an opportunity to pitch. As a 17-year-old, he worked out for teams and believed the Dodgers were likely to sign him. But that path closed when he contracted Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus that resulted not only in a 22-day hospitalization but also pushed off the idea of pitching.
Those who fall victim to Dengue develop immunity, but only to the specific strain from which they suffer. And so, two years later, the fates again seemed to align against a baseball career when, at 19, Aro again required another hospital stay for treatment, this time for 16 days. And so, in an international market that typically confers hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars upon 16-year-olds, Aro found himself, at 20, thinking he was more likely at the end of his baseball career than the beginning.
But in 2011, the Red Sox and then-VP of international scouting Craig Shipley identified a pitcher who was physical, had a good arm, and threw strikes. The Sox took a flyer on him.
Aro signed for $10,000, and recognized that such a modest sum stacked odds against him. Though the pitcher’s hopes were raised, they remained measured. Asked if he thought, at the time he signed, he might reach the big leagues, Aro was candid.
“No,” he said. “First of all, I signed as a 20-year-old. Secondly, I signed as a $10,000 guy. Thirdly, all the guys who signed in my class were high-dollar guys. I thought I was at the low end of the priority list. So, in short, no — I didn’t think this was attainable.”
But he threw well enough to advance in the Red Sox system. While working primarily as a late-innings piggyback starter, few took notice as he moved through short-season leagues — from the Dominican to the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League to Lowell — even as he posted strong ERAs (a 2.14 mark in Lowell, for instance), along with solid strikeout and excellent walk rates (7.8 strikeouts and 1.6 walks per nine from 2011-13).
But finally, in 2014, he started to open eyes. Moved for the first time, as a 23-year-old, to full-season levels against more advanced competition, Aro continued to show the ability to get swings and misses while working aggressively with a 91-94-mile-per-hour fastball, an offering he complements with a changeup and slider that opposing hitters likewise struggled with. He split last year between Single A Greenville and High A Salem, dominating in both leagues with a combined 2.17 ERA with 10.1 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings.
He stayed below the radar of other organizations (he was Rule 5 eligible last winter). Sox officials quietly touted a pitcher who had late-innings potential based on his willingness to attack the strike zone and get swings and misses with a fastball that hitters just didn’t pick up. The stocky 6-foot-1-inch righthander earned some comparisons to longtime late-innings pitcher (and former Red Sox minor leaguer) Rafael Betancourt.
“I hate to use the term sneaky fast, because once you’re up to 94, there’s nothing sneaky about it anymore. But he’s got such a compact delivery,” Sox pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel recently noted. “He gets a good angle because he stays sideways longer. He has a relatively compact delivery. The ball gets on you. The hitter picks it up a little bit later than they do some other guys.”
Entering the year, Aro didn’t register prominently enough to garner a non-roster invitation in big league camp. But he dominated to such an extent in Portland (2.82 ERA, 19 strikeouts, 8 walks in 22⅓ innings, .181 opponents’ average, no homers) that he secured a promotion to Triple A. He was even better in Pawtucket, punching out 30 and walking just three in 22⅓ innings with a 1.61 ERA.
In 18 appearances and 44 minor league innings, Aro — a pitcher who through his age-23 season had never advanced beyond A-ball — managed to blitz his way through the upper levels for his major league debut on Thursday. Against the Orioles, in the Sox’ 8-6 loss, Aro was charged with a run on four hits while striking out two in 1⅓ innings. It wasn’t the linescore he would have wanted, but still, the day was about more than those details. Aro’s unlikely presence on the Fenway Park mound, the path from non-prospect who was ready to give up on the game to big leaguer, represented an exercise in defiance of labels and probabilities.
“I still can’t believe I’m actually here right now, especially given where I was last year, still pitching in Salem. Luckily, things worked out and turned out the right way. I was able to make quick stops at a couple different levels, learn some things, and thank God I’m here,” said Aro.
“I feel very proud of myself — proud of the job I’ve done and of the work I’ve done to get to this point. It’s been a long journey, but I feel like I’ve done my best to go about things the right way all the time. It feels that much better that I’m able to fulfill my mom’s dreams of making it to the big leagues one day. That’s a pretty awesome feeling.”Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.