A year ago, when the Giants played a spring training game against the Rockies at Salt River Field, Jonah Arenado was on the Giants travel team, a chance for him to play in a game against his older brother, the Rockies All-Star third baseman Nolan. On the back fields at Salt River, Josh Fuentes, a cousin who grew up with the Arenado family in Lake Forest, Ca., working out with the rest of the Rockies minor leaguers.
It was a sign of respect for Fuentes.
The three are close, having grown up on the baseball fields together. Nolan was always the pacesetter, two years older than Fuentes and four years older than Jonah. He was always looking out for his cousin and brother, and that hasn't changed at the professional level.
A second-round draft choice of the Rockies, who in February signed an eight-year, $260 million deal that had the largest annual average value for a position player in MLB history until a month later when Mike Trout signed a 12-year, $430 million deal, did not want to overshadow his cousin. Nolan didn't want to see Josh thrown into constant comparisons to himself, and so publicly he was careful in bringing attention to Josh.
"We are close, and he's always been there, but he wants Jonah and me to be ourselves, and not feel outside pressures," said Fuentes. "He is excited when good things happen to us."
And good things happened for Fuentes on Saturday.
After a Saturday morning wakeup call from Rockies farm director Zach Wilson to inform Fuentes he had been called up to the big leagues, Fuentes packed in a hurry, threw his baggage in his car, and made the six-hour drive from Albuquerque to Denver.
"I told him to tell me a couple of times," said Fuentes. "I didn't think he was being serious. He told me to drive. I told him no problem."
Fuentes, the Triple-A Pacific Coast League MVP and Rookie of the Year last season, walked into the Rockies dugout in the second inning of Saturday night's game against the Dodgers, and by night's end, his MLB debut was over. He led off the eighth with sharp single through the left side off a 1-2, 85.6 mph slider off Dodgers right-hander Yimi Garcia.
"I got an at-bat and a knock and it felt awesome," said Fuentes. "I was in the on-deck circle (when the bottom of the seventh ended). I went to the cage and was pacing back and forth. I got in the (batter's) box twice. It's something I will never forget."
And when he got back to the dugout?
"When it's game time, Nolan takes things very serious, but he gave me a hug and said, `I'm proud of you,'" said Fuentes. "We will have plenty of time to talk."
It has been that kind of year for Fuentes, so far. He was on the big-league roster for the first time in his career only to suffer a broken hamate bone in his left hand before the first exhibition game was played, which led him to being among the first players sent to the minor-league camp.
"I didn't think I'd break camp with anybody," said Fuentes. "I thought I'd be in extended spring training, but I got into a few games (with Albuquerque) at the end of camp, and broke with (the Isotopes). In my first at-bat in Albuquerque, I hit a home run and two days later I got the call to the big leagues."
But really, there's not much of anything normal about Fuentes' baseball career.
Not only was he not drafted out of high school, he didn't even have any colleges trying to recruit him. He went to Saddleback Community College, and in his second year played baseball, hitting .335 in 170 at-bats, but only three home runs, a bit shy of power expectations for a third baseman. Fuentes, however, wanted to keep on playing so he wound up attending Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, and hit .365 in 61 games at third base, but again the lack of power (four) kept him from getting any attention in the first-year player draft.
The Rockies, however, had interest. Area scout Jon Lukens, who signed Arenado, had pushed for Fuentes late in that draft, and when he went undrafted, Lukens sold the organization on the idea that Fuentes was competitive, and wanted to play so they signed him, feeling if nothing else, his attitude and desire would be assets that could enhance his teammates in their big-league pursuit.
“Certainly, a lot of people could have drafted him,” said Wilson. “Obviously, we had him in there because of the Luekens relationship with the family. He was on our radar. We gave him a chance, and he took advantage of every opportunity that was given to him.
“It’s not like he was given the benefit of the doubt.”
At short-season Tri-City he hit .260 with one home run in 41 games in 2014, and the next year, at Low-A Asheville hit .292 with six home runs in 93 games.
"During the third year, I just decided I had to be myself," said Fuentes. "When I first signed, I wanted to be like Nolan. But I needed to be myself."
He hit a combined .353 with 13 home runs and 62 RBI in 384 at-bats between Low-A Asheville and High-A Modesto in 2016. A Double-A Hartford in 2017 he hit .307 with 15 home runs and 72 RBI in 414 at-bats. And in case people weren't taking notice, he woke them up in 2018 at Triple-A Albuquerque. He hit .327. He led the Pacific Coast League with 180 hits, 93 runs scored and 39 doubles; ranked second with 12 triples, third with 95 RBI and sixth with a .327 average.
The season did not go unnoticed. He became the first player in PCL history to be selected the league Rookie of the Year and MVP and earn MVP honors in the Triple-A All-Star Game against the International League.
“I always knew I could play,” said Fuentes. “I didn’t show it at first, but I knew I could. There was a point that third season when I went off. I was (California League) Player of the Week two weeks in a row. It made me believe in myself.”
“When I was at Tri-City, I tried to hit like Nolan, do everything like Nolan,” he said. “When I got to Modesto I was like, `I can’t go on trying to be someone I’m not. I have to be myself.’
“We’re very similar. But we also are very different. He’s very serious about everything he does, which is what makes him the way he is. I can’t do that. If I’m always locked in, always serious, I’d lose my mind. That’s what I tried to do at first. It drove me crazy.”
And then he allowed himself to emerge.
“In Modesto, I was kind of a joker, messing around,” said Fuentes. “That’s what helps me concentrate. I need to embrace that. The past couple of years I have, and I’ve had some success.”
Tim Doherty, his hitting coach the past two seasons, played a key role.
“One day, I’m in the cage (in Double-A Hartford) and I had my earphones on,” said Fuentes. “One of the coaches was there and said, `Hey man, you going to tell Fuentes to take off his stuff and lock in?’ (Doherty) said, `That’s how he locks in.’
“Him, letting me be myself gave me confidence. He gave me the reins to do what I needed to do to get ready.”
Fuentes, however, isn’t oblivious to the way the world is. He is getting a chance to create his own identity, but he also knows he will always carry the tag line, “Nolan Arenado’s cousin.”
He takes it as a compliment, not a pressure, not since he decided to be himself.
“Obviously the Nolan thing is hard to ignore, and everyone asks me about it,” said Fuentes. “It’s part of being his cousin and him being so awesome.”
It’s something that bothers Arenado more than Fuentes. He wants Fuentes to be recognized for being Josh Fuentes, not somebody’s relative.
“The media is going to bring it up, but that’s not fair to Josh,” said Arenado. “he has to be himself.”
And lately, he has done just that.
“It’s been awesome,” said Fuentes. “It’s been awesome to show people that I’m not just Nolan’s cousin. I have a name. I have a first name and last name.”
And he has a resume that says he’s a big-league player.