Rosell Herrera’s journey to the Royals: A position change, $200 Uber ride and release

Kansas City Royals’ Rosell Herrera and Whit Merrifield celebrate scoring on a two run single by Lucas Duda in the first inning during Monday’s baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on July 23, 2018 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals’ Rosell Herrera and Whit Merrifield celebrate scoring on a two run single by Lucas Duda in the first inning during Monday’s baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on July 23, 2018 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Rosell Herrera sat in the back of a car driving up Interstate 71 to Cincinnati, Ohio.

He didn’t know the driver. He didn’t recognize the landscape. He barely had a clue what his future held.

But he did know this: The Reds needed him at Great American Ball Park the afternoon of April 26. After nearly a decade in the minors, his major-league debut awaited him some 100 miles from Louisville, Ky. All that stood in the way was this $200 Uber ride.

In more ways than one, the journey was long. Wrist injuries, a position switch and a change of organizations waylaid the dreams he conjured as a kid growing up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

But the detours didn’t stop there. A demotion back to the Reds’ Class AAA affiliate in Louisville followed after 13 at-bats in a month’s time. The Reds, then the worst team in the National League, cut him loose on June 1 less than two weeks later. The Royals, his third organization in six months, claimed him off waivers the next day.

Even after all that, Herrera sat smiling in the Royals’ clubhouse at Target Field on Saturday afternoon. He felt at home, he said. Like family.

“I feel really good, all thanks to God,” he told The Star in Spanish.

In two months in the Royals’ organization, Herrera has gone from career minor-leaguer to near-everyday starter. Entering Sunday’s series finale against the Twins, the switch-hitter had the team’s third-highest on-base percentage (.307), second-highest batting average (.269) and fourth-highest on-base-plus slugging percentage (.692) since June 17.

In a span of 35 games, Herrera has become a poster child for the Royals’ commitment to giving young players a chance to claim major-league roles. He’s even expanded on his initial role as an outfielder, starting four games at third base in the last week.

“Look at what Rosell has done,” manager Ned Yost said late last month. “He’s found himself playing just about every day now because he’s taken advantage of opportunity and produced.”

For a time it didn’t seem as though Herrera would have the chance. The Reds, who signed him as a minor-league free agent in November, took a long look at Herrera in spring training but opted to assign him to Class AAA during the final week of Cactus League competition. They told him they were impressed, he said, but he needed some time at Louisville first.

So Herrera, the son of a Yankees farmhand who never cracked the majors but encouraged his love for baseball, kept working. He’d done nothing but work since the Rockies signed him in 2009, first as a shortstop and then as an outfielder starting in 2015. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and third baseman Nolan Arenado were blocking Herrera’s ascent, so the team asked Herrera to move to center field. The transition was supposed to better his chances.

The switch would take three years to bear fruit. He was taken off the Rockies’ 40-man roster after the 2015 season. When the Reds picked him up, Herrera had hit free agency for three straight winters.

“I always saw myself as a player that could play one position and be good at it,” Herrera said. “Play shortstop and play well. God didn’t want it that way.”

Four years ago, Herrera played in the 2014 All-Star Futures Game at Target Field. He lockered in the same visiting clubhouse and hit in the same batting cage that seems smaller now. He was 21 years old and playing in the Class A-Advanced California League for the Rockies’ affiliate. Yet he felt close to a breakthrough.

A member of the Rockies farm system since signing with the team in 2009, he’d been a South Atlantic League All-Star the previous season. He had entered Baseball America’s top 100 prospects at No. 86 and owned a coveted spot on the 40-man roster after the 2013 season.

He didn’t expect the wrist inflammations that limited him to 275 at-bats in 2014. He didn’t expect to stall.

But by the time he joined the Royals on June 17 in Kansas City, Herrera had already made peace with his fortune: He wasn’t destined to be a franchise-type shortstop. He figured a backup role suited him. If he was lucky, he’d be a utility player.

“For me, it’s one more opportunity to be in the lineup,” Herrera said. “That’s the important part. I have the opportunity — I have the virtue God gave me to play up front and in the back. Not everyone can play that many positions. I try to take advantage of that.”

In the aftermath of Jorge Soler’s foot injury in mid-June, the Royals gave Herrera that chance. He’s done nothing but reward them since.

In the last 50 days, he’s ingratiated himself to a club that’s trying to find clarity for next season. Herrera has demonstrated ability to play with range and athleticism in the outfield — he robbed the Astros’ Alex Bregman of a home run in Houston in one of his first games for the Royals — and with dexterity in the infield. It won’t matter that next year’s outfield situation might be crowded by the likes of Brett Phillips, Jorge Bonifacio, Soler, Alex Gordon and Brian Goodwin. Herrera, just 25 and under long-term control, has transcended what appeared to be his initial value.

Six weeks ago, Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy stood in front of his locker in the visiting clubhouse in Minute Maid Park after Herrera robbed Bregman and hit a game-winning triple in a 1-0 victory over the reigning World Series champions. Duffy sung the praises of someone he called “Rosie.”

“Rosie … he’s a stud,” Duffy said on June 22, the night Herrera’s name began to mean something to a Royals fanbase witnessing the worst June in franchise history. “I’m a big fan of that kid. As long as he keeps playing like that he’s going to have a spot here. ... They gotta start buying his jerseys back in Kansas City as hard as he plays.”

Herrera had been with the Royals all of five days. He’d only flaunted his personality on the field by pulling his socks up high every game and sprinting to his position every inning.

Duffy’s strong directive seemed misplaced.

Not so much anymore.

“He’s very consistent with his personality,” Yost said. “I don’t see any fluctuations in moods or attitudes. He’s a tremendous worker, plays the game with a lot of energy and a lot of passion. He loves playing baseball. ... He fit right in.”