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Christian Arroyo: Star In Waiting

What happens when your life doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Psychologically speaking, there are few things worse than the gnawing, simmering feeling that your life isn’t turning out the way you think it’s supposed to. That almost none of our lives turn out the way we think they’re supposed to is usually of little consolation. Sure, when you get older and you start succeeding at some things, and failing at others – and when you begin to see that, as it turns out, happiness isn’t really all that strongly correlated with success and failure after all - then you finally learn how to cope with this. You begin to see that random chance is essentially the driving force of life, and you learn that contentment stems from not only coming to terms with this, but embracing it. You stop worrying so much about success and failure at all, and instead try to orient each day towards a few simple goals that, as it turns out, make it a whole lot easier to go to sleep each night and wake up each morning: make some friends and talk to them every day; try something new every day; help someone every day.

But you don’t know these things in your striving, open-road twenties, when it can feel like every day that you’re not in the place where you think you’re supposed to be is a lost day, slowly leading you towards a lost life. You’re wrong about this, but it can be almost impossible to feel anything else.

All of this is to say, I wonder how Christian Arroyo deals with the reality that, at 27-years-old, he is not, as he was supposed to be, one of the best players in baseball.

Christian Arroyo grew up a baseball prodigy. This is largely true of every Major Leaguer, but even amongst that group he stood out. As a 17-year-old, he dominated the Under-18 World Baseball Championships in South Korea, earning tournament MVP honors while playing for a team loaded with early-round draft picks and future big leaguers. As an 18-year-old high school senior in Brooksville, Florida, he hit .524 with 11 homeruns, was the runner-up for the state’s Mr. Baseball title, and was named the Class 5A Player of The Year by the Florida Dairy Farmers. And he did all of this while graduating as class salutatorian. (Side note: I love that the Florida Dairy Farmers are evaluating high school baseball players, and I’d be interested to hear their assessments on a whole host of other random things.)

When the draft came around, many teams expressed concern about his small stature and lack of speed, but there was no question about his talent. The Giants picked him 25th overall and sent him to rookie ball where, as he’d done his whole life, he once again dominated, finishing the year as the Arizona League MVP. After tearing through the minors (he slashed .439/.471/.682 during his first stint in AAA, which is probably what Rafael Devers’ line would look like if he played in Worcester right now) he made his big league debut at age 22, notched his first career hit off of some guy named Clayton Kershaw, and then collected his first homer the very next day.

He was humbled over the next month, because that’s what Major League pitching does to almost every 22-year-old, and when Hunter Pence returned from injury, the Giants sent him back to the minors for more seasoning. But even still, he had to be feeling good about where his life was heading. He was a former first-round pick, the Giants #2 prospect, and someone who’d already proven he could hang in against the best pitcher of his generation. Christian Arroyo had every reason to think his life was going to turn out exactly the way he wanted it to: he was going to be a star.

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Five years later, it’s pretty clear that Christian Arroyo is not, has not been, and likely will never be one of the best players in baseball. But in light of how those five years proceeded – basically one metaphorical slap in the face by fate after another – Arroyo would have every reason to believe that it isn’t a lack of talent that has held him back.

Just one week after he returned to AAA after his stint with the Giants, Arroyo was hit in the hand by a pitch from Mets prospect Ricky Knapp. It wasn’t a big deal, negative x-rays and all that, but he was put on the IL for precautionary reasons anyway. When he returned, though – in his very first game back no less – he was hit in the same hand again. This time it was a big deal. The pitch broke his third metacarpal (the best metacarpal according to the Florida Dairy Farmers) and he missed the rest of the season.

He’d retained enough of his prospect luster to headline the Giants’ offseason trade for Evan Longoria a few months later, but his next season under Rays VP of Senior Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom was a disaster. He made three separate trips to the IL, was given just 16 starts with the big league club, and then had his season ended by a hit-by-pitch again – this time getting drilled in the head and suffering a concussion.

When the 2019 season started, Arroyo was now two years removed from the days when he was homering in the Majors as the Giants top hitting prospect. Two lost years that had to have him wondering what else could possibly go wrong, how much longer it would take him to get where he was supposed to be in life. And then he played that year like he could make up for that lost time with every swing he took. He hit 8 homeruns in his 33 games with AAA Durham, he slashed .314/.381/.603, and he had one absurd 7-RBI game against Louisville. The Rays couldn’t justify keeping him in the minors after that, and when they recalled him to the big leagues two days later, he immediately homered in back-to-back games. Here he was – finally – exactly where he was supposed to be . . .

. . . and that’s when he went down with his third straight season-ending injury a week later. A forearm flexor strain. At least it wasn’t a hit-by-pitch this time.

The Rays had seen enough. The former top prospect who’d once been traded for a perennial All-Star was now dumped to Cleveland for an A-ball lottery ticket and international bonus pool money. He had a promising spring for the Indians a few months later – Terry Francona seemed excited about his power and versatility – and then a global pandemic shut the entire world down. The minor leagues never reopened, and Christian Arroyo’s comeback season was over before it ever began. There were no more trades this time. The Indians released him outright after he made just a single one-inning appearance as a defensive replacement. He would only have one more chance, this time with the last place Boston Red Sox.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Christian Arroyo hasn’t been a star with the Red Sox, for much the same reason he wasn’t one with the Giants and Rays: injuries and circumstance. But he’s been good. On a per-start basis last season, he actually produced more value by bWAR than every Red Sox position player outside of Xander and Kiké. He’s proven that he belongs. But moreover, every now and again he has a game like last night’s, and he reminds us that, not only does he belong, but that he’s actually damn good.

Last night against the Braves, Christian Arroyo was a star. Few people will notice or care – because anything can happen in one game, and because the Sox lost again anyway, and because with all the controversies and issues swirling around the team right now, no one really has time to discuss the production of a utility infielder – but he was one of the best players on a field filled with World Champions, award-winners, and big money superstars. Upon seeing him hammer a home run to one of the deepest parts of the ballpark, or lace a game-tying double, many Braves fans (along with plenty of casual Sox fans who may call him Bronson) probably wondered where the hell that performance came from. Christian Arroyo, on the other hand, probably wondered where the hell it’s been all along. Because the talent’s always been there, bubbling under the surface, waiting for a chance to erupt.

At some point over the next couple of years, his terrible run of bad luck is going to end. Christian Arroyo is going to find himself healthy and with an everyday job. In April, he’s going to come out of the gate strong with four homers over the course of the month. In May, the hometown fans of whatever team he’ll be playing for are going to start saying things like “he’s a good little player, isn’t he?” In June, someone in your fantasy league will pick him up off waivers and then stomp you head-to-head and you won’t understand how it happened. In July, his name will start popping up in articles about the All-Star Game and fans of the Giants and Rays will pause, pull up his Baseball Reference page, and say “hold on, that Christian Arroyo?” And by October, he’ll have put up a 4-5 win season on a surprising contender and people will compose tweets about a utility infielder who came out of nowhere and say “wow, you really can’t predict baseball.”

When that happens, Christian Arroyo’s life will finally be right where he figured it was supposed to be all along. Where it heads after that, he’ll have no idea. But by then, hopefully he’ll have figured out that that’s kind of the whole point.