AMARILLO, Texas – The San Diego Padres gave Cuban outfielder Jorge Oña a $7 million dollar signing bonus in 2016, second only to the $11 million his Cuban national teammate, lefthanded pitcher Adrian Morejon, received. Both cost the Padres twice as much because of penalties.
When we talked to Baseball America’s Ben Badler about that record-setting international class, he described Oña as having “a fairly traditional skill-set.” Based on seeing Oña as an 18-year-old, Badler saw him as “an average runner but [he] has a compact, powerful swing. He has plus power and should be a guy who could hit 20 or more homers in a season.
“He projects a right fielder with good athleticism and a plus-arm,” said Badler at the time. “He has plus bat-speed as well. He is definitely an interesting player to watch.”
Oña’s first two years with the Padres were largely unremarkable. He slashed .277/.351/.405 in Low-A Fort Wayne and only .239/.312/.380 in an injury-plagued year in High-A Lake Elsinore in 2018.
Things had seemingly turned around in his first month at Double-A Amarillo this spring. The 22-year-old was hitting .348/.420/.539 before he landed on the Injured List at the start of May. At the time, the organization hoped that his shoulder pain would be a brief detour for Oña, who also missed time with an assortment of nagging maladies and freak injuries last season. But 40 days later, Oña has not yet rejoined his squad.
“I feel better physically and have been working on my hitting,” said Oña through an interpreter just before he got waylaid. “ The past two years I had a lot of nagging injuries that weren’t enough to keep me out of the lineup but didn’t let me perform the way I wanted to.”
This year, the player and team have opted to let him get fully healthy, rather than trying to play below his peak.
Three years after Badler gave his initial scouting report, a couple of things have shown themselves to be true. One, when healthy, Ona has a very good idea of the strike zone and can do some damage to the baseball. Two, he is limited defensively to left field and does not have the arm to play right.
“He’s a big strong kid and we want to see what he can do with a full season where he is healthy,” said his manager Phillip Wellman.
“He’s been very diligent with his maintenance program with his back, hips, and shoulders. He is constantly working on it. Defensively he’s working on it. He puts in his work and is doing everything he can do to get better.”
One of the things that make so many scouts excited about Oña offensively is the combination of patience and power.
“[It’s] just knowing my zone where I can do damage has always been important to me,” said Oña. “So I have always tried to swing where I can do damage. It is what helped me to be selective. I know that I have to swing at a pitch in my zone.”
While many Dominican players come of age in controlled, skill-specific camps, the Cuban players the Padres signed in 2016 — Morejon, Michel Baez, Ronald Bolanos, Osvaldo Hernandez, Ramon Perez, and Oña — are all veterans of the Cuban national team and grew up under extensive and intensive coaching and games against international competition.
“That is something you always work on,” Oña said about developing his superior strike zone judgment. “Right now I’m working with [Sod Poodles hitting coach Raul] Padron, on swinging at pitches that I can do damage with. My success will come from having that philosophy.”
In order to become a viable option in San Diego, Oña will have to improve his defense in left field, a fact that he is well aware of.
“I’m trying to become more fluid and improve all around,” he said on his progress in the outfield.
“He has some work to do out there and he knows it,” said Wellman. “But what you like to see is even if he makes a couple of errors out there, … he’s back out there the next day. He’s going to put in the work to get better every day.”