Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, one out. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes entered the half-inning trailing by four, and now trail 9-6. A sold-out crowd in attendance, who were stripped of Minor League Baseball in 2020, rise to their feet as the Quakes’ hottest hitter steps to the plate. After a hefty swing and miss on the first pitch, the 0-1 pitch is launched 450 feet into the night sky.
“Welcome to Southern California, big fella,” Quakes radio broadcaster Mike Lindskog shouts as the grand slam gives Rancho Cucamonga the 10-9 victory over the Stockton Ports.
Diego Cartaya has arrived.
“I was preparing myself from the on-deck circle. If I get an at-bat I am just going to look for one swing on a good pitch and make good contact. I went out, got a first-pitch fastball that I missed that I knew was my pitch. Then I got another fastball and I just hit it good,” Diego Cartaya recalls in an exclusive interview with FanSided. “For sure was the best moment of my career thus far.”
Long before the 20-year-old slugging catcher was hitting walk-off grand slams and capturing the imagination of the scouting community, he was a young baseball player coming up in Venezuela.
Signed by the Dodgers for $2.5 million in the 2018 international signing window, Cartaya was previously MLB.com’s top-rated international prospect. Now, he finds himself as the face of a prestigious Dodgers farm system as LA’s top prospect as well as being the 28th overall prospect in the sport, according to MLB Pipeline.
Cartaya recalls coming up as a baseball player in Venezuela as very similar to youth baseball in the United States, calling his upbringing playing baseball “one of the best times” of his life. Signing with an MLB team first became a reality for Cartaya as a teenager, but he never could have envisioned the success he has had thus far in his professional career.
“When I turned 14 or 15 I realized that I could sign with a team but I never thought that I would be a prospect or a really followed player,” Cartaya explains. “I thought that there was a chance I could sign with a team but I never expected it to be the Dodgers. I’m really thankful that I signed with this team.”
Dodgers’ Diego Cartaya thankful for 2022 opportunity
The walk-off grand slam, which was viewed over 40,000 times on Twitter and was covered by several media outlets, was the first propellant in Cartaya getting mainstream buzz. Cartaya backed up the buzz with a strong performance at low-A Rancho, slashing .298/.409/.614 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs in 31 games played.
Fans started making the 50-mile journey from Los Angeles to Rancho Cucamonga to see Cartaya in action. This was all new to the Maracay, Venezuela native.
“I’ve never had that kind of attention before. It was a nice moment and I was having a lot of fun here in Rancho, playing for the first time with an affiliate. It was pretty exciting,” Cartaya said.
The summer of Diego Cartaya did not last as long as some fans may have envisioned. Cartaya’s last appearance with the Quakes was on July 17, when Wladimir Chalo replaced him at second base as a pinch-runner. In classic Diego Cartaya fashion, his last plate appearance in Rancho was a screaming double.
Instead of being called up to High-A Great Lakes — which is the usual reason for a prospect’s departure from Low-A — Cartaya was actually dealing with a back and hamstring injury that shut him down for the rest of the 2021 MiLB season. The Dodgers sent Cartaya to the team’s Spring Training complex in Glendale, Arizona to rehab the injury.
Cartaya took the rest of the season and offseason to recover and was fully healthy to return to Arizona for the start of Minor League camp at Camelback Ranch.
The next time that Dodger fans would see Cartaya was in another viral social media video where he hit a monster home run off of big-league veteran Robbie Erlin in a live batting practice session on March 5.
“I feel great, the body feels good. I’m all good now,” Cartaya said.
Cartaya begins his second season in the Dodgers farm system in the same place that he ended his first — Rancho Cucamonga. However, this time he enters with a bigger spotlight on him as one of the best prospects in baseball. Cartaya is embracing the label of being the top prospect in the Dodgers organization, but he is not letting that change his mindset for the 2022 season and beyond.
“It’s a pleasure — the representability — because the Dodgers are the best team in MLB,” Cartaya said. “I just try to keep doing my work and not really think about it. I just want to go out, play, and have fun.”
But what makes Cartaya so likable is not his ability to hit walk-off grand slams, throw runners out at second base, or his ability to call a game from behind the plate; it is the way his eccentric play style and personality relate to younger fans.
Cartaya is perfect for this next generation of baseball fans because at the end of the day, despite being a highly-touted prospect in a talent-ridden organization, he is just a kid playing the game that he loves.
“I always say I am just a kid. I like to have fun and bring the energy,” Cartaya said. “I don’t want people to be afraid to talk to me. I’m always open to talk to the fans.”
The 20-year-old catcher’s number one goal for the 2022 season is to stay healthy and help his team win games, whichever affiliate team that might be. As far as making an MLB debut, Cartaya has not given himself an internal timeline or goal to strive towards.
“I just leave that to God. Let him be the one to say when is the right time to debut. Just wait for my time,” Cartaya explained.
Cartaya’s time may not be now, but it is coming down the horizon. While Will Smith continues to be one of the best offensive catchers in the league at the MLB level, if 2021 is any indication, Cartaya will be doing the exact same thing in the farm system.
Diego Cartaya will be back in action in front of the Rancho Cucamonga fans in the Quakes’ home opener on Tuesday, April 12.