MESA, Ariz. – Cubs reliever Pedro Strop signed with the Rockies in 2002 as a 16-year-old shortstop. Being a shortstop is a big deal in the Dominican Republic, where he was born. It’s the position kids grow up wanting to play. If there’s a spot that’s a stage unto itself, one of graceful movement and self-expression, it’s shortstop.
But in the early years of Strop’s minor-league journey, his hitting lagged far behind his fielding. And one aspect of his fielding ability stood out like the barrel on a tank: his arm.
After the 2005 season, the Rockies approached him about becoming a pitcher.
“My arm was getting more attention than anything,’’ he said. “So they said, ‘We’d better put this guy on the mound and see what’s going on.’ I was like, ‘What do you want me to do? OK, let’s do it.’ ’’
That response was unusual for a young ballplayer. Tony Diaz, then the hitting coach of the Rockies’ rookie-league team in Casper, Wyo., told him so.
“He said, ‘I’m pretty sure with that attitude that you just showed, you’re going to make it,’ ’’ Strop said. “He said, ‘Some guys are like waah, waah, I don’t want that. You’re like, OK, let’s do it.’
“I thought, ‘If pitching is what I’m capable of doing, let’s go.’ ’’
“Let’s go’’ almost captures Strop’s enthusiasm, but not quite. “Let’s go, all of us, together’’ is more like it. He builds teammates back up after their struggles. He entertains them tirelessly. Despite all the best efforts of professional sports teams to create leaders, you really can’t teach what Strop has inside him.
“He makes you happy to be here,’’ Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. said. “He’s been around long enough. If you’re having a bad day, he’s the guy to come talk to you no matter what the situation is and tell you, ‘Hey, your better days are coming.’ He’s a real motivational speaker.’’
Strop is known for his tilted cap and splashy wardrobe, but he’s way more substance than style. He’s the one who told Cubs infielder Javy Baez that his frustrated bat flip and lazy trot to first base after a pop-out last season against the Pirates were unprofessional. He’s the one who joyously sprinted from the bullpen and high-stepped down the third-base line with Kris Bryant after Bryant hit a game-winning homer against the Giants in 2015.
“I like to be myself anywhere I go,’’ he said. “That’s what I’ve done here, just being myself. I’m pretty much a positive person. I like to win. I like to compete. I like to transmit that to my teammates in the clubhouse. I consider myself really energetic, and I think you need that in a clubhouse. It’s a lot of games, and sometimes you see guys who are tired, it’s an early game, a 1 o’clock game, all that crap. So you need a guy to kind of wake you up.’’
He doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about his approach. It’s not calculated. It wasn’t learned from a self-help book. It’s just him.
“I make them laugh,’’ he said. “Sometimes I play good music. Sometimes I talk about positive stuff. It’s what I do naturally. Sometimes when I see a particular guy that’s down because something happened, I have the ability to go over there and say, ‘You know what? You’ve got to work. That’s in the past. Let’s just do it now. Let’s do it today.’ ”
This is a guy you want to follow. This is a guy you can’t help but follow.
He figures to be the Cubs closer to start the season while Brandon Morrow continues to rehab after offseason elbow surgery. Whatever the team wants from him, he says, shrugging.
“I never let anybody get in my mind about roles and stuff like that,’’ he said. “I never pay that much attention to roles. If they put me in in the sixth inning, I’m not thinking, ‘This is the sixth.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this guy out to give my team the opportunity to win.’
“So, the closer role – to see it, to watch it and the pressure of the game is fun. Pitching when you know it’s the last out of the game or pitching in the eighth when you know the closer is coming to finish that game, it’s fun. But when you’re pitching, you’ve just got to go compete and just forget about roles and forget about anything. So that’s me right there. Roles are not where my priority is.’’
Closer is where the big money is in the bullpen. Strop, 33, will make $6.25 million this season. Morrow’s deal pays him an average of $10.5 million a year. The best closers make $19 million a year.
“When you’re already making money, you don’t even think about it,” Strop said. “When you’re young and you get in the big leagues, you do think about money, like, ‘I’ve got to do good. I’ve got to make money.’ But then you make the money, it’s just about winning and competing.’’
Not everybody in pro sports has that attitude. In fact, lots of people don’t have that attitude at all.
“They should,’’ he said. “They should because if you go to the mound thinking about money, it’s going to be tough. When you have a team pointing in the same direction, which is to just win the baseball game, the results are going to be better. I truly believe in that.’’
Strop will continue to wear his flashy clothes and amuse his teammates. And when he enters the clubhouse, it will continue to be a show.
“The guys are always like, ‘Wooooooo, hey, wow, man, what you wearing today? What’s the shoes?’ he said. “They’re always asking questions. I love my boys, man. They’re fun.’’