Contreras vies for spot in Bucs' bullpen
By Rob Biertempfel
Published: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 7:12 p.m.
BRADENTON, Fla. — A recent trip back to Cuba gave Jose Contreras a measure of emotional healing. Now, he can focus on his physical recovery in a bid to win a job in the Pirates' bullpen.
The veteran right-hander reported to spring training Sunday after signing a minor league contract. Contreras, 41, had Tommy John surgery June 20 to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament and a torn flexor-pronator.
“I feel good,” Contreras said through translator Heberto Andrade. “I've thrown three times off the mound without pain. I need to keep doing my rehab, and time will tell. My arm will tell when I'm ready, and then I'll go from there.”
Despite having two operations on his right elbow in a span of 10 months, Contreras has put up decent numbers. Over the past three seasons, Contreras had a 3.74 ERA and a 1.233 WHIP, and he averaged 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
“When he was healthy in 2011, we had reports that his stuff was as good as ever,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “If he gets back to where he was, he can be a very productive member of our bullpen.”
After playing catch with Contreras on Sunday morning, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas offered an upbeat report.
“His stuff was very good,” Rojas. “He's getting there. I think he's going to be back 100 percent.”
In October 2002, Contreras defected while playing in a tournament in Mexico. After a game against the Dominican Republic, Contreras flew to Tijuana and drove across the border to San Diego.
Contreras originally signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the New York Yankees. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 2004 and also has played for the Colorado Rockies (who converted him to a reliever in 2009) and the Philadelphia Phillies.
As he adjusted to life in America, Contreras endured bouts of depression. He left his wife and two daughters behind in Cuba, and he was forced to “attend” his father's funeral by telephone.
“At the beginning, when I got here to the United States, I hoped I could go back to Cuba,” Contreras said. “But time passed, and I began to think it wasn't going to happen.”
However, Cuba recently reformed its immigration laws to allow defectors to return. Contreras was the first pro athlete to take advantage, visiting his hometown of Las Martinas, Pinar Del Rio, in January.
“I was so excited to be there with my family,” Contreras said. “Unfortunately, I had to go there because my mom has some health problems. She is recovering, little by little. It was great for me to get back again with my family, friends, people I played with and most importantly, the fans. It's one thing to (dream of) it, and another thing to be there again.”
Rojas fled Cuba in 1994, sailing in a makeshift raft until he was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Rojas said he might not return unless the communist government is thrown out of power.
“I am an American citizen and very proud of it,” Rojas said. “I would love to go back to Cuba, but with the government there, I would want to go as an American. The government says any of us who goes back has to go as a Cuban citizen. In my heart, I can't do that. I respect everybody else's opinion, but I have mine.”
Contreras said it looked as if Cuba hasn't changed much in the decade he's been away. After making more than $67 million in the big leagues, he still believes his choice to become an exile was the right one.
“I have no regrets,” Contreras said. “It was the best decision I ever made in my life, to come here and play in the best baseball league in the world. I'm so happy I made the decision.”
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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