Within the span of half an hour on Aug. 2, 2022, Yennier Cano’s life changed twice.
First, his wife, Arianny, told him she was pregnant. Cano had longed to be a father, and to that point, the couple’s efforts to have a child had been fruitless. The joy of the news was jolted by a phone call, one to inform Cano that the Minnesota Twins had traded him to the Orioles.
In summarizing his initial reaction to the trade, Cano offered an expletive, a word he felt captured both his bewilderment and disappointment at leaving behind the only major league organization he knew. Almost 10 months later, he views both events as blessings. Cano and Arianny’s son, Cristopher, was born in early March, and with Baltimore, Cano has broken out as perhaps baseball’s best reliever despite coming into this season an unknown 29-year-old with previously disastrous results in the major leagues.
The gifts in his personal and professional lives follow an odyssey in which he nearly quit baseball, had it temporarily taken away from him and overcame struggles within the game that was all he knew growing up in Cuba.
“Honestly, it’s beautiful,” Cano said through Orioles interpreter Brandon Quinones. “Something I’ve always dreamed of, something I’ve always wanted, and to be able to experience that now … It feels like a dream come true, to finally be able to be here.”
Cano’s breakout, with a 0.93 ERA in 23 appearances, is a credit to his perseverance. That it’s happening in Baltimore is a credit to almost every corner of an organization that has sought to create a collaborative environment that presents every player who joins it his path to success.
For Cano to reach the backend of the Orioles’ bullpen and be the dynamic pitcher he has been, it required a pro scouting group that identified Cano and advocated for his inclusion in a weighty trade, a general manager who executed it, a pitching department that worked with Cano to improve, and, perhaps most importantly, a player willing to soak up those suggestions who is now being rewarded for it.
“We’ve tried to keep our heads down,” pro scouting director Mike Snyder said, “and pull on the same rope.”
‘My entire life’
Despite being the only of the four pitchers the Twins sent to Baltimore for All-Star closer Jorge López who had already reached the majors, Cano was not considered the centerpiece of the trade. It wasn’t the first time in his baseball career he was overlooked.
In his early teens, Cano contemplated quitting the sport because teams in Cuba’s larger cities weren’t interested in adding a boy from the countryside who routinely dominated lesser competition. When the opportunity finally came in the capital of his native Ciego de Ávila province, he capitalized. On the other side of a required stint in the country’s military when he was 18, Cano became an effective reliever pitching in the Cuban National Series. In his age 20 and 21 seasons, he put up a 2.08 ERA in 156 innings.
Major League Baseball was a distant unknown. Success in his home country was what he had dreamed of.
“All I knew was baseball in Cuba,” Cano said. “That was my entire life.”
And then it was taken from him. After the death of his mother, Cano and Arianny asked the Cuban government for permission to leave the country. The request was denied, with Cano sanctioned and barred from playing baseball.
Each time he tried, government officials told him to stay off the field. He met with others around his neighborhood, hoping to throw with whoever he could and keep himself in shape for future opportunities.
In time, they came. With the sanction lifted, Cano and his wife moved to Argentina, with his work there leading to showcases in Miami and the Dominican Republic for major league teams.
“Leaving Cuba was out of necessity,” Cano said. “Obviously, for wanting a better life for me, for my family. And in some ways, it’s kind of like a challenge. After having pitched really well in Cuba, I wanted a new challenge for myself when it came to the world of baseball.”
Cano’s heritage remains part of how he pitches. After big outs, he stands tall with his legs spread apart and an intense stare. He acknowledges he “stole” the pose from Aroldis Chapman, another Cuban-born reliever.
Cibney Bello, the pitching coach for the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate, described Cano as “an amazing human” who he never had a complaint about in their two seasons together. The greatest challenge Bello faced working with Cano, he said, was getting him to understand he had the ability to justify his journey.
“To help him understand the sacrifice that he was doing being over here, someday it will pay off,” Bello said. “Now that he’s been in the big leagues, he’s providing better for himself for his family over here and over there in Cuba. It’s exciting because that was exactly what we were trying to help him see.
“It doesn’t surprise me. The guy, everybody knows that he had the stuff, that he had the talent, and it would be a matter of time for him to adjust and to click all of his ability.”
A delicate balance
As the Orioles’ front office discussed machinations of possible trades with the Twins last summer, Koby Perez, Baltimore’s senior director of international scouting, provided executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias with a reminder.
He had already seen one of the pitchers they were considering in the swap.
In April 2019, months after he had taken over Baltimore’s baseball operations department and launched it into a full-scale rebuild, Elias joined Perez for a trip to the Dominican Republic to watch Cano and another Cuban pitcher, Yosver Zulueta, in a showcase for major league teams. The organization was diving into the international market, and the pair of executives believed Cano had potential as a reliever. He ended up signing with Minnesota for $750,000.
Baltimore’s pursuit of Cano three years later had little to do with Elias’ brief look at him, with the GM referring to it as “just kind of a novelty.” Instead, he credited the Orioles’ pro scouting department.
Snyder said pro scouting analyst Ben MacLean slotted Cano highly on his list of potential trade targets from Minnesota, believing in his ability to generate ground balls and swings-and-misses. Ben Reed, another pro scouting analyst, and senior pro scouting analysts Will Robertson and Kevin Carter also pushed for Cano’s inclusion in any deal with the Twins.
“As the Jorge López trade increasingly felt like a genuine possibility, we kept coming back to permutations of the deal where Cano was a key component,” Snyder said.
The Orioles’ decision to trade López had significant implications. On the first two days of July, he blew save opportunities against the Twins, a rare blip amid his impressive transition to being a backend reliever after years as a middling starter. But the Orioles followed those losses with 10 straight victories, unexpectedly propelling themselves into the playoff hunt. Baltimore entered Aug. 2, the day of the trade deadline, one game above .500 and 2 1/2 games out of a postseason position.
Elias had elected to trade away fan favorite Trey Mancini the day before, though Mancini was a pending free agent without a long-term place in Baltimore. López could have remained an Oriole for two years beyond 2022.
“It was the first time in this job where — I think it was a good thing — but we were starting to have to balance, thread the needle a little bit in terms of short term versus long term,” Elias said. “To feel like we were subtracting from the short term in such a way was really, really tough.”
In sending López to Minnesota, the Orioles hampered their 2022 playoff chances in hopes of boosting those of 2023 and beyond. Along with Cano, they got back left-hander Cade Povich, who ESPN ranked this offseason among baseball’s top 100 prospects, and two young pitchers, Juan Rojas and Juan Nunez, who have pitched well in Low-A.
“I give Mike Elias so much credit for having conviction, that a difficult move like this, to trade Jorge López, could be the best for the organization,” Snyder said. “He was adamant that it would only happen if he felt the return coming back was clearly worthwhile. It was a challenge for us, for the office, for him, for everybody to have a package that we felt good about when pulling the trigger on a move like that.”
When the Orioles made the trade, they did so with the hope that Cano would emerge as a productive reliever, effectively supplying a salve to the hole left in the bullpen by removing López.
At the time of the trade, Baltimore’s relievers had a 3.05 ERA that ranked as the majors’ fourth best. In the two-plus months without López, they had a 4.39 ERA that was the sports’ ninth highest.
Cano himself was partly responsible for that jump. He had done well in his climb up Minnesota’s farm system, but with the Twins, he allowed 11 walks and 14 runs in 13 2/3 innings. With Baltimore, he was even worse, giving up nine runs while walking five in 4 1/3 innings, with major league hitters presenting challenges he didn’t face in the minors.
“You would throw pitches at the corners, and they wouldn’t swing,” Cano said. “They have a much better understanding of the strike zone.”
But the Orioles remained believers in his potential. As Elias often says, they go beyond what appears at the back of a baseball card in evaluating players.
“The wicked sink, the late action on the changeup, the slider utility, he’s unique,” Snyder said. “To paint it in broad strokes, it’s hard to find his combination of velocity and movement, especially from that arm slot. But we’re not just seeking out rarity for the sake of rarity. It’s only worthwhile if it’s effective, and he presented a very difficult look for hitters.
“It seemed like there could be another gear if you were able to harness his best reps.”
Not long after the trade, the Orioles’ pitching department — with director of pitching/pitching coach Chris Holt and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes in the majors and upper-level pitching coordinator/Triple-A pitching coach Justin Ramsey, minor league pitching coordinator Mitch Plassmeyer and player development analyst for pitching Adam Schuck in the minors — began working with Cano to keep his front shoulder closed through his motion, allowing him to throw his pitches in the zone and let their movement present the challenge.
He has issued only one walk this year with Baltimore. His sinker has the lowest average launch angle of any pitch in the American League, meaning it is routinely hit into the ground. Batters have struck out on his changeup more often than they have put it in play.
“Here’s a no-miss guy in terms of the stuff and the profile, so it’s really about, ‘Can we get him through the zone?’” Holt said. “As we’ve seen, when he does that, he’s very, very tough to hit.”
The scouting and development departments working in tandem is a core part of the Orioles’ processes under Elias; the amateur scouting department will often share information and video on draft prospects with minor league coaches in the lead-up to Baltimore’s selections, ensuring they feel any deficiencies are areas that can be addressed or improved.
“When we acquire a player — to use an old scouting term — we’re not just throwing them over the fence,” Elias said. “There’s some alignment there.”
Added Snyder: “The right hand needs to be talking to the left, and we’re proud. It’s always a goal that you’re searching for in an organization.”
But a key part remains the players’ willingness to adapt.
Finding his slot
Beginning with his first season in the Cuban National Series as a 19-year-old, Cano pitched from two arm slots. To left-handed hitters, he was more comfortable from over the top, where he threw with triple-digit velocity. When he dropped down from the side, though, he flashed the overwhelming sinker-changeup combination that has fueled his domination with Baltimore. But he often only used that slot when trying to catch hitters off guard, and after signing with Minnesota, he largely abandoned it.
During 2020′s lost minor league season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Cano was messing around with the lower slot at the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, Florida. Coaches who saw it were immediately fascinated, and after Cano showed them video of him pitching that way in Cuba, they encouraged him to continue to mix that look in.
He used both arm slots over the next two seasons and into this spring with Baltimore. But after giving up four runs while recording two outs in his second appearance of camp, he went to the Orioles’ pitching coaches and suggested abandoning the over-the-top slot.
“Thankfully, both sides were on the same page,” Cano said.
And both sides have benefited. Cano did not give up a run over his final five spring outings or his first three with Triple-A Norfolk after the Orioles optioned him to begin the season. Feeling a taxed bullpen needed a right-handed sinkerballer with Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens on the injured list, Elias called up Cano, and manager Brandon Hyde immediately thrust him into high-leverage spots.
“The last couple of appearances in spring training, when he was filling up the strike zone, you felt like, ‘God, if he could just do that,’” Hyde said. “We’re lucky to have him.”
Cano retired the first 24 batters he faced, tying a franchise record. His first 17 appearances featured neither a walk nor a run, two shy of the major league record to start the season. Of the 100 batters he has faced this season, 71 have either struck out or grounded out.
Since deciding to exclusively pitch from the lower arm slot, Cano been scored upon in only three of his 31 appearances across spring training, the minors and the majors.
“It really does speak to his determination level,” Holt said. “It’s fun to see a guy who we knew had the potential do what he’s done because I don’t know that anybody could have anticipated seeing what we’ve seen.”
The run of success has coincided with fatherhood; Cano’s rough spring outing was his last before Cristopher’s March 7 birth. He described being a dad as “the most beautiful experience that life has given me.”
Despite the craziness of Aug. 2, 2022, Cano, like the Orioles, is grateful for what it brought.
“Sometimes, they say change is good, and I’m really happy because, for me, that’s been the case,” Cano said. “Ever since I got here, things have changed for the better.”