One might expect that “Europe’s Best Prospect Ever,” as Baseball America suggested in the summer of 2013 (link), would be immediately distinguishable by his appearances or car, but Marten Gasparini is a refreshingly calm and focussed 20-year old. Despite being conscious of a nation’s hopes and expectations, the young Italian stands out more for his poise and maturity than his swagger.
Standing six-foot tall, Gasparini has a lean, well-defined physique, with muscular arms, his youth only betrayed by his stubble-less face and boyish smile. Four years ago, the native of far northeastern Italy signed the biggest contract by not only any Italian in history, but any player hailing from the entire European continent. Gasparini signed with the Royals in 2013, making his case with a memorable summer that included top performances at the Under-15 and Under-18 World Cups.
Gasparini’s $1.3 million (£990k, €1.09m) contract shattered Max Kepler’s $800,000 (£600k, €670k) deal with the Twins in 2009, beating his European record substantially. Like Kepler and the first players from Germany (Donald Lutz) and Italy (Alex Liddi) to make the major leagues, Gasparini attended his country’s national baseball academy, though unlike Kepler and Liddi, he was not a MLB Elite Camp selection.
The Royals started Gasparini with an aggressive assignment, placing him in the Appalachian League rather than the more usual Dominican Summer League or Gulf Coast League. Considering he signed while playing in a U18 world championship despite still qualifying for the U15 age bracket, Gasparini had preparation for older competition.
Gasparini split 2014 between the Burlington Royals of the Appalachian League and Idaho Falls of the Pioneer League. The results were mixed as Gasparini caught up with North American players with significantly more game experience, but he flashed all five tools. More than three years younger than the average player, Gasparini hit .228 in 23 games, though he did hit his first professional homer after his four-game promotion to the Pioneer League.
Though six steals and above-average range demonstrated his best asset, the speedy Gasparini committed 15 errors in his first year, a pattern that continued in 2015 with 35 miscues in 52 games. His bat, however, emerged, as he showed improved plate discipline and hit .259/.341/.411. Gasparini’s speed continued to be an asset as he beat out 10 triples, adding 26 base thefts.
Gasparini struggled in 2016 after the Royals showed not insignificant faith in the Italian, sending him to Lexington of the South Atlantic League (‘The Sally’). Though his performance in the field was less erratic, he had 48 errors in 107 games and a 58 percent success rate on steals. Gasparini also cut his strikeout rate, but his walks declined and his overall output showed his struggles to adapt to the full-season ball.
No doubt wearing down over his longest season, by far, as a player, Gasparini hit .196/.256/.293, somewhat disappointing even for someone two-and-one-half years younger than the competition. He did, however, pop seven home runs, an encouraging increase in power output.
The Royals, unsurprisingly, sent Gasparini back to the Sally this year and, at 20, he continued the pattern of being one of the youngest players between the lines. After three years at shortstop, however, Kansas City moved the Italian to the outfield, giving him a chance to adjust in a town in which he was familiar.
More after the jump…
We spoke to Italy’s most gifted prospect before a late-season game in Asheville, after which his Lexington Legends plated the first nine runners of the game and then narrowly held on to win, 12-11. Audio of the interview is available at our Soundcloud (link). Gasparini showed poise and maturity in his thoughtful responses, starting with an honest appraisal of his work over his career and where he stands now compared to when he signed.
“I think [that] repeating this year in Lexington has to do with the fact that the Royals are really aggressive with placing their players early on in their careers,” explained Gasparini. “This has happened before, with a few prospects that have been placed in Single-A, High-A, Double-A really early in their careers [facing] struggles. But it’s still part of the development process for the players because the worst thing that can happen is that you don’t do as well as you’ve planned and you repeat the year and you improve on certain things and I think that’s what happened to me this year.”
“I set some goals to improve on and I have accomplished these goals—well, some of them—and I am working on others and just like every level, leagues are going to have some difficulties for players to overcome and you’re going to go through hot streaks and bad streaks and that’s part of the process. I’m still just as confident as I was last year even though I did better this year and looking forward to the future.”
Splitting time evenly between left and centre, Gasparini made the switch look easy, showing exceptional range and throwing out seven baserunners in 120 games, all but one from left field. He has a .979 fielding percentage overall, quite serviceable from a player who had seen only sporadic action on the grass.
“The decision to have me play center field, or the outfield in general, has to do with the difficulties that come with playing shortstop and the position that the organisation found itself in, having a lot of really good middle infielders throughout,” remarked Gasparini.
“I think the outfield has been…more forgiving for me personally because it’s a position that’s more instinctive [and I] can rely more on my raw tools, which are, essentially, my running speed and my arm strength. It allows me to focus more on my hitting preparation before the game. This has allowed me to improve on certain aspects of my hitting as well.”
The bat did respond well and Gasparini finished with a .227/.274/.355 line, though a late-season slump reduced what were quite promising numbers. Hitting .251 with 26 extra base hits and 16 stolen bases on July 31, Gasparini hit .143 the rest of the way, pilfering only two bases. However, the Italian cut well down on his strikeouts over the season, though his walk rate was the lowest since 2014.
“As much as I like playing shortstop…the outfield allows me to play more instinctively and more relaxed, which in turn, makes me less stressed out during the game and allows me to just go compete when I have my at bats. I enjoy both and, in a perfect world, I could play every position on the field any given day, but that’s just how it is right now. It has been, I think, a pretty smooth transition as far as moving to the outfield and if it’s a position where I can help my team win some games, that’s all I can ask for.”
Gasparini was much stronger in Lexington, perhaps no surprise given the distances involved in South Atlantic League travel. At home, Gasparini hit .244 with a .704 OPS, dropping to .211/.558 on the road.
“Even for how small-town Lexington may be, it’s way bigger than anything I was part of in Italy, so there’s that. Lexington has a really warm community as far as baseball goes,” noted Gasparini. “I was really fortunate to be hosted by host families in Lexington and I am really grateful to them.
“I enjoy Lexington; it is, like you said, a small town, and it allows for some quiet time away from the craziness that you could have in towns like in Double-A, Triple-A, or major league teams—of course, that’s a while from now—but it allows for you to stay focussed throughout the year and to just go the field every day with not much else to think about.”
Gasparini’s acceptance by the Kentucky city is, perhaps, unsurprising for a region known for its Southern charm, seen in its horse-racing Derby, mint juleps imbibed on wide front porches, and a slower pace of life. An Italian, though, is an oddity for any Southern sport, and Gasparini is the first-ever Italian to play in the South Atlantic League (‘The Sally’). The last Europeans to feature in the league were Daniel Arribas (The Netherlands; 2016) and Dovydas Neverauskas (Lithuania; 2014, 2015).
“There are the so-called hooligans—but they would be a lot milder than what we have in Europe as far as crazy sports fanatics—but a few stadiums have so-called ‘super fans’ that really try and get in players’ minds and try to mess with them,” observed Gasparini. “Their whole selling point with me is to have jokes about me being Italian. At the same time, they can say stuff, but people don’t really know much about Italy, so it ends up being silly, so it’s not something I end up worrying about most of the time.
That level-headed attitude is evident in everything about Gasparini’s demeanour and posture, which suggests a player who understands his skills and knows what it will take to reach his goals. Only a few months out of his teenage years, Gasparini’s bearing feels more like a veteran’s as he listens thoughtfully to my questions and replies clearly and stoically. Asked about being the face of Italian baseball to Americans, it is clear he has often considered the idea, but feels at peace with it.
“Well, of course I care about it. Being still in the minor leagues, I do feel like I have a responsibility, but at the same time it’s not something I can think about, because the only way I can improve my game is to focus on a single thing at time and that is myself rather than holding the weight of a whole continent on my shoulder, which is not really helpful.”
Gasparini mentions Alex Liddi, the first native Italian to make the big leagues, and it hits me that Liddi, now 29, is hardly a contemporary of Gasparini’s, but a trailblazer. I asked whether the San Remo native was someone to whom he looked up and whether he would expect to be regarded as the new face of Italian baseball upon his debut in the majors.
“Well, of course I look up to Alex,” replied Liddi quickly. “I got to know him a little bit while he was playing for us [the Royals] a few years ago and I know he is playing in Mexico.
“If it wasn’t for his story and the story of [Cubs’ minor league catcher Alberto] Mineo, for example, I wouldn’t have discovered the possibility of coming here to the United States, so I do owe him a lot because of that. He was an inspiration for me as a young boy back in Italy to pursue the career that I have pursued. Once I get to the major leagues that is something that other people are going to give to me if they choose to; my job at that point would be to do my best to help the team compete and stick at the level.”
Aside from his own future, Gasparini obviously spends a lot of time thinking about his nation’s baseball fortunes. He also did not shy away from subtly commenting on the reliance on Italian-American players in the World Baseball Classic.
“There are the Olympics to look forward to as well [as the WBC] and my biggest wish at this point would be to have an Italian team that can compete with Italian players. There are more and more of us springing up from Italy and into the United States’ competitive scene and I think that it would be a true Italian result if we can compete at the Olympics and the next World Baseball Classic with mostly Italian players.”
In addition to international tournaments, Gasparini was familiar with the sections of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that could affect major league games in Italy in the future. We broke down the CBA and what it means for European baseball as soon as it was released by MLB (link).
“It makes sense that they would choose England because they would already overcome the language barrier. MLB also has a league in Australia for players to go and play. The only problem with England is that the weather is not really ideal for playing baseball, but as much as I would want Italy and a few other countries in Europe to be part of it, England does make sense as the most suitable place for baseball to be [played]. Who knows, maybe from there it could really spread out and develop through the rest of Europe.”
Having appraised the situation, Gasparini believes he knows what Italy needs to do to take advantage of the interest by MLB in European baseball to promote baseball better in Italy. Though he is aware of the potential difficulties, his goal is to encourage growth from the ground up.
“The way to do that is to look at how Americans or Latinos or Asians—the three biggest baseball areas in the world—do it. The way they do it is to introduce the sport in school. It is a big pool of players for you to pick from and then again, if you introduce athletics in school, you have a really well-established programme that you can pick and use for the players.
“That is easier said than done because of the way the school system works in Europe and that’s just not a reality as of now. It has been proven here that school can be a really viable asset for teams to develop players and maybe that is something to take into consideration.”
The introspective Gasparini has another idea for improving the standard of Italian baseball and encouraging MLB to invest in the nation, which has been playing baseball since American soldiers taught locals during WWII. It is a novel idea not discussed elsewhere.
“There is a lot of bureaucracy to overcome, but I say that Sicily could be a great spot. It has great weather all year long and [is…] a historical place for Americans [to enjoy] as well. That said, it is pretty far from the rest of Italy and, to my understanding, not really a centre of Italian baseball as of right now. With travel being easier and easier they could make something like that happen.
“At the same time, you need the infrastructure, you need the fields, you need a stadium that is capable of holding a lot of people, you need the television contracts and all that. It’s not something I’m an expert on, but that does sound like a good idea to me to have a winter league in the south of Italy.”
It all comes back to Italy for Gasparini, who was dressed in the Lexington Legends batting practice uniform, which is a royal blue top with ‘Lexington’ in green across the top and a blue cap with a green bill. We asked him whether it was a deliberate choice to pick a team that mimicked Gli Azzurri or a happy coincidence.
“During the process of deciding which team to sign with, that was something that almost felt like destiny. But, at the same time, it was a team that had a lot of good people to take care of me. So, I guess, teams that wear blue are just that good!”
The season has since concluded for Gasparini’s Lexington club, but the year may not yet be over for Italy’s brightest major league prospect. Gasparini understood that he would participate in the Royals’ Instruction League before returning to Italy, which he had heard rumours would host an early winter tournament.
Though his work in the outfield was encouraging, it is quite possible that Lexington will once more play host to Gasparini as the Royals look to see more consistency over a full minor league season. Aside from his late season fade, the switch-hitter will also need to improve his hitting from the right side, as he continued to struggle against lefties, hitting .180 with a .464 OPS compared to .244/.690 marks against righthanders.
Whether Gasparini returns to Lexington for a third season or moves up to Wilmington of the Carolina League, Italian fans ought to feel pleased about how the future face of Gli Azzurri carries himself and his calm approach to reaching his goals. Fortunately, there are lots of chances for European baseball fans to see Gasparini wear Italy’s blue and white, as next year sees the European Championship and a potential Under-23 Qualifiers appearance should Italy enter a team. Wherever he plays, Gasparini has already proven that he can handle the pressure.
All photos © Cara Beale and Gabriel Fidler, Extra Innings UK.