Jonathan Figueroa Dead at 26

You might well have missed it. And to many who did notice, the story didn't ring a bell. Jonathan Figueroa, 26, who pitched for the Lincoln Saltdogs in the Independent American Association, died of complications from Lupus.

Rather like Camelot, "Figgy" flourished for a "brief and shining moment" and was considered one of the top Dodgers prospects after his first season at the age of 18. Dodgers Dugout made him the top prospect in the Los Angeles farm system that season in 2002.

A native of Venezuela, he had wowed scouts in those ubiquitous Showcases that keep popping up all over the place. He started in Florida and moved across the country in them, much like a traveling circus. He seemed to get better each time he performed. By the time he reached Los Angeles, the Dodgers gladly shelled out $500,000 for his services.

And after the 2002 season, it seemed a bargain. He started for Great Lakes in the Pioneer League and outclassed every batter he faced. They could only manage a .147 mark against him and after a few weeks of that, he was promoted to Columbus in the South Atlantic League. They didn't have any better luck hitting him, batting only .148.

He crafted an identical 1.42 earned run average at each stop and finished the season with a 7-3 record, 38 hits in 78 innings and 105 strikeouts against just 39 walks.

And he was brimming with confidence. "I'll probably start next year in Vero Beach, then move up to Jacksonville about halfway through the season," he told Bill Shelley and Who could disagree?

He went back home to Venezuela to pitch winter ball. He also got married to a woman who was said the be his business manager. She also must have been a great cook for when he reported the next spring he looked quite like a sumo wrestler.

Awash with extra pounds he worked hard to get into shape. In doing so he hurt his arm and when he took the field again it was without his fast ball.

He was never the same pitcher.

Figueroa made a tour of the Dodgers system, searching for the old magic. He recorded a 1-8, 4.94 record at Columbus in 2003. He was a combined 3-8, 6.93 at Columbus and Vero Beach in 2004 and a 4-3, 6.00 mark in 2005 and a 1-7, 7.29 in 2006, with 40 walks in 54 innings. The opposition was hitting .302 against him. In his second season at Vero he was tagged with a 60-day suspension for using a banned substance.

The Dodgers dropped him back to Great Lakes in 2007 where he looked somewhat like the Figueroa of old. In five starts he was 1-0 with an 0.98 earned run average, striking out 17 in 10 innings.

But then at age 23 the Dodgers released him.

He signed with Independent League teams Long Beach and Lincoln and was 3-5, 3.78 over 16 appearances in Lincoln in 2009 before going on the disabled list on July 12. He had been named the American Association Pitcher of the Week for June 1-7, making two starts and pitching a combined 12 innings without allowing a single run.

Somewhere along that uphill struggle he contracted Lupus and it took his life on November 8th.

"This is a tremendous loss on any number of levels," said Saltdogs manager Tim Utrup. "Jonathan was well-liked by everybody in the organization. Our hearts go out to his family right now. He was so young, and it's heartbreaking to think about two young children losing their father this early in their lives."

On October 23, the Saltdogs announced that they had exercised the 2010 option on Figueroa's contract.

"I was shocked when I heard the news," said Saltdogs manager Marty Scott. "I remember how hard Jonathan worked to improve his performance on the mound, after he got off to a rough start this past season. He really turned into an asset for us before we had to place him on the disabled list. He was a great guy to have in the clubhouse and in the dugout, and he really connected with his teammates. We'll all miss him, and I can't even begin to imagine how tragic this must be for his wife and children."

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