Luis Ugueto: Won't Take No For An Answer

Two years ago, Luis Ugueto was the fleet-footed infielder Lou Piniella turned to in the late innings when he needed a pinch-runner. Now, the Mariners Rule V draftee from 2001 is in Triple-A, fighting his way back to the big leagues with the Tacoma Rainiers. InsidethePark's Joe Kaiser talked to the hard-working utility man on Wednesday to hear about his unique journey.

Pull into the north entrance of the Cheney Stadium parking lot three hours before any Tacoma Rainiers home game, pear into the batting cages to your right, and there's a good chance you'll see the same player each time.

There, more often than not, will be Luis Ugueto, the 25-year-old infielder/outfielder best remembered for his 2002 season spent in Seattle as a Rule V pickup. Two years after being on the major league roster, used primarily as a pinch-runner, Ugueto is doing all he can in Triple-A to get a return call to the big leagues.

And he's doing it in a new role, starring as the team's primary utility man. With a wealth of depth in the Rainiers' middle infield and injuries depleting the outfield, the natural shortstop has been used almost exclusively as an outfielder. In fact, he's only appeared in the infield three times in the 44 games he's played.

That, according to Ugueto, is one of the main reasons he's spent so much time putting work in this season.

"Before I played just one position," he said, talking to prior to Wednesday night's home game versus Salt Lake. "I was a shortstop before. Now I'm a utility guy so I have to work harder than I did at the beginning of my career. I play infield and outfield now so I have to make sure I take ground balls and fly balls so I am comfortable.

"All positions are different, and you have to work hard at each of them. Shortstop is different than second base. Second is different than left field. They are all different, so I have to work hard every day. I have to make sure that I am comfortable at every position."

Wednesday was no exception. Ugueto went straight from his time in the batting cages with hitting coach Terry Pollreisz at 3:30 p.m. to a personal infield session with manager Dan Rohn a half-an-hour later. There, all by himself at shortstop, he fielded grounders from his old position while the rest of the team remained inside the clubhouse.

"I have got a family so I am working hard because, like they say, I have family to provide for," said Ugueto, whose wife Laura and one-year-old daughter Nikole live in Tacoma during the season.

Looking back at 2002, his first season with the Mariners' organization, Ugueto says it was both good and bad for his career. While most would assume that being in the big leagues only helped him out for the long-run, the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder feels it may have delayed his development.

"It was difficult," said Ugueto, who appeared in just 62 games and recorded a mere 23 at bats in 2002. "Let me tell you why – because I lost one whole year. It's a good thing but also a bad thing. I lost one year of playing every day, and stayed on the bench all year. It's was good for my mentality, though, being in the big leagues."

After his season of playing along the likes of Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki, Ugueto returned to the minors last season with an improved mindset and a batter grasp of the game. But by the time he started the season at Double-A San Antonio in 2003, he also had lost some of his ability on the field.

"I lost that year (in 2002) and went to Venezuela and wanted to play winter ball there, but it got shut out because we've got a lot of problems in Venezuela," said Ugueto of his native country. "When I came back to Arizona for Spring Training in 2003 and tried to make the team, I was a little bit rusty."

Still, Ugueto managed to steal 25 bases and hit .260 in 350 at bats with the Missions last year.

Now at Triple-A, he knows he isn't far from a return to the big leagues. There are no more minor league levels standing in his way. So, even if it means playing the outfield and becoming a utility player, Ugueto says it doesn't matter. He longs for the luxuries that come with playing in the show.

That doesn't mean he has forgotten about shortstop, however, his first love.

"It's hard for me because right now because I feel like I can play in the infield – shortstop or second base – in the majors," he said. "But if I have to be a utility man to stay in the big leagues, I'll take it."

Currently batting .286 with a single-season career-high five home runs already this season, Ugueto is making all the hard work pay off.

The dream of returning to the big leagues remains fresh in his mind, each and every day he heads to the ballpark. But you don't have to remind him of that.

"I'm working for that," he said. "I'm working for that."

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