MIAMI, FL - APRIL 03: Luis Arráez #3 of the Miami Marlins meets with Pablo Lopez #49 of the Minnesota Twins prior to the game at loanDepot park on April 3, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jasen Vinlove/Miami Marlins/Getty Images)

When right-hander Pablo López returned to camp with the Minnesota Twins in late March, he beamed about his experience at the World Baseball Classic. The ball he played, the friendships he forged, the memories he made. It all meant a lot to López and, he believes, to his home country of Venezuela.

“Indescribable," López said. "It's an honor, at this point in my career, to wear that uniform with the name of my country on my chest."

One of his new friends, infielder Luís Arráez of the Miami Marlins, will be associated with López for the rest of their respective careers in Major League Baseball. In January, the Twins sent Arráez to the Marlins for López and a pair of minor-league prospects. The trade helped to focus the directions of both franchises, not just change the lives of the players involved. It also led to a pending contract extension for López that reportedly will make him one of the 35 (or so) highest-paid players in MLB.

Once it becomes official, the four-year, $73 million deal that starts with the 2024 season also puts an exclamation point on a three-month whirlwind for López, who at 27 years old is developing into one of the top pitchers in the majors. Through his first four starts, López allowed five runs total for a 1.73 ERA and led the American League with 33 strikeouts in 26 innings. In addition to throwing two kinds of 95-mph fastballs and a changeup, a new pitch in his arsenal — a sweeping slider — has helped him dominate.

In a TV interview broadcast early in spring training, López credited the Twins staff with helping him improve.

"They keep giving me tools and resources to reach that next level," López said.

It's reasonable to assume that López would be performing just as well with the Marlins, but there's little or no chance they would have signed him this month to a lucrative contract extension, which came to pass only because his new team was in position to offer it. Beyond that, the Twins invested a lot in López before he ever stepped foot onto their facility in Fort Myers, Fla.

The Twins took a chance in moving Arráez, who last year hit .316/.375/.420 to win the AL batting title, scored 88 runs and walked more than he struck out. While not much of a power threat, Arráez, with his throwback mix of mostly singles, doubles and all-around contact, produced 31% more offense than the league-average hitter. He ranked No. 30 overall in wRC+ at FanGraphs — about as effective as Vladimir Guerrero and Kyle Tucker, to name two — and while it's hard to find many players in MLB who started the 2023 season hotter than López has, Arráez would be near the top of the list.

Already having hit for the cycle at Philadelphia on April 11, Arráez came into action Wednesday batting .458/.508/.610, ranking narrowly behind only Matt Chapman of the Toronto Blue Jays in WAR among all position players in MLB.

At the time of the trade, Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey hinted that acquiring López was worth not only paying a price like Arráez, but it also was worth building around for the long haul. The Twins already had other effective starting pitchers, but most were signed to short-term deals.

"The only way you’re talking about a player of (Arráez's) caliber in a trade is if you’re acquiring a player of Pablo López's caliber,” Falvey said. “Pablo is somebody that comes incredibly highly recommended. What we’ve learned about him, and even just in the brief conversations we've had so far, this guy is a leader, this guy is a worker, this guy is a winning player all the way through."

In addition to the enriching baseball experience, playing in the WBC afforded López an opportunity to engage with other notable major-league ballplayers from Venezuela, many of whom he only knew in passing from the minor leagues. One curiosity in particular was Arráez, a popular player in the Minnesota clubhouse and among Twins fans at the time of the trade, but someone he knew only from brief interactions in Class A.

“Luis Arráez was one that I was looking forward to," López said. "Obviously, I can see why a lot of people miss him. Such a great player, even a better guy and better person. So we hit it off well. We had a lot of things to talk about, with the Twins and Marlins. So that was one relationship I was really happy to make."

Venezuela, nearly the size of Texas with a population of 28 million, has produced hundreds of MLB players since Chico Carrasquel joined the Chicago White Sox in 1950, and it has upward of 75 in the majors now. López is just a year older than Arráez, but he grew up in a different town about 250 miles away. Coming from far-flung places, never having the opportunity to play among each other in the Venezuelan Winter League and competing for different MLB organizations over the past decade, López and Arráez were relative strangers.

"Pablo is the best," Arráez told reporters in Miami the first week of April. "He's an amazing person and an amazing pitcher."

Experiencing the WBC tournament changed the dynamic for Arráez and López. Venezuela made it to the quarterfinals before falling to the United States. Arráez hit a pair of home runs against the U.S. in trying to extend the tournament for López, who was to pitch against Cuba if Venezuela advanced.

On the drive across Florida back to camp, López said he "felt the sting" of Venezuela bowing out of the tournament. But he felt good about where he was in preparing for the 2023 season, and he felt better to have gone through the WBC with his countrymen.

"Venezuela is such a passionate country, about so many things, especially as it relates to competing," López said. "You could feel the passion on the field and the presence of Venezuela in the stands. They were packing the stadium. The great thing about all the players in that clubhouse was that you could get really starstruck — but we had no egos. Everyone was happy to be there, trying to help us win, finding ways to enjoy the moment. We're all going to cherish it.”

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