PEORIA — Malcom Nunez was pretty good at hitting rocks in his Havana, Cuba neighborhood as a little boy.

The St. Louis Cardinals are betting he'll be even better at hitting baseballs.

"When I was 5, I picked up a stick and found this rock and started hitting it," said Nunez, 18, and the first player born in 2001 in the history of the Peoria Chiefs. "Every day, I'd take a stick and hit rocks.

"My grandmother, Martha, saw me one day and took me to the park, to a baseball field, and asked me if I wanted to play baseball.

"The very first time I batted, I hit the ball. And it went a long way."

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound third baseman has a long way to go as he made his Midwest League debut with the Chiefs on their homestand this week.

"He's a guy who had a terrific season in the DSL," Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "We really wanted to see him start out here in Peoria. But there were visa issues and we had to keep preparing him in Extended Spring Training."

The Cardinals signed Nunez as a free agent in July of 2018 for the max-available $300,000 and he made his way to the Dominican Summer League, where he won the triple crown with a .415 batting average, 13 homers and 59 RBIs in just 44 games.

"The Cardinals have been with me for years, they are the only team I wanted to sign with," said Nunez, speaking through Cardinals coordinator of international operations Joe Quezada. "It was so exciting to be part of the (DSL) team."

Nunez says he couldn't watch major-league games at home, and that he didn't see his first big-league game until he was 12 and traveling with a Cuba National team and saw the Yankees playing. Hios dream matchup if he could pick a major-league pitcher to face in one at-bat? "Aroldis Chapman," he answered, referring to the Cuban native.

"Growing up it was all Cuban games on TV," said Nunez, an only child who was raised by his mother, Giselle, and grandmother, Martha. "I would watch (legendary Cuba slugger) Alfredo Despaigne and I wanted to model myself after him."

Nunez, at age 14, played on Cuba's 15-under team in the Latin American Championship and drew 46 walks in 152 plate appearances.

He played for Cuba's 15-under World Cup team in Japan and led everyone in batting average at .613, with an OBP of .698.

The numbers he has produced are intoxicating.

In the DSL last season his wRC+ was 238. That's 138 percent above league average. The wRC+ -- Weighted Runs Created Plus -- is an analytic that adjusts for different league levels, ballparks and eras of the game to compare hitters from different levels and eras.

Nunez, by that metric at 238, was the best hitter in baseball last year. Rangers prospect Heriberto Hernandez was next in the DSL at 200, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was at 194 in the high minors, Rangers prospect Curtis Terry was at 186 in low-A and Angels star Mike Trout was at 184.

He led all Cardinals minor-leaguers in batting, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS in 2018. Baseball America made him the No. 9-ranked prospect in the Cardinals organization this year, and MLB Pipeline ranked him No. 5.

"This is a really big year for him, because he needs to transition," Mozeliak said. "Any time you see his type of body, his skill, it's a reason to expect long-term success. How high is his ceiling? I don't like to project that for guys. I think the game should be what determines your ceiling.

"And it will."

The journey is only starting for Nunez, and his ground floor is in Peoria.

"Baseball has kept me out of trouble, kept me focused my whole life," Nunez said. "It's my dream to play in the major leagues. When the Cardinals signed me it was a thrill for me, and for my family, too.

"I've always seen baseball as a way that I can help them."

CHIEFS BRIEFS: There is a video of Peoria Chiefs third baseman Malcom Nunez sending a shout out, in his native language, to his family in Havana, Cuba, with this story online at pjstar.com.

Dave Eminian covers the Chiefs for the Journal Star, and writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.