Nine Key Players To Watch In Winter Ball

The Arizona Fall League is a prospect watcher’s delight, but the league will never replicate the intense atmosphere of baseball in the Caribbean winter leagues.

The leagues in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela—where most of the top talent is—prioritize winning, which is why the rosters are heavy on veterans and 4-A mashers (hey, look—Juan Francisco is off to a hot start again in the Dominican League).

Younger players have a chance to help their stock in these leagues, be it through convincing their organizations to push them to a more aggressive 2014 Opening Day assignment or just by using the experience in a pressure-packed environment to add to their development.

These nine players in particular are worth keeping an eye on this winter:

1. Gregory Polanco, of, Pirates: Pittsburgh has an immediate need in right field and Polanco has the talent to justify a spot on the Opening Day roster. That probably won’t happen, but his scorching debut for Escogido in the Dominican League could accelerate his timetable. Through his first 11 games, Polanco was hitting .378/.451/.756 with four home runs while flashing five-tool potential.

2. Maikel Franco, 3b, Phillies: One of the breakout players of the 2013 season, Franco is spending his winter as the everyday third baseman for the Gigantes in the Dominican League. With Cody Asche ahead of him in the system, Franco has a short-term obstacle that will probably keep him in Triple-A to start the season, but Franco’s offensive upside gives him the higher ceiling and should ultimately allow him to take over the hot corner in Philadelphia.

3. Joc Pederson, of, Dodgers: The Dodgers already have more outfielders than places to put them, and that’s before putting Pederson into the 2014 mix. The well-rounded outfielder has been an on-base machine early on for Lara in the Venezuelan League, where he already has 27 walks (including five free passes) through 17 games, posting a .255/.506/.627 line with four home runs. It’s not clear how Pederson is going to fit into the mix in Los Angeles, but he has all-star potential and should be ready at some point next season, whether it’s with the Dodgers or another organization.

4. Jurickson Profar, ss, Rangers: Profar’s 2013 season didn’t go as the Rangers had hoped, as Profar struggled at the plate while juggling defensive responsibilities all over the field. Yet most of the 20-year-old Profar’s peers just spent the year in Class A, and the star potential is still here. A .400/.500/.600 start with just four strikeouts in his first 50 plate appearances for Licey in the Dominican League is an encouraging sign for Profar, who could either be a coveted trade chip or, perhaps with a strong winter, give the Rangers the confidence to trade away their middle infield surplus to give Profar an everyday job in the middle of the diamond.

5. Rougned Odor, 2b, Rangers: The Rangers are monitoring Odor closely this winter while he plays for Magallanes as one of the youngest players in the Venezuelan League. Other teams might be watching him even more closely, as the Rangers’ middle infield glut has clubs eyeing Odor (and Rangers shortstop Luis Sardinas, playing for La Guaira in Venezuela) as a trade chip. Odor and Sardinas both probably return to Double-A Frisco to open 2013, but if they can maintain their hot starts this winter, they could force their way to Triple-A sooner than expected.

6. Jorge Polanco, ss/2b, Twins: Polanco gets overshadowed in a stacked Twins system, and on his Escogido club in the Dominican League, he’s not even the best player named Polanco (Gregory takes that title). But Polanco, who entered the year noted more for his glove than his bat, took huge strides forward at the plate this season that have carried over early into the winter. He was off to a .359/.447/.513 start through his first 10 games while showing good plate coverage, particularly impressive for a player who’s never played above the low Class A Midwest League.

7. Arismendy Alcantara, ss/2b, Cubs: Alcantara has put together two straight seasons with encouraging production to go along with a pair of plus tools in his speed and arm, though he’s still learning to tone down his game at the plate and in the field. Teammates with Profar for Licey, Alcantara has been playing second base, which could be his ticket to Chicago, with Starlin Castro at shortstop, Javier Baez ahead of him as a prospect and Kris Bryant (for now) at third base.

8. Cesar Puello, of, Mets: Puello made real adjustments to his generate more loft with his swing, but he was also suspended 50 games for his involvement with Biogenesis, putting questions around how much of his performance was chemically enhanced. From a practical standpoint, playing for the Toros in the Dominican League will help him make up for some of the time he lost at the end of the season, although given how many games he’s missed it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled to find his timing.

9. Edwin Escobar, lhp, Giants: Teams are finicky about how their top young pitchers are used in winter ball and often prefer to just have them not play at all after the season, which is why this list is so hitter-heavy. Escobar is one of the most intriguing pitching prospects playing in the winter leagues, although he’s only being used as a reliever for Lara in the Venezuelan League. Escobar, who reached Double-A this season, has good control of solid stuff and should fit comfortably as a back-end starter.