Scouts acknowledge that evaluating players in spring training or during roster expansion in September can be deceiving based on the non-standard level of competition. Can you imagine, then, what they would say about the nature of an abbreviated look in the Latin American winter leagues?
Nevertheless, Baseball America trudges on and identifies a dozen top performances from this winter that could presage a step forward for some of these players in 2015. Or maybe not. It’s just a month or two against uneven competition, after all.
A guide to the abbreviations: DL is Dominican League, MPL is Mexican Pacific League, PRL is Puerto Rican League and VL is Venezuelan League. Batters must come to the plate at least 100 times to be eligible.
1. Odubel Herrera, of/2b, La Guaira (Venezuela)
The Phillies intend to evaluate Herrera, a Rule 5 pick from the Rangers, as a center fielder this spring, so he made the vast majority of VL appearances there (41 games) rather than his natural position of second base (nine). He won the league’s MVP award and batting title (.372) after also winning the batting crown in the Double-A Texas League (.321) in 2014. Not even Herrera’s 3-for-35 (.086) showing in the VL playoffs could dampen excitement about his winter performance as he prepares for the biggest spring of his life.
2. Giovanny Urshela, 3b, Zulia (Venezuela)
A knee injury casts doubt on his readiness in spring training, but Urshela hammered the ball for a month while healthy in the VL, hitting .398 with eight extra-base hits and 22 RBIs in 27 games. Added to the 40-man roster last November after a loud debut at Triple-A Columbus, he could give the Indians the righthanded bat they desire as soon as this season.
3. Jorge Polanco, 2b, Escogido (Dominican Republic)
A future middle-infield fixture for the Twins, Polanco showed the broad set of skills—feel to hit, gap power, strike-zone discipline—in the DL that make him a top prospect. Perhaps just as significantly, he played only one game at shortstop for Escogido, while spending most of his time as the double-play partner for former Twins shortstop Pedro Florimon.
4. Kennys Vargas, 1b, Mayaguez (Puerto Rico)
The burgeoning Twins slugger validated a 17-homer effort at Double-A New Britain by smashing nine home runs and slugging .456 in 53 big league games. Vargas then tacked on another six bombs in the PRL, while also ranking among the league leaders in RBIs (22), slugging (.482), walks (33) and on-base percentage (.430). He connected for five more homers during the PRL playoffs and appears ready to claim his share of the first base/DH gig in Minnesota after going deep 37 times in 2014.
5. Cristhian Adames, ss, Este (Dominican Republic)
The 23-year-old Rockies shortstop won the DL batting title (.353) and accumulated more total bases than any player (79) in the league. Adames excels with the glove, so he must keep producing at the plate at Triple-A to earn playing time in a crowded Colorado infield.
6. Carlos Rivero, 3b, Lara (Venezuela)
Rivero led all players with 15 home runs this winter, nearly matching his minor league high of 16, which he hit in 2011. The 26-year-old has played for five organizations in his nine-year career, and he heads to spring training on a minor league deal with the Mariners after being claimed on waivers by Seattle in November, non-tendered in December and then quickly re-signed. Rivero attracts attention from clubs with his arm strength and powerful bat versus lefthanders, against whom he has hit .309/.389/.463 in 296 plate appearances at the Triple-A level.
7. Maikel Franco, 3b, Cibao (Dominican Republic)
Franco fell flat as a Phillies’ September callup, though he crushed the ball at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the second half, then continued mashing in the DL regular season and postseason. In fact, he led all DL playoff participants with 29 hits, four home runs, 11 extra-base hits, 16 RBIs and a .570 slugging percentage for the league champions.
8. A.J. Jimenez, c, Santurce (Puerto Rico)
The 2008 ninth-rounder has yet to reach the majors but remains on the Blue Jays’ depth chart, albeit behind veterans Russell Martin, Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole. Jimenez combines a contact-oriented hitting approach (he finished fifth in the PRL batting race), a strong arm and quality receiving skills.
9. Paulo Orlando, cf, Lara (Venezuela)
The 29-year-old native of Brazil has yet to reach the majors, but the speedy outfielder is in the right organizations to get a shot, especially after the Royals added him to the 40-man roster last November. Orlando ranked among the VL leaders in batting (.319), hits (75), RBIs (40) and on-base percentage (.404).
10. Rougned Odor, 2b, Magallanes (Venezuela)
The Rangers expected the 20-year-old Odor to develop at a natural pace at Double-A Frisco in 2014, but a tidal wave of injuries in the organization pressed him into action in Texas in May. He played well enough considering his age and experience level, then continued to build his credentials as a future big league all-star by hitting .295 and tightening his strike zone in winter ball.
11. Jose Alvarez, lhp, Anzoategui (Venezuela)
An easy pick for VL pitcher of the year, Alvarez led the league in wins (six), ERA (1.91) and WHIP (1.01), then went 2-2, 4.23 in five starts during the playoffs for the league champions. That’s a fine way to make up for missing most of the domestic season with an elbow injury. The changeup artist will look to redeem himself this season as a member of the Angels’ 40-man roster.
12. Marcos Mateo, rhp, Oriente (Dominican Republic)
The power-armed Mateo parlayed a big DL stint into a minor league deal with the Padres, which he signed in January. He led the league with 21 saves and very nearly led in strikeouts (45), despite pitching just 26 innings, and for that reason he took home the league’s MVP award. The 30-year-old allowed a paltry .146 average this winter, though too many baserunners (1.37 WHIP at the Triple-A level) have held him back in domestic ball.