With the Arizona Fall League finished, the best prospects still playing games congregate in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
It makes sense, as those are the two countries outside of the U.S. where baseball has the most talent, with young future stars like Gregory Polanco and Rougned Odor playing winter ball in their home countries.
Puerto Rico and Mexico don’t attract the same caliber of talent, but there are propsects in those leagues who have a chance to contribute at the big league level in 2014, with some being counted on to play a key role as soon as Opening Day.
Here are 10 key prospects to watch this winter in Puerto Rico and Mexico.
1. Billy Hamilton, of, Reds: For Hamilton, pitchers in Puerto Rico shouldn’t present as much of a challenge as the ones he saw during the regular season, most of which was spent at Triple-A Louisville before a late callup to Cincinnati. After posting an OBP over .400 at both high Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola in 2012, Hamilton batted just .252/.308/.343 last season in the International League. He had a little more success in a micro sample against major league pitchers, and his electrifying speed helped him swipe 13 bases in 14 tries. But the Reds might need Hamilton to be their Opening Day center fielder if Shin-Soo Choo leaves as a free agent, and there’s concern among scouts over whether his bat is truly ready. He was 6-for-6 stealing bases in Puerto Rico for Santurce, but his .190/.261/.254 start after 69 plate appearances wasn’t inspiring much confidence.
2. Jonathan Singleton, 1b, Astros: Houston’s farm system has been rejuvenated in the last couple of years. Singleton has been at the forefront of the rebuild since the Astros acquired him from the Phillies in the July 2011 trade for Hunter Pence, ranking as the Astros’ top prospect after that season and the No. 2 prospect heading into this season after Carlos Correa joined the organization. Yet after ranking as a Top 50 prospect for three straight years, Singleton looked overmatched in 2013. He missed the first 50 games of the season due to his suspension for marijuana, then saw a decrease in power and an uptick in his strikeout rate when he joined Triple-A Corpus Christi. The Astros even made a push for Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, perhaps a sign of Singleton’s shaky status within the organization. While other players are often run down after the grind of the minor league season, Singleton’s suspension means he should still be relatively fresh His .313/.450/.563 slash line through his first 60 plate appearances for Santurce was at least a positive sign.
3. Christian Villanueva, 3b, Cubs: When he was with the Rangers, Villanueva was blocked not only by Adrian Beltre in Texas but by Mike Olt one level above him. A 2012 trade to the Cubs for Ryan Dempster should have helped clear a path to the majors for him, but instead the Rangers included Olt in the Matt Garza deal, although Olt’s struggles make that less of a roadblock than it was in Texas. Now he’s in the same organization as Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, both of whom could end up at third base, while Jeimer Candelario is coming up through the system too. Villanueva had a steady year with Double-A Tennessee, playing plus defense while hitting a career-high 19 home runs, and he was off to a .253/.326/.434 start through 92 plate appearances for Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League. Power has been a question mark on Villanueva, but if Villanueva can hit around 20 home runs per year and improve his patience at the plate, his ability to prevent runs in the field give him the upside to be a solid-average everyday third baseman in the big leagues.
4. Michael Taylor, of, Nationals: Taylor is a terrific defender in center field, with plus speed and good instincts that help him cover huge amounts of ground. His plus arm and accurate throws make him a potential Gold Glove winner if he can hit enough to hold down an every day job. The bat is the big question on Taylor, who spent his second full season in the high Class A Carolina League, but his performance in the first few weeks of the Puerto Rican League has been encouraging. Taylor, 22, has hit .412/.474/.588 in 57 plate appearances, leading the league in batting average, OBP and slugging.
5. Matt Magill, rhp, Dodgers: The arrows were pointing in the right direction for Magill after the 2012 season, but mechanical issues derailed his 2013 season. Normally sharp with his control, Magill lost command of the strike zone in 2013, walking more batters than he struck out in six major league starts and average 5.3 walks per nine innings during his time in Triple-A. His lower half got out of sync with his delivery, something he’s been working to get back on track with while pitching for Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican League. The early results—11 runs and nine walks in 16 1/3 innings—suggest he’s still not back to 2012 form yet.
6. Juan Oramas, lhp, Padres: There has been a rise in Mexican pitchers in the minors, with Yankees lefthander Manny Banuelos, Dodgers lefthander Julio Urias, Blue Jays righthander Roberto Osuna and Pirates righthander Luis Heredia garnering much of the attention. Oramas, 23, is older than all of them and hasn’t generated the same prospect buzz in his ascent through the minors, but he’s put himself in the mix for a major league job at some point next season. He made a strong return from Tommy John surgery, posting a 3.07 ERA with 10.4 strikeouts and 2.5 walks per nine innings in 12 starts for Double-A San Antonio, followed by a strong performance in the Texas League playoffs. This winter he’s tied for the Mexican Pacific League lead with 35 strikeouts in 34 innings, while his 3.18 ERA ranks ninth. The Padres added him to their 40-man roster this week; otherwise another team surely would have snapped him up in the Rule 5 draft.
7. Christian Colon, 2b, Royals: The .600 OPS that Royals second basemen hit in 2013 ranked 28th in the majors. Had things gone according to plan, those plate appearances would have gone to Colon, the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, but his ability with the bat has been less than the Royals expected. Colon, 24, has shown good bat control but it comes with minimal secondary skills, as he isn’t a threat to walk or drive the ball out of the park. Coming off a steady year at Triple-A Omaha, Colon is trying to prove he has more than just a utility man ceiling. He’s off to a .262/.324/.369 start in his first 71 plate appearances for Ponce in the Puerto Rican League.
8. Reymond Fuentes, of, Padres: Fuentes experienced a major bounce back year after a 2012 season in which little went his way at the plate. Fuentes, 22, repeated the Double-A Texas League and revitalized his prospect status, hitting .316/.396/.441 in 93 games before being promoted to Triple-A in August and called up to San Diego for his big league debut by the end of the month. The game sped up on Fuentes in 2012, but he was able to slow it down this past season. He hit from a wider base in 2013 and showed a more patient hitting approach that led to him swinging at better pitches, using the middle of the field and getting on base with greater frequency. The Puerto Rico native wasn’t off to great start for Ponce though, hitting .172/.284/.241 start through 67 plate appearances.
9. Sebastian Valle, c, Phillies: Two years ago, Valle looked like he could have been the catcher of the future in Philadelphia. Now after two years in Double-A, Valle looks like he’s in over his head, as he’s failed to crack an OBP of .300 the last two seasons and his OPS dropped more than 100 points from a year ago. Valle is still 23 and has time to turn things around, but with Carlos Ruiz signing a three-year contract as a free agent, his best hope might be to make a strong impression on another organization’s pro scouts. He’s been getting some time behind the plate this winter for the Caneros de los Mochis in his native Mexico, where he was hitting .293/.369/.431 in 65 trips to the plate.
10. Alex Liddi, 3b/1b, White Sox: Liddi made history as the first major leaguer born, raised and signed in Italy when he made his major league debut with Seattle in 2011, six years after signing his first contract with the Mariners. Traded to the Orioles in an international bonus slot exchange in July, Liddi became a minor league free agent and signed with the White Sox. Liddi has plus power and an opportunity in Chicago, but he needs to improve his pitch recognition and cut down on his strikeouts for the power to show up in games. Pitchers in Mexico tend to attack hitters backwards with a lot of offspeed stuff, so playing for Culiacan this winter should benefit Liddi, who was hitting .239/.273/.391 with four walks and 29 strikeouts in 99 plate appearances.