After a lackluster regular season, Astros first baseman Jonathan Singleton hit .268/.396/.537 in Puerto Rico this winter with nine home runs and 37 RBIs.
In his winter campaign, Indians prospect Jesus Aguilar scorched his way to a .327/.403/.597 line with 18 home runs and 50 RBIs in 58 games in Venezuela.
And Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco mashed out a .331/.428/.494 line with five longballs and 28 RBIs in the Dominican Republic.
Three prospects. Three scorching winters. But the environments in which they posted those numbers all provide varying degrees of difficulty and style of play.
Singleton did his damage in the Puerto Rican League, which folded before the 2007 campaign only to re-emerge a year later rebranded and restructured.
The league, now known as the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, draws from the smallest pool of talent, and in the eyes of most scouts offers little challenge to advanced prospects.
One National League scout said the competition in Puerto Rico is akin to what a player would find in Class A, a level Singleton left behind in 2011.
“The talent level has been down there the past few years,” the scout said. “The league’s suffered a little bit. They’ve had to recruit a lot. There’s been varying levels of talent in that league. A couple of years ago they just about folded (for good), but they’re getting back on their feet.
“The talent level there is good at the upper levels. Years ago it was better. They always put together one good team, but I think in total the league is, the talent level is just OK. When they go to the Caribbean Series they could win it because they could put together one good team, but I’d say the substance of the league is not as good as the other leagues.”
While the Puerto Rican League talent pool is limited primarily to just those on the rosters of its six teams, the player population in the Dominican League and the Venezuelan League runs deeper.
That’s in part because those leagues both feature leagues which operate in a similar fashion to the minor leagues in the United States.
Venezuela has the Parallel League, which is made up of 17 teams and provides a developmental pool for the “big league” teams to draw from.
“In the Dominican League and the Venezuelan League, it’s very difficult for a young kid to make those teams,” the NL scout explained. “They have a structure, almost like a minor league system. In Venezuela, they have teams that are playing in the parallel leagues, which (have) kids that are in single-A and Double-A, and if somebody gets hurt at the big league level, they’ve got guys to replace them.”
The players in Venezuela’s Parallel League range from the occasional teenage amateur player to those in Rookie ball up to a handful of players in low Class A or high Class A, honing their skills against their peers before they can compete at the country’s top level.
The Cubs have several of their top young Venezuelan players in the Parallel League this winter, including catcher Willson Contreras, infielders Carlos Penalver, Gioskar Amaya, Ricardo Marcano and Mark Malave, and lefthander Carlos Rodriguez. Gleyber Torres, the No. 2 prospect in last year’s international signing class who signed with Chicago for $1.7 million, is also there getting his feet wet before his official pro debut.
In the Dominican League, teams draft Dominican players from each of the 30 major league clubs. The players selected in these drafts don’t necessarily play for their big clubs immediately, but the drafting teams hold the players’ rights if and when they decide to play winter ball.
Royals shortstop Raul A. Mondesi was the first overall pick this year, followed by Rockies shortstop Rosell Herrera, Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco, Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman, Indians shortstop Dorssys Paulino and Cubs third baseman Jeimer Candelario.
Polanco thrived with Escogido, putting up a .294/.361/.383 line with nine doubles, a home run and 17 RBIs as a 20-year-old against much more seasoned competition.
Polanco, who like the other six has never played above high Class A, was the only one of those first-round picks who saw significant playing time this year. In most cases, young get more action as they develop. The result is more seasoned competition when prospects head south for the winter.
Savvy Over Stuff
The Mexican League, where the skill level ranks above Puerto Rico but below the D.R. and Venezuela, offers challenges all its own.
Most of the pitchers there are older veterans who don’t throw hard and have spent time bouncing around the minor leagues. The league’s ERA leader is 34-year-old Amauri Sanit, a Cuban defector who spent four seasons in the Yankees system.
“Traditionally, Mexican pitchers have much higher pitchability due to the fact that they are playing in games at the same ages that Venezuelans and Dominicans are doing workouts and showcases,” an American League scout said. “Accordingly, Mexico is the place to send a hitter who needs more at-bats against secondary stuff. You tend to see more power stuff in the Dominican and Venezuela.”