Winter Player Of The Year: Yurendell De Caster

By Chris Kline
February 14, 2006

Among all the big names playing winter ball this year, Pirates utilityman Yurendell De Caster was a name often overlooked. But after an impressive performance in the Venezuelan League, De Caster has at last made a lasting impression, and was named Baseball America’s Winter Player of the Year to fortify his growing reputation.

De Caster, 26, has come a long way since signing with the Devil Rays in 1996 out of his native Curacao. The Pirates plucked him in a minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2000. He climbed steadily through the system, spending two years at high Class A Lynchburg, another season in Double-A Altoona before debuting at Triple-A Indianapolis last year.

Pirates farm director Brian Graham likens him to teammate Ronny Paulino, who has also followed a similar development path.

“Both he and Paulino are classic player development cases,” Graham said. “They’ve come a long way with learning the culture, the language–and sometimes it takes some guys longer to really get a handle on where they are as a player. I think what you’re seeing from both these players is they’re finally comfortable with their plan and their approach and we’re seeing them begin to put up some numbers as a result.”

Putting up numbers wasn’t a problem for De Caster in Venezuela this winter. Playing mostly the outfield for Oriente, De Caster batted .325-17-47 in 209 at-bats. He tied for the league lead in homers–falling two shy of the league record–tied for the lead in steals, and finished second in runs and RBIs.

Originally signed as a third baseman, De Caster has become one of the most versatile players in the Pirates’ organization. Last season at Indianapolis, De Caster played both corner infield positions, and even filled-in in right field late in the summer when the Indians were making their push to the International League playoffs.

“He was just about as valuable of a player as we had last year,” Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett said. “He didn’t put up gaudy numbers–in fact, just the fact that he’s so versatile probably took a toll on the numbers. But he handled it well. I knew on any given day I could put him somewhere in the field, somewhere in the order, and he’d be fine.

“And if you watched him closely, those numbers he put up in winter ball were in there. It’s his approach and how he operates.”

De Caster batted .280-11-61 for Indy in 2005, and was able to create a comfort zone as a first-year player at the Triple-A level with the help of Jewett, hitting coordinator Jeff Manto and Indianapolis hitting coach Hensley Meulens.

He’s become more selective at the plate as a result, drawing 36 walks for Oriente compared to just 37 in 415 at-bats in Triple-A. All those walks pushed his on-base percentage to .427 this winter.

Perhaps the biggest influence on his approach has been Meulens, a fellow Dutch whom De Caster grew up watching as a national hero in his home country.

“The job Hensley Meulens and Jeff Manto have done with him has been tremendous,” Graham said. “He’s a high-end tools player with speed, arm strength, bat speed, power–everything you look for. He’s 26, but keep in mind Jason Bay was Rookie of the Year at 26 years old.”

Not that De Caster is another Bay, but his sheer versatility allows him more opportunities to get to the big leagues and stick. De Caster will show off even more of that versatility in the World Baseball Classic where he will play second base for the Netherlands.

“Playing all positions helps my chances, at least in the National League,” De Caster said. “It allows me to come in on double switches. I have to show what I got and compete to be a utility player. Now, I feel like I can play in the big leagues.”

After the Pirates protected him on the 40-man roster this winter, De Caster signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. And after nine long seasons in the minors, he’ll be attending his first big league camp this spring.

“Doing what he did in Venezuela isn’t an easy thing to do,” Graham said. “Sure, he speaks three languages and acclimates easy now, but the competition level there is so intense–it’s just a tough environment to go out and perform in every day. He really opened a lot of eyes, and between what happened in winter ball and him going to his first big league camp–those things can only do wonders for his confidence.”


WINTER ALL-STARS

Angels’ shortstop Brandon Wood might have set an Arizona Fall League record with 14 homers, but Pirates utilityman Yurendell De Caster came within two home runs shy of the Venezuelan League mark. While it was close between the two players–not to mention the postseason heroics of Mets’ infielder Anderson Hernandez and the numbers White Sox outfielder Jerry Owens put up–De Caster is our Winter Player of the Year based on his numbers, as well as the level of competition he played against in the Venezuelan League.

Pos. Player, Team (League) Organization

AVG

AB

H

HR

RBI

SB

C Mike Napoli, Aguilas (D.R.) Angels

.342

79

27

5

19

0

1B Jesse Gutierrez, Navajoa (Mex.) Reds

.293

184

54

15

40

0

2B Esteban German, Azucareros (D.R.) Royals

.331

181

60

0

19

30

3B Eric Duncan, Grand Canyon (AFL) Yankees

.362

94

34

8

27

0

SS Brandon Wood, Surprise (AFL) Angels

.307

114

35

14

32

0

OF Yurendell De Caster, Oriente (Ven.) Pirates

.325

209

68

17

47

11

OF Luis A. Garcia, Hermosillo (Mex.) None

.320

219

70

18

57

0

OF Luke Scott, Magallanes (Ven.) Astros

.345

119

41

12

30

0

DH Luis Figueroa, Mayaguez (P.R.) Red Sox

.417

163

68

1

22

5

 

Pos. Player, Team (League) Organization

W

L

ERA

IP

H

BB

SO

SP William Collazo, Carolina (P.R.) Angels

5

2

2.35

57

51

8

33

SP Harold Eckert, Zulia (Ven.) Dodgers

4

4

2.78

74

62

21

94

SP Willie Eyre, Aragua (Ven.) Twins

9

0

1.26

64

56

13

39

SP Spike Lundberg, Gusave (Mex.) Blue Jays

9

3

2.23

93

77

22

61

RP Yhency Brazoban, Licey (D.R.) Dodgers

3

2

1.64

22

21

6

21

Contributing: Kevin Goldstein

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