International Emphasis Pays Off For Mariners
PEORIA, Ariz. — The Mariners' aggressive approach in the international market is receiving affirmation every five days this summer when Michael Pineda takes the mound.
Pineda, a native of the Dominican Republic, is one of the early front-runners for the American League rookie of the year award and one example of the wealth of international talent signed by the Mariners the last five years.
The Mariners, who signed Felix Hernandez out of Venezuela nine years ago, invested even more heavily in international talent in 2010, outspending the other 29 major league organizations by signing several high-profile Latin players. This boost was financially feasible in part because the Mariners did not have the expense of a first-round pick in the 2010 draft, having forfeited the pick due to the signing of free agent Chone Figgins prior to the 2010 season.
"The last three to five years, the influx of Latin American talent has increased greatly in our system," Mariners farm director Pedro Grifol said. "Our scouts there are doing a tremendous job, not only in identifying them but in signing them."
Two of the bigger names from the 2010 international signing period, Phillips Castillo and Esteilon Peguero, will both be making their professional debuts in June, most likely starting in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Castillo, an outfielder from the Dominican Republic, received a bonus of $2.2 million last July. Peguero, a shortstop also from the Dominican, originally signed for $2.9 million before his contract was re-worked to a $1.1 million bonus for undisclosed reasons.
Castillo Flashes Talent
Castillo, a 17-year-old righthanded hitter, made it to the United States to participate in instructional league last fall. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Castillo has a strong, athletic body with plenty of room for projection. He has very good bat speed and raw strength. But what stands out most about Castillo's approach is his plate discipline and pitch recognition, unusual for a player his age.
"He'll take a few pitches until he gets his pitch," Grifol said about Castillo. "He doesn't do it all the time but he shows you glimpses of being able to command the strike zone."
Castillo's youth was evident in instructional league, when he showed a lot of movement from his body while in the batter's box. However, that has already improved.
"I don't think you're going to see too much of that anymore," said Andy Bottin, the long-time hitting coach for the Arizona League team. "We've tried to work with him to get him quiet so that he has a nice, easy approach, good arm slot and good angle to the ball, staying through the ball and inside the ball, and then driving it."
Castillo projects best as a corner outfielder, with likely enough arm to play right field. He has nice, easy arm strength with good carry. But the Mariners will let him play all three outfield positions to start his career.
Like Castillo, Peguero is just 17. He didn't arrive in the United States until mid-March, shortly after the start of minor league spring training. But the 6-foot-1, 185-pound infielder has already proven to be a quick learner.
According to Grifol, Peguero projects as a line-drive hitter and has uncanny hand-eye coordination. He only needs to learn to control the strike zone to become a special hitter, Grifol said.
In order to develop his shortstop skills, he's been working regularly with Mariners infield instructor Darrin Garner and Arizona League manager Jesus Azuaje on his footwork in the field and on improving his arm angles on throws.
What's very noticeable about Peguero is his self-confidence. When asked what major league player he most wants to emulate, he answered through a translator, "Right now I want to make my own way. I like a lot of players, but I want to make my own way."
This attitude has not gone unnoticed by the Mariners staff.
"He's himself," Grifol said about Peguero. "He isn't cocky . . . he goes about his business the right way. He's not afraid to speak up, he's not afraid of the game, he's not afraid of the cultural change.
"He's not afraid of anything."
Campos Packing Heat
The Latin newcomer expected to move the fastest this year is Venezuelan righthander Vicente Campos.
Unlike Castillo and Peguero, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Campos is not new to professional baseball, having played two seasons with the Mariners' Venezuelan Summer League team, including last year when he maintained a 3.16 ERA in 57 innings with 59 strikeouts and 19 walks. He also pitched six games in the Venezuelan League last winter as a reliever for the Cardenales de Lara.
Campos, who will turn 19 in July, might have already broken camp with a full-season team if not for a minor injury setback during spring training. The most likely starting point for his stateside career will be with short-season Everett, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him make it to low Class A Clinton before the end of the summer.
Campos has an electric fastball, sitting regularly at 94-95 mph and at times touches 100. He also has a changeup, and what Arizona League pitching coach Gary Wheelock described as "kind of a slurvy type of breaking ball."
Campos needs to continue to improve his secondary pitches. Like many young pitchers, he often tends to revert to his strongest pitch, the fastball.
The Mariners' coaching staff at extended spring training was working with Campos on improving his delivery.
"It's a repeatable delivery but we're going to like him to stay back," Wheelock said. "He uses a lot of arm right now, which is amazing because he's got such a good arm, but we'd like him to use his legs and turn over the rubber a little bit more."
Wheelock went on to compliment Campos' arm action.
"He's coming three-quarterish, maybe a tad below three-quarters, but it's got really good life, good movement and great velocity," Wheelock said.
The enthusiasm about all three players is evident when talking to members of the Mariners staff.
"We're just excited to see them play," Grifol said. "They're young, they're talented, and they just need to go experience the game of baseball."