Winter Wonders: Bonifacio Wins POY

Diamondbacks farmhand takes winter award




Emilio Bonifacio helped Licey have a happy 100th birthday.

Batting leadoff for Licey of the Dominican Winter League, Bonifacio helped lead the Lions to a Caribbean Series championship in the team's 100th anniversary season.

Bonifacio, who turns 23 on April 23, is Baseball America's 2008 Winter Player of the Year.

Bonifacio hit .300/.359/.343 in 140 at-bats in the Dominican Winter League. He then posted a .357 on-base percentage in 28 plate appearances in the Caribbean Series, was successful on all three of his stolen base attempts and reached base in each of Licey's six games in the series.

"He's an exciting player—he's got the tools, the speed and he's a very good second base defender," farm director A.J. Hinch said.

"I see some progress in his approach. He's becoming a tougher out, learning how to get on base and learning the little things that often separate a toolsy prospect with some upside from a big leaguer."

A switch-hitter with plus-plus speed, Bonifacio improved his on-field performance markedly from the first half to the second half of the regular season in 2007 in Double-A Mobile. From April to June, Bonifacio hit an unremarkable .272/.314/.317 in 338 at-bats.

In July and August, Bonifacio cut his strikeout rate from 20 percent in the first half to 15 percent, hitting .305/.362/.408 in 213 at-bats before a brief September callup. He led the Southern League with 41 stolen bases in 54 attempts (76 percent), a year after leading the high Class A California League with 61 steals in 75 attempts (81 percent).

"It's the essence of player development," Hinch said of the maturation of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Bonifacio. "We preach approach. In player development, you never really know when something's going to click with him. Guys take off whenever they get it, and about midseason he started to get it, recognize pitches better and become a tougher out, and he carried that with him throughout the winter.

"He drew a few more walks and became a more patient hitter as the season progressed. When he puts the ball in play a lot of good things happen. For a guy with his skill set, if strikeouts start to creep in, it takes away from some of the dynamic ability he has."

Adjustment Patterns

Bonifacio's ability to adjust once he gets some experience at a new level of competition seems like it might be a trend.

In 2006, his first year at high Class A Lancaster, Bonifacio hit .309/.366/.421 in 285 at-bats from April to June. From July until the end of the season, Bonifacio hit .333/.385/.479 in 261 at-bats, showing a slight increase in power and cutting his strikeout rate from 20 percent to 15 percent.

"He has speed, he gets on base and he's proven that with Arizona," an American League scout said. "He can also play the outfield—he's proven that in the Dominican. He's a super utility player. He's a little like (Jose) Reyes . . . he's got a deep zone, sometimes he gets in the tendency, especially (batting) lefthanded, to start jumping at ball a little bit. The one good thing is that he doesn't try to play a power game or anything like that. He'll stay within himself, use his hands and he can run. He knows what his game is."

His speed and sure hands make him an above-average defender at second base, where the Diamondbacks intend to keep Bonifacio. However, he has played shortstop and could see some more time in the outfield to increase his versatility after playing there this winter.

Hinch said Bonifacio should start the 2008 season in Tucson, where he will have to make adjustments against Triple-A pitchers.

"He's going to see more breaking balls," Hinch said. "He'll have to adjust to more offspeed pitches. The pitchers are going to be better at holding him on base, better at controlling the running game. The finer details and the craftiness of Triple-A will be an adjustment for him.

"There's a definite difference between Double-A and Triple-A in terms of the how savvy the players are, which means he's going to have to work harder to get his stolen bases, and he'll get more off speed pitches behind in the count."

Without the present strength or swing plane to hit for power, the key for Bonifacio offensively will be his ability to create runs by getting on base.

"His knowledge of the strike zone has improved," Hinch said. "Because his athleticism and ability has allowed him to push across the board from the mid and upper levels, it can be a frustrating thing for a hitter to be patient. We're continuing to preach selectivity."

Bonifacio is the second player in a row from the Diamondbacks organization to win the award. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, now with the Athletics, won the award in 2007.

Winter Workload

One of the other prospects who performed well this winter was Reds righthander Johnny Cueto, who struck out 37 batters in 31 2/3 innings for Aguilas with a 2.84 ERA and seven walks.

The additional workload meant Cueto, who ranks No. 34 in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects, threw 193 innings and faced 804 batters in 2007, an increase of 50 2/3 innings and 238 batters faced from his 2006 campaign. Righthander Juan Gutierrez, 24, who the Diamondbacks acquired from the Astros this offseason and who pitched in the Venezuelan League, is the only other pitcher in the 2008 Prospect Handbook who faced more batters than Cueto did last year.

"He was 75 or 80 pitches at most each start," Reds farm director Terry Reynolds said. "He only threw for the first month down there, then we asked him to shut it down for the spring."

A 5-foot-11, 174 pounds, Cueto dominated minor league hitters last season, starting the year at high Class A and finishing in Triple-A. Using a relatively free and easy delivery with clean arm action, Cueto had 174 strikeouts and 34 walks in 161 1/3 minor league innings and a combined 3.07 ERA.

"Every inning that he can throw at this age helps," Reynolds said. "But especially with a young guy that needs to be monitored. If you let him go, they'll let him throw as many innings as they can because they're real competitive down there. But the relationship with the clubs down there is good. They understand when they major league club calls and says he's thrown enough innings."

Armed with a 93-94 mph fastball that touches 96 and a plus slider, Cueto is now competing for a spot in the Reds rotation. If he doesn't start with the major league team, he'll begin the year with Triple-A Louisville.

QUICK HITS

• The Rangers have moved Chris Davis, the No. 2 prospect in the system, from third base to first base. Davis, who previously played first at Navarro (Texas) Junior College, was a below-average fielder at third base who struggled with his footwork. Davis played first base in his professional debut in 2006, when he split time between first base and right field. He hit .297/.347/.598 in 495 at-bats as a 21-year-old last year between high Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco. The move does negate somewhat one of Davis' better tools, his above-average throwing arm.

• After the Pirates drafted lefthander Daniel Moskos with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2007 draft, the team announced he would be groomed as a reliever as a professional. With a new front office in place, the team has now decided that Moskos will be developed as a starter. Moskos struck out 16 batters in 15 2/3 innings last year between the Gulf Coast League and short-season State College. A reliever his first two seasons at Clemson, Moskos split time between the rotation and the bullpen last year with the Tigers.