As if the American League East needs to become even more fiercely competitive.
The Yankees and Red Sox are always financial heavyweights in the international market. Last year the Rays joined the party by handing big bonuses to Venezuelan third baseman Cesar Perez and Venezuelan shortstop Juniel Querecuto. Now it appears that the Blue Jays and Orioles are ready to step up their overseas spending when the international signing period begins on July 2, the first date upon which 16-year-old international prospects can sign.
Sources have told Baseball America that the Orioles, a perennially frugal club in the international market, have increased their presence in Latin America and are looking to land a top player. The Orioles juggled their front office in March, swapping the
roles of John Stockstill and and his brother David Stockstill by naming
David Stockstill their international scouting director and John
Stockstill their farm director. The Orioles were high on Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano last year, but many believe the Orioles could pull the trigger this year to sign a prospect at the top of the 2010 class.
The Blue Jays are no strangers to the international market, having awarded high six-figure bonuses to Venezuelan catcher Santiago Nessy last year and Dominican shortstop Gustavo Pierre the year prior, but early forecasts have them as one of the top five spenders in the 2010 international market. The Blue Jays, who gave a four-year, $10 million contract to 21-year-old Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria in April, are believed to be the frontrunners for Venezuela's top pitcher and could land other top Latin American prospects as well.
The Diamondbacks signed seven picks in the first two rounds of last year's draft and weren't big spenders in Latin America in 2009, but they signed Dominican outfielder Wagner Mateo in May for $512,000 and could have a larger presence in the international market this summer. The Astros unveiled their new academy in the Dominican Republic in May and could make more noise in the market this year as well.
The Rangers, Mariners and Yankees also figure to be active for prospects at the top of the market as usual. The Mariners don't have a first-round pick in the draft and the Yankees don't pick until No. 32 overall; all three teams could come away with at least two of the top prospects from this year's class.
While July 2 is less than five weeks away, some scouts are already looking forward to a promising 2011 class. Whereas in 2009 the top of the class was clearly defined well before July 2 with three elite players—Sano (Twins), Gary Sanchez (Yankees) and Mateo (Diamondbacks)—the top of the 2010 group seems to be more muddled. Many scouts in the Dominican Republic say the 2010 class is lighter than most years, which means there is a wider range of players who could end up with the top bonuses in a hitter-heavy crop.
"I know people say it's a down year, but there is talent out there," said one international scouting director. "And as time progresses, there are always more guys who pop up all over the place. Sano, Sanchez—those were huge guys. I think the standout, big-time guy isn't there, but there's still bunch of guys out there who are middle-range type guys."
One of the top prospects on the market appears ticketed to Toronto, as the Blue Jays are expected to sign Venezuelan righthander Adonis Cardona for $2.8 million—which would be a Venezuelan record and the second-highest bonus for any Latin American pitcher after Ynoa—though some scouts believe the true figure might be lower or at least slightly different. At 6-foot-4, Cardona stands out for his highly projectable frame and present arm strength with a fastball that can sit at 88-91 mph and touch 93. Cardona should have a plus fastball and could one day throw in the mid-90s. He also shows some feel for a changeup.
While Cardona is seen as one of the top pitchers available for this year's class, even scouts who generally liked him have their concerns. One international scouting director said he saw Cardona flash a solid curveball, but most scouts have called Cardona's curveball a below-average pitch. Cardona is more of a thrower than a pitcher, and some scouts aren't certain he will remain a starter due in part to his mechanics, though he has also been difficult for scouts to see lately.
Another player with strong ties to an organization is Dominican outfielder Phillips Castillo, who is expected to sign with the Mariners for $2 million on July 2. A 16-year-old righthanded hitter, Castillo has a wiry build at around 6-foot-2, 175 pounds and stands out for his potential at the plate, with excellent bat speed and power potential. With average speed and an average arm, Castillo will be a corner outfielder in pro ball.
Oakland made its mark on international history by going to the Dominican Republic to sign righthander Michael Ynoa for $4.25 million in 2008, but more recently the Athletics have been scouring Venezuela for the country's top talent. Their prime target this year appears to be Venezuelan third baseman Renato Nunez, who international sources say they believe will sign with the Athletics for a seven-figure bonus.
Nunez is an offensive-oriented, righthanded hitter who trains with Ciro Barrios, the prominent Venezuelan trainer whose past players include Reds center fielder Yorman Rodriguez. Nunez, 16, played for Venezuela at the World Youth Championships in August in Taiwan, where he had a four-hit game against Mexico and hit .333/.385/.583 with a triple, four doubles, a walk and five strikeouts in 24 at-bats, though he also led the team with five errors.
Nunez is one of the best hitters on the market, standing out at the plate with a clean swing and plus power. Reviews of Nunez's defense are mixed, with some believing he might have to move off the position, though others don't share that concern. Some scouts think Nunez's well-proportioned 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame and good athleticism would make him a good fit at catcher in pro ball, though he figures to sign as a third baseman.
Some scouts believe the best overall hitter this year is Dominican shortstop Esteilon Peguero, a righthanded batter who trains with Enrique Soto and has drawn interest from the Mariners and Rangers. Peguero, 16, has been one of the beneficiaries of the upstart Dominican Prospect League, where he has shown he can stand out at the plate against live pitching as one of the league's best hitters. Peguero has good bat speed, a sound swing and enough power to drive the ball into the gaps, while his pitch recognition is also solid for his age.
At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Peguero has a good frame but will likely move to either third base or second base. Some scouts believe Peguero could become a solid defender at one of those positions, but his hitting is the primary draw.
Dominican center fielder Vicmal de la Cruz, who is represented by La Academia and whose trainer, Raul Valera, is known in the scouting community simply as "Banana," stacks up well against anyone in this year's July 2 class in terms of pure athleticism. At 16, de la Cruz has a thickly-built, 5-foot-11 frame and has plus speed. De la Cruz has excellent strength and bat speed from the left side, which helps him generate plus raw power. More than one international scout has labeled de la Cruz as simply, "a beast."
While de la Cruz offers plenty of tools, everything he does comes with aggression and effort, even in his running style. He's a free swinger who has a tendency to collapse on his back side and can become pull-conscious, but he can do plenty of damage when he gets ahold of a fastball. De la Cruz has the raw speed and an arm that grades out around average to play a quality center field, though he's still learning to take better routes on fly balls.
Eskarlin Vazquez trains with Moreno Tejada and is represented by agent Rob Plummer—the same duo that worked with Sano last year—and Vazquez and Sano are reportedly close friends. Vazquez, a 16-year-old right fielder from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, has a projectable body at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. Vazquez has above-average raw power and a solid swing. He's an average runner, but his arm grades out as at least a 60 on the 20-80 scale and will play well in right field.
The top shortstop from Venezuela is Rougned Odor (pronounced "Oh-Door"), known by some simply as "Roo" or "Rougie." Odor, 16, is the nephew of Rouglas Odor, who reached Double-A with the Indians in the early-90s and is now the Indians hitting coach at high Class A Kinston. Rougned Odor has represented Venezuelan youth national teams for years, including in August when he played in the World Youth Championships in Taiwan. Odor was Venezuela's best player in Taiwan, earning tournament all-star honors after hitting .538/.545/.857, going 15-for-28 with two home runs, a triple, a double, two walks, two strikeouts and five stolen bases in six attempts. Odor, who primarily hit in the three-hole for Venezuela, finished the tournament ranked eighth in OPS and second stolen bases. His four errors split between shortstop and second base were also the third-most in the tournament.
Odor has solid all-around tools, but he stands out more in game situations than in workouts. At around 5-foot-10, Odor doesn't have great size, but his clean lefthanded swing and advanced feel for hitting have earned rave reviews. He has shown the ability to hit good pitching, reportedly performing well against Yankees farmhands in an extended spring training game in early May. He doesn't project as a power hitter, but he has shown surprising pop for his size and the ability to drive the ball, with some scouts saying he could have average power in time. Odor is an average runner who might have to move to second base, but he can handle himself at the position for now with good hands, average range and a solid although sometimes erratic arm. The Yankees appear to have some interest in Odor, while the Phillies and Blue Jays (general manager Alex Anthopoulos has reportedly seen Odor) could also get involved.
Dominican outfielder Ariel Ogando—also referred to by some scouts as Ovando—is one of the best power hitters on the island. Ogando, 16, has a long build at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, showing good bat speed and plus raw power in batting practice. He has a tendency to wrap his bat and has a lot of movement in his setup, and like many long-framed teenagers his swing can get long, so his power is accompanied by strikeouts.
Ogando doesn't have great speed or arm strength, so even the more optimistic defensive projections have him in left field. While some scouts say Ogando moves well enough in the outfield to stay out there, others believe that with the size he could put on he might end up at first base. Either way, Ogando's size and raw power figure to draw plenty of interest from clubs.
Edwin Moreno is a 16-year-old lefthanded Dominican outfielder with a mature approach to hitting and a broad skill set. Moreno has struggled somewhat in the DPL, but he has good strike-zone awareness, works the count well and shows a good feel for making contact.
Moreno is listed at 6-foot-1, 183 pounds, though scouts say he might be an inch or two shorter. His size limits his projection and his stocky build is a concern for some scouts who are worried Moreno will get thicker, but it will be his bat and approach that will carry him. Moreno will have to play a corner outfield position as a pro, but he has the potential to be at least an average defender because he runs and throws well, though he's still learning to refine his routes to the ball.
Jorge Feliz doesn't have high-profile representation, but several scouts have called him the best pitcher in the Dominican Republic for the 2010 class. Feliz, a righthander from Santiago, is around 6-foot-1 and extremely skinny, but he's already regularly reaching the low-90s with his fastball with the projection in his body to add velocity as he fills out. Feliz has a loose, quick arm and has also shown a good curveball.