With the draft now complete, teams turn their attention to the other major source of amateur talent: the international market.
Scouting directors, assistant general managers and other chief decision makers will be making their way to Latin America in the coming weeks. July 2 is the first date when 16-year-olds from outside of the United States, Canada and Puerto can sign, and teams' top talent evaluators are getting their final looks at some of the top international free agents on the market.
What will they find when they get there?
Many international scouts say the 2011 class looks stronger than last year's. The Dominican Republic has several talented outfielders who should be in line for seven-figure bonuses, Venezuela has a host of promising pitchers and catchers, and both countries have solid depth of position players. Mexico and Colombia also have players who are expected to command bonuses around $1 million or more.
"I definitely think this year's class has more depth and better players out there than last July 2," said an American League international director. "More teams are going to focus on Latin America, there are more showcases, more agents and it's easier to see the players. It does sound like there's going to be money spent on July 2."
As always, the Yankees are expected to be one of the top spenders, and they already started the year loudly by signing Dominican righthander Juan Carlos Paniagua for $1.1 million in March. The Blue Jays and Rangers both spent heavily in 2010 and figure to do so again, while the Royals could be one of the breakout spenders of 2011. The Mariners and Pirates figure to be active but not quite as much as last year, while the Red Sox and Reds could both be more aggressive this summer after scaling back a year ago. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see the Tigers, who didn't have a pick in the draft until 76th overall, make up for it by going after top international talent.
Dominican Outfielders Lead Hitting Crop
In the Dominican Republic, three outfielders appear to have separated themselves from the pack, with a chance to break Miguel Sano's $3.15 million bonus record for a Dominican hitter.
One is Ronald Guzman, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound lefty from La Vega who trains with Eddy Robles and has played for the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. In the RBI junior division World Series title game in Jupiter, Fla., in August, Guzman drove in a run to help lead his Santo Domingo club to a 4-1 victory, the first time a Dominican team had won an RBI championship. One week later, Guzman participated in the Under-Armour All-America game at Wrigley Field, where he played alongside 2011 first-rounders Bubba Starling and Brandon Nimmo.
Guzman has a projectable body, an easy swing and an advanced approach at the plate for a 16-year-old. Despite his youth and long arms, Guzman does a good job of staying inside the ball and is able to work deep counts to wait for his pitch to hit.
His power has been inconsistent, but he has shown the ability to hit the ball over the fence in batting practice and won the Dominican Prospect League's home run derby in January. In games he doesn't show as much power, as he's still learning to pull the ball with more authority when he gets his pitch to hit.
"Guzman's the best hitter right now," said a Latin American director. "He's the guy who hits, stays steady and doesn't move his head when he starts his load. He knows what he's doing up there."
Scouts say Guzman's speed and arm strength are best suited for left field, though he shows solid defensive instincts. He earns wide-ranging praise from scouts for his aptitude and makeup. He graduated high school this summer and comes from well-educated parents, as his father runs his own business and his mother is a nurse. Guzman's older brother, Edward, spent three seasons as an outfielder and a pitcher for the Mets in the Dominican Summer League from 2007-09. The Rangers, Red Sox and Blue Jays are among the teams that Dominican sources have connected to Guzman.
Elier Hernandez, 16, also played in the DPL until his trainer, Amaury Nina, left to form the International Prospect League, where Hernandez now plays. Hernandez's approach to hitting isn't as refined as Guzman's, but he has more explosive bat speed from the right side and is one of the better athletes in Latin America with a lively 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame.
"You could put him in a uniform right now," said one Latin American director, "and he'd look like a big leaguer."
Hernandez has impressive raw power and has shown well for some scouts in games, though others say he's a higher-risk prospect than Guzman because he doesn't always take his BP swing to the games, though that should be correctable with professional instruction. An average runner, Hernandez's size and tools are still tantalizing, and he has a stronger arm than Guzman that would fit well in right field. Several teams have shown strong interest in Hernandez, but the Royals appear to be the frontrunner.
Guzman and outfielder Nomar Mazara were teammates on the Dominican Republic's junior division RBI championship program. Mazara, who has been on scouts' radar since he was 13 with his play in youth leagues, is a lanky but strong lefty at around 6-foot-3, 185 pounds. Mazara has left some scouts in awe of his raw power, and they have used words like "silly," "ridiculous" and "stupid" to describe the shows Mazara puts on in batting practice.
He has hit well at times against live pitching, but several scouts have questions about his ability to take his power and transfer it to game situations, as he has an exaggerated high leg kick and can be prone to swinging and missing. Mazara doesn't play in any of the significant leagues in the Dominican Republic, and scouts say he's been showcased carefully. He's a corner outfielder, so his bat will have to carry him. Mazara has been the subject of wild, widespread rumors with regards to his potential signing bonus and destination, none of which appear to have any credibility, so it's not clear what teams might truly be involved.
Among position players in Venezuela, one of the top bonuses figures to go to Wilmer Becerra,
a speedy shortstop who projects as an outfielder and has been connected
to the Cardinals, Twins and Athletics. Becerra played in the Liga
Paralela (the minor league version of the Venezuelan League) last year
and went 8-for-26 (.346) with a home run, a double, no walks and eight
strikeouts. Becerra's father, also named Wilmer Becerra, didn't play in
the United States but was a well-known player in Venezuela, scouted for the Cardinals and now works with Ciro Barrios, with whom
his son now trains.
Becerra has an athletic 6-foot-3 frame and is one of the fastest players
in Venezuela, running the 60-yard dash in 6.6 seconds. Though he didn't
have his best showing at an MLB showcase in April, Becerra has hit well
for some teams in games and has impressive raw power as well. Most
scouts project him to move to the outfield, either to center field
because of his speed or left field due to his lack of arm
strength and in case he loses speed as he fills out.
Mexican Product Leads Arms Race
The Pirates signed Mexican righthander Luis Heredia last year for $2.6 million, and scouts say that Mexico has another one of the top pitching prospects for July 2 this year. Righthander Roberto Osuna, the nephew of former big leaguer Antonio Osuna, doesn't turn 16 until July 2 but is already pitching in games for the Mexico Red Devils in the Mexican League. In 20 innings he has a 5.49 ERA with 12 strikeouts and 11 walks, but the numbers mean little, as he's facing hitters 10-20 years older than he is.
Listed at 6 feet, 198 pounds, Osuna isn't as projectable as Heredia, though he already throws harder than Heredia did at 15, and some scouts say he has more advanced feel for pitching. One scout said last year that Osuna was already touching 94 mph with his fastball, and while not every scout has seen him that high, scouts this year have seen him pitching anywhere from 88-94 mph. He shows an advanced curveball for his age and decent feel for his changeup.
In Venezuela, righthander Victor Sanchez is the top pitching prospect and perhaps the country's top prospect overall. A 16-year-old out of Caracas, Sanchez played for Venezuela's 14-and-under team in 2008 at the COPABE Pan-American championships as a 13-year-old, the second-youngest player on a roster that included top Venezuelan signings from last year's class such as Blue Jays righthander Adonys Cardona, Royals shortstop Humberto Arteaga, and Rangers shortstop Rougned Odor. Sanchez pitched a five-inning no-hitter against Ecuador and struck out eight, missing a perfect game only because he hit one batter.
Sanchez could also be an interesting prospect as a hitter because of his excellent raw power. Some scouts believe in his ability to hit, while most say his propensity to swing and miss and his advanced repertoire on the mound have them more excited about him as a pitcher.
Sanchez has a loose arm and thick, well-developed frame at 6-foot-1, so scouts wonder how much projection is left with his fastball. He already has hit 94 mph and pitches around 89-92 mph. Beyond one of the best fastballs in Latin America, Sanchez has feel for pitching and a four-pitch mix that includes an advanced slider and a decent changeup.
"I love Victor Sanchez," said one international director. "He's exactly my type of pitcher: power and feel. We worked him him out and he didn't even have his best fastball, but he worked in his offspeed (and) worked in and out with a breaking ball and a changeup."