For many reasons, the international market is full of risk.
One glance at the list of baseball's most expensive international amateur free agents shows how much uncertainty is involved in scouting 15- and 16-year-old kids in Latin America. The majority of the top bonuses for Latin American amateur players have gone to hitters, but high-priced Latin American pitching has had a surprisingly decent track record, especially given the long road to the major leagues and elevated injury risks.
Francisco Rodriguez ($900,000 from the Angels in 1998), Francisco Liriano ($900,000 from the Giants in 1999), and Felix Hernandez ($710,000 from the Mariners in 2002) have become all-stars. Prospects like Braves righthanders Julio Teheran ($850,000 in 2007) and Arodys Vizcaino ($800,000 from the Yankees in 2007) and Rangers lefthander Martin Perez ($580,000 in 2007) all rank among the top prospects in baseball and are pitching well at Double-A or above.
Then again, Ricardo Aramboles, Jose Pett, Rolando Pascual and Larry Suarez never developed as expected, while the early returns on Athletics righthander Michael Ynoa, Padres righty Adys Portillo and Mets lefthander Juan Urbina have been mixed.
While righthander Roberto Osuna is drawing attention in Mexico, many scouts believe Venezuelan righthander Victor Sanchez is the top pitching prospect in this year's July 2 class. International sources expect Sanchez to sign for around $2 million-$2.5 million, with the Mariners considered the strong favorites to land him.
With a fastball that has reached 94 mph, Sanchez is the hardest thrower in Venezuela, while his offspeed stuff and feel for pitching are also among the best in the country. Sanchez, 16, has a thick but strong 6-foot-1 frame, sloped shoulders, big hands and good athleticism. He could even be a solid prospect as a power-hitting corner outfielder, though he's much more advanced on the mound. His experience as the ace of Venezuelan youth national teams is evident, as he shows advanced feel for pitching and the ability to work both sides of the plate.
Scouts do have some concerns about Sanchez. Some say he doesn't miss as many bats as they would expect given his stuff, as his fastball can be straight. They also wonder how much projection is left in his body. Still, Sanchez should have plenty of fastball if he can sit in the low 90s in longer stretches. The Blue Jays gave Venezuelan righthander Adonys Cardona the top bonus ($2.8 million) in Latin America a year ago, and while Sanchez's bonus might fall short of that mark, many scouts believe he is a better prospect.
"There's a guy for me," said an international scouting director. "He's not that big, but he can really pitch. He's got a 60 slider (on the 20-80 scouting scale), he's sitting 90-93 consistently, and I'm telling you, he's easy. It's 90-93 and it's easy."
Venezuela has several intriguing arms, and one of those moving up teams' follow lists is Mauricio Silva, a 15-year-old Venezuelan righthander who already has one of the best fastballs in Latin America. Silva, who won't be able to sign until he turns 16 in late July, is 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and throws a lively fastball that reaches the low 90s and has touched 93 mph with heavy sink.
Silva throws a curveball and a changeup, with scouts mixed on the two pitches. He flashes a power curveball at times and shows inconsistent feel for the changeup. He's more filled out that some young Latin American arms, but his combination of youth and present stuff is among the best in Latin America.
Among the first tier of righthanders in Venezuela, scouts talk most about Sanchez, Silva and Antonio Senzatela, who has drawn interest from the Rockies. Senzatela, who is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds with broad shoulders, throws with downhill plane anywhere from 88-92 mph, touching 93. Senzatela has a loose arm and a solid delivery and is an advanced strike-thrower, though his breaking ball will need polish.
The best lefty in Latin America might be Venezuela's Yohander Mendez, who has been connected to the Rangers. Mendez has a long, lanky build, and the ball jumps out of his hand with a loose delivery. He throws in the mid- to high 80s, has touched 90 mph and shows feel for a changeup, though he's been hard for scouts to see recently.
Righthander Soid Marquez doesn't have the present stuff of Sanchez, Silva or Senzatela, but he's getting plenty of attention from scouts in Venezuela. Marquez, who is 6-foot-2, has a good delivery and an inconsistent fastball that's been anywhere from 85-89 mph. Scouts project more down the road. Marquez doesn't throw as hard as Senzatela, but he shows better feel for a breaking ball and has flashed feel for a changeup.
Jonathan Perez is another Venezuelan righthander who doesn't have overpowering present velocity but has a good delivery and a projectable body. Perez, 16, has an athletic 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame and has seen his fastball increase from the mid-80s to the high 80s this year. He has touched 90 mph, and his curveball and changeup need polish.
Carlos Rodriguez doesn't have as much projection as Mendez, but he is another lefthander drawing interest in Venezuela. Rodriguez's delivery isn't as clean as Mendez's, but he repeats it well to throw strikes and he stands out for his feel for pitching. Rodriguez throws around 86-89 mph, and he shows feel for a changeup and an inconsistent curveball.
While the Dominican Republic has a host of max-effort pitchers who can light up a radar gun, scouts don't like the arms there as much as those in Venezuela. The top prospect at this point is probably Miguel Gonzalez, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound righthander from La Vega. Gonzalez, a 16-year-old whose trainer is Raul Valera (known as Banana) and works out at La Academia, stands out for his feel for pitching. Gonzalez throws a fastball, curveball and changeup, and while he doesn't have a wipeout pitch or the most projectable body, he throws strikes and works efficiently off an 88-90 mph fastball that touches 91 with solid life.
Manuel Gonzalez, who plays in the International Prospect League and trains with Amaurys Nina along with top outfielder Elier Hernandez, has a more projectable 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame. Gonzalez, 16, was probably the top pitching prospect in the Dominican coming into the spring but hasn't progressed as scouts had hoped. He still has touched the low 90s at his best and projects as a power pitcher down the road, once he learns to incorporate his lower half into his delivery. He has a loose arm, is a strike thrower and uses a curveball and a changeup, with the changeup the more advanced of the two.