July 2 Notebook: Surprise In Venezuela




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Every year there are surprises in the international market. With all the new rules and restrictions about to begin on July 2, this year has an even more unusual feel, as teams are paying bonuses to currently eligible players beyond their true value, for various reasons, and trying to squeeze as much as they can out of the new $2.9 million limits for the upcoming July 2 class.

One of the biggest recent surprises among international scouts is that the Blue Jays may not be as closely linked to Venezuelan righthander Jose Mujica (profiled here) as previously thought. The Blue Jays had been seen as the heavy frontrunner for Mujica, who turns 16 on June 29 and is considered by many scouts to be the top pitching prospect in Latin America in this year's July 2 class.

Now, for whatever reason, the picture for Mujica is more muddled, and there are some who believe Toronto may end up going in a different direction. The Red Sox and Diamondbacks had previously been linked to Mujica, who trains at Carlos Guillen's academy.

"Mujica has pitchability, he's loose and projectable," said one international scouting director. "He's got a good delivery, good arm action and a good fastball . . . He to me is the cream of the crop in pitching. Whoever signs him, I understand why."

The Blue Jays are still considered the favorite to land 16-year-old Venezuelan Franklin Barreto, the player some teams believe is the top prospect available for July 2. There aren't many teams that think Barreto will stay at shortstop, but he's worked out in center field and his 70 speed would be a good fit there, though second base might also be an option. His small, compact stature (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) isn't ideal, but his bat is his calling card and his track record of hitting is unparalleled in this year's class.

"Breaking down the tools, it'd be Barreto No. 1," said another international scouting director. "I think you probably get a lot of different opinions about what position people see him at long term, but just in terms of the speed and the bat, he's certainly the top guy. He can hit for a high average, 15 to 20 home runs and he's got bat speed. The fact that he can run, that's going to add to the average as well. For me, the bat speed gives him a chance to hit and he's got pretty good hand-eye coordination."

Ronald Medrano is a 6-foot, 170-pound righthander who trains at an academy run by Gary Wendt and former major league righthander Dennis Martinez. Medrano's size doesn't give him a ton of projection, but he's a strike-thrower with good pitchability for a 16-year-old. He throws in the high-80s with good life and pitches well to both sides of the plate. He shows a good curveball and his feel for a changeup is also beyond most kids his age.

• Dominican shortstop Wendell Rijo is still working way to get back on the field after suffering a knee injury during the Dominican Prospect League's spring training tour in the United States in March. Rijo, 16, has been a standout as one of the best hitters in the country prior to his injury.

• Venezuelan lefthander Jose Castillo has seen his stock rise as his fastball went from the mid-80s over the winter to touching the low 90s last month. More recently, Castillo has sat consistently in the low 90s at tryouts. The Red Sox and Padres have been mentioned as possible teams of interest on Castillo, as have the Royals. Some think the Dodgers and Orioles could also be sleepers here, although Castillo's expected bonus is beyond their typical price range.

• International sources say the Twins are showing heavy interest in Amaurys Minier (profiled here), a 16-year-old switch-hitter from the Dominican Republic. Minier plays shortstop now but any team in on him is buying him for his bat—particularly from the left side—since he's probably going to have to move to third base quickly and may end up at either first base or a corner outfield spot. The expectation in Dominican circles is that he will be one of the highest-paid players on the island.

• Dominican third baseman Nataneal Javier won MVP honors at the DPL's recent all-tournament game at the Perfect Game International Series at the Yankees' Dominican academy. Scouts had said that Javier, a 16-year-old righthanded hitter who trains with Basilio Vizcaino (known as Cachaza), had been inconsistent with his hitting previously, but he went 3-for-3 with a double during the game. Vizcaino had another third baseman last year, Miguel Andujar, who signed with the Yankees for $750,000 and is off to a good start in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Javier is bigger and more physical (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) than Anudjar and may have more raw power, though his hitting and approach aren't as advanced as Andujar. His older brother Sony Javier spent three years with the Blue Jays in their DSL program before the organization released him this year.

• The third basemen drawing the most interest in the Dominican Republic are Julio de la Cruz and Carlos Belen (both profiled here). De la Cruz trains with former big league outfielder Luis Polonia, whose 19-year-old son Rodney Polonia is in his second year with the Pirates in their Dominican Summer League program. Some sources believe the Pirates are one of the teams in on de la Cruz.

• Alfredo Arias of the Arias and Goodman academy has two third basemen, Juan Carlos Arias and Miguel Mercedes. Arias, 16, has an extra-large frame (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and good power from the right side. Arias is strong, rotational and puts on a good show in batting practice, though some scouts have questions about his game hitting. Mercedes, 16, is another big third baseman (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) with a similar profile, with good raw power (though maybe a tick less than Arias) but also question marks on the bat and the defense.