Prospect Pulse: Aug. 23

Clubs showing interest in a new wave of Cuban defectors




Agent Jaime Torres represents high-profile Cuban defectors such as Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and White Sox righthander Jose Contreras.

In other words, while he's an agent, not a scout, he does know talent. And he believes he has some future big leaguers among the five Cuban defectors working out in the Dominican Republic.

All five players have been certified by Major League Baseball as free agents, with MLB alerting its organizations of the players' availability and certification. Three of the players--catcher Alexis Fonseca, righthander Serguey Linares and infielder Yunesky Sanchez--can sign at any time, having cleared the bureaucratic process known as unblocking. Two others, righthander Yuslan Herrera and shortstop Yohannis Sanchez, have not yet been "unblocked" but should complete the process sooner rather than later.

Torres said his goal for the group is to have them signed to 2007 contracts in time to go to instructional league with major league organizations, or at least in time for them to be placed in a Caribbean winter league.

"I think some of these players could step in right now in the major leagues and play," Torres said. "You talk about Betancourt, and to me, Yohannis Perez is a very similar type of talent, with similar potential. Linares has hit 97-98 (mph) before, and I think he's the type of pitcher who could go to spring training next year and break camp with a major league club.

"Herrera, I had one organization put an offer on the table to see if he could help their major league team this year. I say he is ready right now, but he is not unblocked yet, so that is not going to happen. But he was ahead of (Mets righthander) Alay Soler in the rotation at Pinar Del Rio three years ago, and he is a professional, very mature, and he is ready to pitch."

Two scouts familiar with the players told Baseball America that Herrera was the most impressive of the quintet at a recent workout at the Diamondbacks academy in the Dominican, but that Linares and Perez have attracted the most attention of the group from scouts.

Perez, listed with an Oct. 11, 1982 birthday, has the most significant upside, as one scout said Perez once resembled Rickie Weeks due to his build, strong wrists and quick hands. He hit .271 with 10 home runs in more than 1,200 at-bats in his Serie Nacional career.

However, Perez hasn't played in any kind of league in the last two years since his defection, and has put on weight. Torres said Perez probably was 12-15 pounds heavier than he needed to be, checking in at 192 pounds rather than a desired 180-185. Torres said Perez is working to "have the body he needs to have."

"He ran a 6.6 (seconds over 60 yards) down there but I've seen him run better than a 6.4," said one international scout. "He's shown outstanding tools and instincts in the past, good hands--he can play. But what is he now, when he hasn't played for two years? He didn't see any good pitches to hit in the simulated game they played, so it was hard to say anything about his hitting, plus they used Baum (wood composite) bats.

"All four of them ate some bad shrimp the night before, and Perez was throwing up during the game. It was just hard to tell what he is."

Linares, 23, was affected by the food poisoning and didn't pitch except for a side bullpen session. Listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Linares has had poor results in his Serie Nacional career, going 7-10, 5.59 with nearly as many walks (86) as strikeouts (111) in 163 career innings.

Herrera, 25, has had success in Cuba, with a career 18-7, 3.72 record. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righthander has shown command of a fringy fastball and what Torres termed an above-average curveball, and one scout liked him a lot. "He's got an above-average split-finger (fastball) and was 88-92," the scout said. "I could see his velocity jumping up to 90-94 once he gets into a system and he could very easily be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues."

Fonseca, 22, is a righthanded-hitting catcher; scouts rate his arm strength as modest, and they don't consider him a significant prospect. Sanchez, 22, is a rangy infielder at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Torres said he's had overtures from several organizations for different players, from the "usual suspects" such as the Mariners, Mets, Red Sox and Yankees but also from other "surprising" organizations, such as the Devil Rays.

An unrelated, newer defector will need time to go through the unblocking process before he can sign. Righthander Kenny Rodriguez defected in mid-July while playing in Ecuador with Cuba's university team. It was considered a surprise defection in that Ecuador has an excellent relationship with Cuba's government. Rodriguez, whose age is reported as being either 20 or 22 (depending on the source), is believed to have fled to Peru.

Rodriguez pitched for Cuba's junior national team in 2003 in Curacao and reportedly has reached the mid-90s with his fastball in the past. More recently, a source who saw him pitch in Ecuador reports the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder sat in the upper 80s, while another source said Rodriguez threw his fastball in the 89-91 mph range. He also throws a slider. Rodriguez has been a below-average pitcher in Cuba's highest-level league, Serie Nacional, and was 6-4, 4.18 this season with 72 strikeouts in 75 innings. While one source likened him to a good college reliever who could be drafted in the first five rounds, another was less impressed with Rodriguez.

"He looked weak to me," said one source who saw Rodriguez both in 2003 in Curacao and again in Ecuador last month. "His stuff was a lot livelier when he was in Curacao. He has a quick arm but he just didn't look good at all in Ecuador."

-- JOHN MANUEL

Mr. Ambiguity

As the Devil Rays' world continued to turn, it looked like the news would be good for the talented prospects at Triple-A Durham, with B.J. Upton getting his long-awaited promotion to the big leagues.

It didn't take long for things to turn sour again, however, with the club suspending outfielder Elijah Dukes for 30 games, and Dukes responding that he might be through with baseball.

The Devil Rays initially said in a release that they were suspending Dukes indefinitely "pending a review of the incident which led to his suspension by the International League." The IL suspended the 22-year-old outfielder for five games for arguing balls and strikes and then refusing to leave the field after he was ejected on July 25, a matter that wouldn't seem to require a lot of further review. He had been scheduled to return to the lineup at Triple-A Durham the day the Rays announced the indefinite suspension (later fixed at 30 games).

It was Dukes' second suspension of the season, and he was also placed on the temporarily inactive list in May after he was involved in an argument with Bulls hitting coach Richie Hebner. A week before the second suspension, Dukes and Bulls manager John Tamargo got into a heated argument in the dugout after the outfielder ran through a stop sign at third base.

"I have no idea when or if I'll be back," Dukes said in a telephone interview. "I packed up all my stuff and I'm headed home. To be honest, I don't even know about baseball anymore. Everything is just wearing on me and this year has just been so frustrating. I'm trying to keep my nose clean and keep to myself, but things just keep getting turned around. I'm tired of it."

Dukes is a five-tool outfielder who was recruited heavily as a linebacker out of Hillsborough High in Tampa, and he said he is contemplating his future as a baseball player.

"I just don't know about baseball anymore," he said. "All this stuff keeps following me and now this. I'm tired of it. I don't know if I'm coming back or what. I don't know about the (Arizona) Fall League. I don't know about anything other than I'm going home.

"I'm not saying I should have tried to get to the NFL, but maybe I should have done something else."

Dukes came into spring training with an optimistic outlook, and he talked in a Baseball America story before the season about his tough upbringing and previous clashes with authority and how he wanted to put it all behind him. Both he and the Devil Rays looked forward to a breakout year for Dukes and the continued development of Upton and outfielder Delmon Young at Durham.

It hasn't worked out that way. All three have run into problems either off the field or on, and it has been a bad year from both a development and public-relations standpoint for the players and the Devil Rays and Bulls. Young gained national attention for throwing a bat at an umpire in May and earning a 50-game suspension, while Upton was charged with driving while impaired in June.

The latest pothole came in a July USA Today story reviewing the problems the three players have had this season. The story quoted Dukes criticizing conditions in Durham, saying in part, "Those guys up there (in the big leagues) shower in Evian. Here, we use sewer water."

Dukes says he was misquoted by another reporter who's trying to make him and his teammates look bad.

"I love playing in Triple-A and I'm not (ticked) off about not being in the big leagues," he said. "If they want to give me a 10-year contract to play in Durham, I'd do it. I never said anything about my uniform being dirty or whatever. It's a joke."

Dukes has avoided trouble away from baseball this year, but repeated disciplinary action from the Devil Rays shows he and the organization still aren't seeing eye to eye.

"It's all the same thing," Dukes said. "They've all been saying that I'm a bad influence on those two guys for two years. I didn't room with Delmon this year (Dukes was Young's roommate at Double-A Montgomery in 2005), but still I'm the bad apple.

"I didn't tell Delmon to throw his bat at that umpire. I didn't tell B.J. to go driving his car after he had some drinks. I don't even hang out with those guys. It was always just me in my apartment after games or whatever. I think I went out twice and both times I got a cab because I don't need any more hassle than I already have on me."

Dukes is eligible to return to action for Durham's final five games, but Bulls officials have gone on record saying they do not want the troubled outfielder back.

"I think the thing that has frustrated everybody involved is that the punishments, whether they came from the Devil Rays or the league, there have been consequences for improper behavior, but things continued to go wrong," Bulls vice president George Habel told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's like it wasn't sinking in."

QUICK HITS

• Pirates righthander Brad Lincoln, the club's first-round pick (fourth overall) this year out of Houston, left a recent start after just one inning with a strained oblique. Lincoln, who signed for $2.75 million, allowed one hit and walked one at low Class A Hickory before exiting the game in what farm director Brian Graham--who was also in attendance--said Lincoln termed "a grabbing sensation."

"We're going to be cautious and initially it's been diagnosed as an oblique strain, but it could possibly just be a cramp or a muscle spasm," Graham said. "We'll get a better evaluation of it today based on how he feels when he gets to the ballpark. He's thrown a lot of innings this year, a lot of pitches, so this might not be the worst thing (if he is shut down until instructional league in September)."

Lincoln went 12-2, 1.69 with 152 strikeouts in 128 innings for the Cougars in 2006. After signing, he was sent to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he struck out nine and did not allow an earned run over eight innings of work. The 21-year-old righthander was then promoted to Hickory, where he went 1-2, 6.75 in 16 innings.

• No one expected Trevor Crowe to be back this season after severely spraining his left ankle in July. The initial diagnosis was for the Indians outfielder to miss at least a month, and the organization was hopeful that they'd be able to get their 2005 first-rounder some playing time in the Arizona Fall League in October. Well, Crowe will likely still be headed to Arizona this fall, but he made his return to the lineup at Double-A Akron in early August where he batted leadoff and went 2-for-4 with a double. "I'm ready to go," Crowe told the Akron Beacon-Journal. "I feel 100 percent."