Prospect Pulse: Feb. 21

Quartet of arms impresses at Caribbean Series

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico--While everyone gets excited when big names grace the Caribbean winter leagues with their presence, for most of the season the rosters are made up of a smorgasbord of talent.

Veterans such as Jose Lima and Vinny Castilla are the names everyone knows, but a large number of minor leaguers and prospects also hope their performances during the winter will lead to increased standing with their big league organizations during the summer.

The 2007 Caribbean Series has had no shortage of the latter, particularly when it comes to pitching. Lefthander Oscar Rivera and righthanders Leo Nunez and Edward "Bubbie" Buzachero are not going to be on anyone's top 100 prospect lists, but they have all gone a long way toward improving their stock with fine winter league performances. Cuban defector Serguey Linares is another righthander making a name for himself, but not for his performance.

After leading the Mexican Pacific League this winter with a 1.51 ERA for Navojoa, Rivera was added to the Mexican roster for the Caribbean Series. Unfortunately for Rivera, Mexican officials shut him down after the 24-year-old developed some stiffness in his left lat muscle.

Mexico was doing him a favor, though, because Rivera recently received a non-roster invitation to spring training with the Rockies. Under this unofficial agreement, the only way the deal costs Colorado any money is if Rivera makes the Rockies major league or Triple-A roster. It is estimated that the Rockies would then pay Yucatan, the Mexican League team that owns his rights, $1.3 million if they retain Rivera.

"It's a shame for the kid, but he wants and we want what's best for him," Mexico pitching coach Stan Kyles said. "He's got a chance to make a big league club. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. He really wanted to pitch through it because this Series means so much, but what's on his plate is a very big deal."

Though he did not pitch in San Juan, scouts were impressed with what they saw in the Pacific League.

"People were calling this guy the Tom Glavine of the Mexican League," a scout with a National League club said. "But basically, he's a command guy with a 55 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) changeup and a pretty decent cutter.

"His fastball is below-average--he'll sit anywhere from 82-86 mph, but that isn't what he's about. He's got above-average command, especially of his secondary pitches. He's your typical Mexican League pitcher in that he'll work you backwards, but could be a nice fit as a middle or late-inning guy to switch things around on hitters."

Nunez, on the other hand, was healthy and exceptional early in the series, coming on in relief for the Dominican Republic. The Royals farmhand was throwing 94-97 mph with his fastball and though his slider has not been sharp, the gas was enough.

"I've seen him better, but he was still pretty darned good in his two outings here," an American League scout said. "He's a high-energy guy who's very aggressive, attacks hitters with that loose, whippy arm.

"That's some prime velocity, but you worry about the command some because he can come undone in his delivery pretty easy. He'll elevate at times, and he can be just plain wild. Staying on a direct line to the plate is the problem. I think he just gets so amped up that he loses body control."

Nunez, 23, split most of the 2006 season between Double-A Wichita and Triple-A Omaha. He came on strong for Omaha, where he had a 2.13 ERA in 38 innings, and even got 13 innings with Kansas City in September.

"His slider isn't quite where it needs to be as a swing-and-miss pitch," the AL scout continued. "When it's on, it's plus. But he'll rush in his delivery and his arm drags behind. That's when he just kind of flings it in there. But there is tremendous upside. And pitching in a series like this will only help him when he gets back to the big leagues next year."

New Name, Same Arm

Though Buzachero goes by Edward in the Caribbean, he'll always be Bubbie in the United States. The Caribbean Series is flamboyant in nature, from the umpires' mechanics on calls to the extra-loud tunes being piped through the public address system, so it is surprising that Bubbie has not caught on.

Buzachero was one of the main reasons host Puerto Rico jumped out to a 2-0 record in the Caribbean Series, after working out of a bases loaded, one-out jam against Venezuela and then getting through the final two innings unscathed.

A 23rd-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2002, Buzachero was dealt to Cleveland before last season for lefthander Brian Tallet. The 25-year-old righthander went 8-3, 2.72 in 81 innings at Double-A Akron last season, and combined with his performance this winter he seems primed for a shot in the Indians bullpen.

"Development-wise he's kind of different," an AL scout said. "His velocity was better (at Tennessee Tech) than it was when I saw him last year or now. But it's winter ball, so you really have no idea where he could be, or if he could be back to those 94s and 95s you saw back then. He's 88-89 and topping out at 91 now.

"The velocity isn't quite what it used to be--here, at least--but the breaking stuff is much better. I like his slider better than his curveball now. It darts down with very good depth and he commands his fastball to both sides."

The 5-foot-11 Buzachero must battle the bias against short righthanders while also facing the fact that the Indians bullpen is flush with capable bullpen arms.

"Cleveland called up (Tom) Mastny last year for some bullpen work and Buzachero's pure stuff is better than that," the AL scout added. "And he's always had the stones to get out of situations like he did (against Venezuela). If they called up Mastny, Buzachero can't be too far behind."

Defective Defector?

Unlike the previous trio, Linares' name came to the forefront when the Pirates signed the 23-year-old Cuban defector for $125,000, but according to an NL scout in the Dominican Republic and a source in the U.S., the amount Linares signed for is well below a previous offer from the Red Sox last fall.

Linares had agreed to terms with Boston in October for $460,000, but he did not pass a physical and the club reportedly backed away from the deal. The examination revealed a slight tear in the righthander's rotator cuff because of an abnormal bone growth in his throwing shoulder.

In two seasons in Cuba's Serie Nacional, Linares went 7-10, 5.59 with a 111-86 strikeout-walk ratio in 163 innings.

"From what I understand, there was some fraying of the muscle tissue and that was that," an NL scout said. "He throws hard, but he threw harder in the past--up to 98 (mph). But when I saw him (in January) he was 90-91.

"So there is some medical to be concerned about, but he's never had surgery. He's a kind of guy that might be worth taking a gamble on. He throws a real hard sinker that was up to 93-94 at one point, and the four-seamer is mostly straight but he commands it."

His signing is most notable because he is the second Cuban that the Pirates have signed this offseason. They inked righthander Yoslan Herrera to a three-year, $1.92 million contract (with a $750,000 bonus) in December. Herrera and Linares have the same agent, Jaime Torres.

"(Linares) throws two types of curveballs," the scout said. "One is a 12-to-6, but it lacks bite. It's slow, around 73, and too loopy. The other one his harder and comes across the zone, but it's maybe an average pitch at best. He's got a workable changeup, so it'll be interesting to see how he does if he's healthy."

None of these four arms will make fans swoon like an at-bat from a star like Miguel Tejada, but all four could be coming to a big league bullpen near you.