Mining For Prospects In The DSL

From the moment Hanley Ramirez played his first minor league game on U.S. soil, expectations for the young shortstop were enormous.

After just 45 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and 22 more in the short-season New York-Penn League as an 18-year-old in 2002, Ramirez vaulted himself from relative obscurity to the No. 1 ranking in Boston's farm system. He became the No. 19 prospect in all of baseball after the season, prompting the following passage from Ramirez's scouting report in the 2003 Baseball America Prospect Handbook:

"Though it's risky to place labels on a player before he even reaches full-season ball, managers and scouts already are comparing Ramirez to such players as Nomar Garciaparra, Vladimir Guerrero, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano."

Among the probability of outcomes for Ramirez, the likelihood of his meeting those expectations at the time would seem to be among the 99th percentile of any 18-year-old's projection. Yet Ramirez's monster performance in 2008 as a 24-year-old is already better than any of Soriano's single-season performances, and arguably just as good if not better as any single season by Garciaparra or Guerrero.

But before 2002, Ramirez was a relatively unknown commodity. After signing for a modest $22,000 bonus on July 2, 2000, Ramirez made his debut the following season in the Dominican Summer League. Playing in the DSL at age 17, Ramirez hit .345/.397/.533, striking out just 22 times in 219 trips to the plate. The Red Sox named him their 2001 DSL player of the year. Though Ramirez signed as a switch-hitter, his bat was so good from the right side that he soon abandoned batting lefthanded altogether. Still, he missed the 2002 Prospect Handbook entirely.

Some of the game's greatest players, including future Hall of Famers, began their careers in the DSL. Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen, David Ortiz, Johan Santana and Aramis Ramirez all made stops in the DSL before coming to the U.S. More recently, younger players like Ramirez, Edinson Volquez, Jhonny Peralta, Fausto Carmona, Pablo Sandoval and Johnny Cueto have rolled through the circuit.

Among minor leaguers, prospects such as Max Ramirez, Gerardo Parra, Gorkys Hernandez, Jhoulys Chacin and Hector Gomez were once in the DSL, while the wave of talent below them in the lowest levels of the minors—players like Wilin Rosario, Abner Abreu and Sebastian Valle—have recently made a splash in their U.S. debuts.

Yet even though some of the game's greatest players have come from Latin America, all of the players cited here were relatively unknown—at least to the public—before they came to the United States. This year BA subscribers have access to scouting information on nearly 100 Latin American players who signed last year, and in a few days we'll roll out scouting reports on some key players to follow from the 2008 DSL.

What Is The DSL?

Active since 1985, the DSL plays—depending on the division—a 70- to 72-game schedule, which last year began on May 31 and ended on Aug. 23; this year the league will play from June 4 to Aug. 24. The DSL is massive, with more than 1,300 players listed on 37 teams' 35-man rosters. The Yankees, White Sox, Blue Jays, Rangers, Athletics and Cubs each have two DSL squads, while the Reds and Diamondbacks each have their own teams and share a second team. The Brewers are the only major league team without a DSL club, though they have talked recently about adding an academy in Latin America.

The league is split into five divisions—the Boca Chica North and South divisions, the San Pedro North and South divisions and one division in Santo Domingo. Most teams have their complexes in Boca Chica, with 22 teams combined in the Boca Chica divisions. Teams do not play opponents from outside their division, which doesn't make a big difference in the Boca Chica divisions. It does however create some problems when looking at performances of players in the Santo Domingo division, which last year had four teams: the Padres, the Tigers and two teams from the Nationals, which used mostly older pitchers who were able to exploit younger batters with more developed offspeed stuff.

Venezuela hosts its own summer league, where eight teams—the Pirates, Astros, Mariners, Phillies, Cardinals, Rays, Mets and Tigers—compete in the Venezuelan Summer League, which has been active since 1997.

Who Plays In The DSL?

Teams use their DSL teams to develop their youngest Latin American players. Players who were procured through the draft are not eligible to play in the DSL, though teams are allowed to send two players from Puerto Rico to the league. No age limits exist for individual players, but players can't have four or more years of minor league service time.

When 16-year-olds sign contracts during the international signing period, they sign contracts for the following calendar season. Michael Ynoa, for example, signed with Oakland for $4.25 million on July 2, 2008, but he signed a 2009 contract, making him eligible to play in a professional league beginning in 2009. Players who were eligible to sign during last year's international signing period but who waited to sign until early this year, such as Rockies righthanders Jose Belen and Ramon Hurtado, are eligible to play this year, since they also signed 2009 contracts.

The more advanced players from Latin America usually make their debuts in a rookie league in the United States, which is what Ynoa will do this year. Shortstop Wilmer Flores, righthanders Arodys Vizcaino (Yankees) and Julio Teheran (Braves), third basemen Michael Almanzar (Red Sox) and Jefry Marte (Mets) and lefty Martin Perez (Rangers) each signed during the 2007 international signing period and debuted in 2008, with all of them skipping over the DSL and jumping straight to a U.S. rookie league. (In Perez's case, he technically skipped rookie ball, too, landing in the short-season Northwest League, where collegians were his main competition.) Signing a player to a large bonus can put pressure on a team to push those players along quickly, but at the same time the facilities at some of the newer academies in the Dominican Republic might give teams a greater level of comfort leaving their most prized Latin American prospects at their academies.

The Yankees did that last year, leaving outfielders Kelvin de Leon and Eduardo Sosa—two of the top 2007 international signings—in the DSL rather than pushing them to the U.S. Sometimes players stay in the Dominican Republic because of a visa issue, while other times teams might think a player is still too raw to be facing older, more advanced competition, even in the GCL or the Arizona League. Those players are often 17—essentially the same age as a high school player the summer after his junior year—so asking them to handle the GCL or the AZL while also assimilating to a new culture can be a high expectation.

Aside from the handful of bonus babies in the circuit, teams aim to have as many new, young players fill out the rest of their DSL rosters as possible. There are players who signed for bonuses in the low-to-mid six-figure range, but also many players who signed for five- and four-figure bonuses, some of whom develop rapidly between ages 16 and 17 to significantly elevate their prospect statuses. Teams fill out their rosters with older players who are organizational or academy types rather than prospects, and in many cases the DSL or one of the Rookie-level complex leagues will be the summit of their careers.

DSL prospects do get mentioned in trade talks, though general managers are often hesitant to pull the trigger to acquire a player who has never been to the U.S. But teams more and more are looking seriously at DSL prospects as potential players to acquire via trade, not as a centerpiece to a deal but as a low-certainty, high-upside option to complement a more advanced prospect in a trade. The Rangers did just that in December when they traded catcher Gerald Laird to Detroit for Double-A righthander Guillermo Moscoso and DSL righthander Carlos Melo, who had a 5.14 ERA with 20 walks and 61 strikeouts in 49 innings as a 17-year-old.

Do DSL Statistics Mean Anything?

We don't have a complete set of year-by-year statistics for the DSL. What we do have, however, are the career performance records of every active player in professional baseball, including their individual DSL stats. That allows us to pore over the DSL records of current major leaguers to see if there might be some predictive value in the numbers. Today we'll look at hitters, then move on to pitchers next time and finish by highlighting the top prospects from the 2008 DSL.

The chart below includes the DSL performance record (minimum 100 plate appearances) of every active major league hitter who has at least one major league season with at least 350 plate appearances and with an OPS+ of at least 100. Any player who makes it from the DSL to the big leagues even as a bench player should be looked at as a success, as only a handful of players from the DSL each year end up reaching the majors. But filtering players this way allows us to look at those who went on to be quality big league regulars.

Melvin Mora 1991 HOU 19 70 250 75 20 1 0 22 28 27 11 .300 .452 .388 288
Magglio Ordonez 1991 CWS 17 25 94 28 3 1 0 6 12 4 3 .298 .343 .351 103
David Ortiz 1993 SEA 17 61 201 53 17 1 7 34 44 1 1 .264 .373 .463 244
Fernando Tatis 1993 TEX 18 59 198 54 5 1 4 27 12 7 3 .273 .370 .369 232
Jose Guillen 1993 PIT 17 63 234 53 3 4 11 21 55 10 7 .226 .302 .415 262
Juan Encarnacion 1993 DET 17 72 251 63 13 4 13 15 65 6 7 .251 .305 .490 276
Luis Castillo 1993 FLA 17 69 266 75 7 1 4 31 41 9 6 .282 .368 .380 306
Orlando Cabrera 1993 MON 18 38 122 42 6 1 1 18 11 14 5 .344 .425 .434 147
Vladimir Guerrero 1993 MON 18 34 105 35 4 0 1 8 13 4 2 .333 .385 .400 118
Vladimir Guerrero 1994 MON 19 25 92 39 11 0 12 21 6 5 5 .424 .526 .935 114
Miguel Tejada 1994 OAK 20 74 218 64 9 1 18 37 36 13 5 .294 .388 .592 260
Ramon Hernandez 1994 OAK 18 42 134 33 2 0 2 18 10 1 5 .246 .333 .306 153
Aramis Ramirez 1995 PIT 17 64 214 63 13 0 11 42 26 2 4 .294 .426 .509 271
Adrian Beltre 1995 LAD 16 62 218 67 15 3 8 54 26 2 1 .307 .452 .514 279
Endy Chavez 1995 NYM 18 48 164 58 11 1 7 22 16 3 4 .354 .431 .561 190
Cristian Guzman 1995 NYY 17 46 160 43 6 5 3 12 23 11 7 .269 .337 .425 180
Juan Uribe 1997 COL 17 65 234 63 12 0 0 31 22 7 6 .269 .356 .321 273
Angel Berroa 1998 OAK 20 58 196 48 7 4 8 25 37 4 1 .245 .338 .444 228
Jhonny Peralta 1999 CLE 17 62 208 63 14 6 6 33 49 14 3 .303 .397 .514 247
Hanley Ramirez 2001 BOS 17 54 197 68 18 2 5 15 22 13 4 .345 .397 .533 219

17.7 1091 3756 1087 196 36 121 492 554 157 90 .289 .377 .457 4390

First off: no, that is not a misprint in Guerrero's second season in the DSL. Guerrero hit 12 home runs in 25 games while striking out just six times, an early omen of his freakish ability.

I figured we would see some trends, but the success that nearly every player had at a young age in the DSL is remarkable, though keep in mind that the sample is of just 20 player seasons. The only player who showed little signs of life in the DSL was Ramon Hernandez, but even he had an impressive 18-to-10 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Jose Guillen hit just .226, but he also showed serious power by clocking 11 home runs in 63 games. Even at the lowest level of professional baseball, performance seems to matter.

The sample size isn't great, but there do appear to be some trends in the performance records. What factors should we consider when forecasting the futures of DSL hitters?

Major league tools: We're obviously looking at them retrospectively, but these players all eventually proved that they had the tools to play the the major league level. At any level of baseball, there will be players who are advanced for their league. Those players might be able to do things that contribute to winning games at their current level, but against more advanced competition their limited tools or physical abilities become exposed. Performance seems to matter, but that doesn't mean every player with an .850 OPS in the DSL is going to become an above-average big league hitter, or even that he'll make it out of A-ball. These are all players who we know, at least after the fact, had major league-caliber tools. The key is having the scouts identify these players prospectively.

Age: Historically, the best hitters from the league have been 17 to 18 years old. Because Latin American players are eligible to sign at 16 years old, teams usually gobble up the top players in the talent pool as 16- and 17-year-olds—especially on an island the size of the Dominican Republic—and those players usually start in the DSL at age 17. As one National League scout put it, "If you have an unsigned player in Latin America who is 18 years old, he's dying to be signed." Just like any domestic league, a 20-year-old dominating the DSL isn't anywhere near as impressive as a 17-year-old doing the same. Tejada was 20 in the DSL in his first professional season, though at the time he was believed to be 18, while revelations of Guerrero's age change have recently surfaced. He's one year older than was previously believed.

Feel for hitting: As a whole, our sample of hitters (including both of Guerrero's years) had a .289 batting average and struck out in only 12.6 percent of their plate appearances. The bat is simply the most important tool with the largest spread in talent, and it's incredibly difficult to teach the hand-eye coordination needed to routinely square up the ball. Some contact can be sacrificed with the trade-off of additional power, but legitimate prospects shouldn't be swinging and missing at DSL pitching with much frequency. The players who tend to make frequent contact usually have good fundamental swings, staying short to the ball with a swing that helps them stay inside the baseball, rather than longer swings that can get them in trouble against more advanced pitching.

The Mets, who have one of the best international programs in the game, seem to have targeted this type of player as part of their international strategy. The best Latin American players who the Mets have signed the last three years—Fernando Martinez, Flores and Marte—all are bat-first players who seem certain to eventually move off their current positions. That's not a bad trio of players, which includes two of the game's top 50 prospects, all for a combined investment of $2.6 million.

Strike-zone judgment: Our sample of hitters combined to draw 492 walks with 554 strikeouts, a near 1-to-1 ratio. Nearly all of the players had a roughly equal number of walks and strikeouts. The exceptions are Juan Encarnacion and Carlos Guillen. Encarnacion has had an up-and-down career, only once posting an on-base percentage higher than .330, but he has always shown huge power. Guillen has had similar OBP issues, reaching the big leagues at 21 but not becoming a steady contributor until age 27. Lots of players can rack up lofty walk totals in the DSL against pitchers who often struggle with their control, so hitters still need to have a more diverse offensive skill set than just having good strike-zone judgment without the ability to inflict damage when they do swing the bat.

Power: This seems to be a little more nuanced, but showing power at an early age is obviously a good thing. Most of the players in our major league pool hit for some power at an early age despite being as much as a decade away from their physical peak. A player's body changes dramatically from the time he is 17 until his peak years of his mid-to-late 20s, particularly for a Latin American player who is less likely to have had the same nutritional and weight training luxuries of a player from the United States. It seems like nearly every Latin American signee's frame is described is "wiry," but even a wiry teenager can generate power with good bat speed, strong wrists, leverage in his swing, optimum weight transfer in his hitting mechanics and with his ability to backspin the ball off the bat.

Still, other players like Luis Castillo, Melvin Mora, Hernandez and Magglio Ordonez had more Willie Randolphian batting lines the in the DSL, showing control of the strike zone but lacking the present physical strength to hit for power at a young age. Power helps, but a lack of present power at that age doesn't necessarily preclude a player from becoming a good major league hitter, as long as he has room for power projection.