Island Enthusiasm

Last week in Puerto Rico, a large, week-long series of workouts and games were held at a pre-draft bonanza that was attended by more than 60 scouts, including dozens of crosscheckers and a few scouting directors.

The early dope off the island following a similar workout in March was that this year’s crop of Puerto Rican talent was potentially the best in years, and after one American League scout sat through last week’s action, he confirmed that a handful of Puerto Rico’s top prospects are indeed deserving of consideration in the top 10 rounds of the draft.

“It ranks up there,” the scout said. “It’s probably one of the better years since I’ve been covering the area (about 10 years). “There’s not much pitching, more position guys.”

Angel Morales had the most clout among the players in attendance heading into the event based on his good showings in stateside showcases last fall and again in January, as well as the first large showcase in Puerto Rico in February. But beyond his defensive skills, which profile in center field, there’s long projection to his game, especially the bat.

He’s comparable to Florida Christian (Miami) High center fielder Denny Almonte, another toolsy outfielder that had some helium early this season but just hasn’t made enough consistent hard contact to warrant a spot in the top three rounds of the draft. Their names remain a buzz in scouting circles, and Almonte made the most of a couple of opportunities to perform well in front of some decision makers, but based on what I have seen of Almonte and Morales, they’re third- to fifth-round talent with some upside, but rife with holes.

Righthanded-hitting shortstop Reynaldo Navarro was the player to make the best impression last week in Puerto Rico. He was compared to Rey Ordonez for his easy, if flashy infield actions and skill with which he fields and throws.

“He swings the bat with some pop,” the scout said. “He’s got some outer-half issues and he’s a little guy . . . but he has really performed well. He’s a high-energy guy.”

Navarro could be drafted as high as the third round, and Morales, third baseman Neftali Soto–who has a chance to be a plus hitter–and catcher Emmanuel Quiles are three additional names you’ll here called in the top-10 rounds of the draft.

Scouts were waiting to hear the status of a fifth Puerto Rican who played well last week. Fernando Cruz, a 17-year-old switch-hitting third baseman who is apparently home schooled and a junior by classification, was petitioning the commissioner’s office to gain eligibility this year.

Regardless of whether he was enrolled in school or taking courses at home, Cruz would have had to drop out of school and notify Major League Baseball of his intentions at least 12 months before the draft in order to establish early eligibility. There seems to be loopholes in these cases, but it didn’t appear likely that Cruz, who is easily one of the most talented players from the island, would be draft eligible until 2008.