Extended spring training games are more heavily scouted now than in past years, with multiple pro scouts in attendance at just about every game. These evaluators are looking for diamonds in the rough, especially young projectable Latin pitchers as potential pieces of a future trade.
Among the many intriguing young arms in Arizona this spring, three pitchers from the Dominican Republic—Jhoan Duran (Diamondbacks), Michell Miliano (Padres) and Wandisson Charles (Athletics)—have often been appointment viewing for scouts covering the league.
The Diamondbacks and Rockies share the Salt River Fields complex in north Scottsdale, so a road trip from one side of the facility to the other has the players taking a quarter mile hike around the stadium that separates their fields. Gates between the fields seem to be randomly locked or unlocked, creating a maze of sorts that the players must navigate to get to their destination. Prior to a recent game at Colorado's facility, Duran and a couple of his teammates came to a locked gate. His teammates turned around to try another route to the Rockies’ main back field, but Duran vaulted his 6-foot-5 frame over the four-foot fence and proceeded onward. Like a young hurler learning to pitch, he figured out a way to succeed.
Duran, 19, also seems to be figuring out the pitching thing. He's not new to the back fields of Arizona, having split the 2016 season between the Rookie-level Arizona and Pioneer Leagues, but his performances in instructional league last fall really put him on the radar for scouts.
With a long, lean frame that is still less than 200 pounds, Duran's body screams projection. This spring his fastball with plenty of movement ranges from 92 to 97 mph. With the expectation that he can add another 20 to 30 pounds of muscle, Duran's heater, delivered with a free and easy delivery, projects to reach triple digits in the near future. His offspeed pitches—a changeup along with a slider that some observers call a curveball—are both works in progress, but the breaking ball plays up because he controls it.
Improving the secondary pitches has been identified as the biggest priority in Duran's development.
“He can overpower hitters with his fastball," pitching coach Manny Garcia said. “Now he's working more with his breaking ball, especially his slider because his changeup is really good." The effectiveness of Duran's arsenal was on display the day he had to find a shortcut to the Rockies side of the complex. Facing injured big leaguer Ian Desmond, who was in his final rehab game before returning to the Rockies every day lineup, Duran struck out Colorado's top 2017 free agent acquisition with a couple of 97 mph fastballs mixed with a changeup.
Garcia pointed out how well Duran has been sticking to the Diamondbacks throwing program, emphasizing how he's become more of a pitcher than a thrower this year. For Duran, it's just goes with the job.
“The first thing I learned (from the Diamondbacks) is to respect my job," Duran said through translator Garcia. “Respect my job, work hard, keep learning and take my job seriously."
With that kind of attitude and the potential to continue to grow as a pitcher, it's not surprising that the Diamondbacks organization see Duran as a potential No. 2 or No. 3 starter.
“The sky's the limit for him," Garcia said.
The Padres went on a spree during the last international signing period. Between signing bonuses and their upcoming overage tax payment they will have to pay in July for exceeding their pool, the total tab is around $80 million.
Righthander Michell Miliano, 17, wasn't one of the bigger money guys signed by Padres, receiving a bonus of $450,000, but the Santo Domingo native is already showing signs of being the bargain of San Diego's 2016 July 2 class.
“I see Miliano as a big league guy for the future," Padres pitching coach Jackson Quezada said. “He'll be able to start . . . he's one of the best hard workers we have here. He's special."
Miliano already showed an ability to pitch at the age of 13, according to Julio Basora of JDB Baseball, a Dominican Republic-based agency, and at the age of 14 was already hitting 88 mph with his fastball. He was still pretty lean during the 2016 showcase season, but since signing with the Padres Miliano has added 20 pounds and grown an inch, now checking in at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds with athleticism to spare. His fastball now touches 94 and is delivered with downhill plane. A 78-80 mph curveball with good depth, which flashes as an average offering, is Miliano's best secondary pitch, but he sometimes tips it by altering his stride. He's still learning an 86 mph changeup. Quezada says that Miliano is making progress in throwing his secondary pitches for strikes.
But it's Miliano's intelligence and maturity at a young age that stands out. He's working hard on learning English, according to Quezada, because he knows it will help him be able to better handle everything on field. When asked how the Padres are helping him, Miliano is quick to point out that the organization is teaching him how to think better and make necessary adjustments on the mound.
“He's special," Quezada said. “He wants to work. He always wants more. He never says 'No." He always tries what everyone wants him to try."
Miliano is expected to make his pro debut this summer with one of San Diego's two Arizona League teams.
Charles In Charge
Wandission Charles is much more of a lottery ticket than Duran and Miliano, but the 20-year-old righthander's body type and fastball velocity tantalize observers. Belying the stereotype of most young Dominican pitchers who project to get bigger and add more velocity with strength, this behemoth first showed up at the Athletics academy in 2014 with a fully formed body and a 98 mph fastball.
Charles is listed at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds but now tips the scales at 260 pounds of mostly solid muscle. If he ever wanders too close to an NFL Combine, Charles could easily be mistaken for a tight end or outside linebacker.
While the robust body and lightning arm were impressive when he first reported to the Athletics three years ago, Charles then threw just a fastball and often struggled with getting the ball over the plate.
The wayward command has continued to plague Charles, as he's walked nearly a batter per inning in both his Dominican Summer League and Arizona League seasons, although he's fanned 85 batters in 76 innings. But Charles can look impressive even when he struggles. In one of his earlier AZL appearances last summer Charles walked all five batters he faced and threw two wild pitches, yet members of the opposing team's coaching staff were fascinated by his size and lightning-quick fastball.
The biggest question facing Charles is whether he'll be able to consistently throw strikes and to use something other than his heater.
“I've got better fastball command this year and they (Athletics coaches) are teaching me a slider," Charles said through translator and pitching coach Gabriel Ozuna. “They want me to throw more changeups when I'm behind in the count. When I can control the changeup and the slider, I'll be better and can pitch at another level."
But the biggest change with Charles this year has been in his mental approach to the game. He admits to being nervous and trying to do too much in his first season stateside. But so far this year he's more focused and is concentrating better.
Ozuna has seen a change in Charles' mindset on the field, and it's paying off with better performances in extended spring training.
“This year he understands a little bit more," Ozuna said. “Last year we'd say something to him and he'd do something different. This year he understands better."
Most importantly, Charles is using his 84 mph slider more effectively while still dealing that blazing, heavy fastball, sitting 96-97 mph this spring. Ozuna says that Charles needs to tighten up the slider and make it sharper, but he's getting there.
“When we signed him he threw 98 with no control," Ozuna said. “In 2014 he had no clue. This year he's a better pitcher."
Or as one scout said about Charles, “He's a dude!"