Prospect Notebook: Venezuela League

The Arizona Fall League is considered the place to be for prospects when the regular season ends, but the Caribbean leagues are peppered with plenty of prospects still playing ball.

And leagues like the Venezuela League offer advantages over the AFL, one of which is the length of the season. While the AFL season ends after 38 games and managers have to shuffle their rosters around to get all of their prospects adequate playing time, the Venezuela League’s regular season spans 63 games, the equivalent of 45 percent of the 140-game minor league regular season.

Most of the league’s best prospects are native Venezuelans, though some U.S.-born prospects, such as Seattle’s Mike Carp and Shawn Kelley, are also in the league. The league is a mix of prospects, a few big leaguers and ex-big leaguers (Rich Garces led the league with 19 saves, just for example). Scouts and player development officials say hitters often see a steady stream of offspeed pitches relative to what they’re used to seeing during the minor league season, giving teams an opportunity to challenge players who need to improve their approach or learn to stay back against breaking balls and changeups.

This season, the league as a whole hit .282/.357/.423 and averaged 5.3 runs per game–up from .267/.336/.384 and 4.3 runs per game in 2007–so it was a good year for offense in Venezuela.

With the regular season in Venezuela over and the league’s playoffs underway, we’ll start things off today by updating the progress of a few prospects playing in Venezuela. Throughout the rest of the month, we’ll check back in on other prospects playing in Venezuela and on prospects in the other Caribbean winter leagues. 

Jesus Guzman, 3b/2b, Giants: Maybe it seems a little bit unusual to lead off a prospect discussion by bringing up a player signed this offseason as a minor league free agent, but Guzman is a legitimate prospect who has pulverized pitchers in Venezuela. In 269 plate appearances for Leones del Caracas, Guzman batted .349/.435/.616, ranking second in the league in OPS, fifth in OBP and third in slugging. He led the league in extra-base hits (32), runs scored (48), tied for the league lead in hits (81) and ranked third in home runs (13). He also recorded 67 RBIs, with the last two coming in Guzman’s final at-bat of the regular season, breaking the previous league record of 65 RBIs set in 1973-74 by Pete Koegel.

Not bad for a 24-year-old minor league free agent who has never been traded but is already with his third organization. Guzman was a Mariners July 2 signing in 2000, then spent three seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League before making his U.S. debut in the high Class A California League in 2004 at age 20. At 21, Guzman was already in Double-A, but in 2005 and 2006 he failed to slug over .400 in either season. So the Mariners dropped him to the California League, and Guzman flourished in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly environments in High Desert, batting .301/.370/.539 with 25 homers in 130 games.

Oakland picked up Guzman as a minor league free agent, and this time he conquered Double-A by hitting .364/.419/.560 in 80 games with Midland. A’s officials say they wanted Guzman back for 2009, but the Giants stepped in and signed him, offering him an invitation to big league camp this spring. Defensively, Guzman is still a work in progress. With Midland, Guzman made nine errors in 49 games at third base and eight errors in 31 games at second. But the bat? He’s making believers out of those who see him.

"That kid, out of nowhere, has made himself into a major league hitter," said one scout who watched Guzman play this winter. "I don’t think he’s going to go play right now—he’s still in the learning process. But he’s got maturity at the plate and more patience than he used to have. He used to be a guy who would give you one good swing and three bad swings because he didn’t stay back enough and follow the ball. But now he just looks awesome."

Pablo Sandoval, c/1b/3b, Giants:
The only player with a higher OPS than Guzman among qualified players in Venezuela? That would be Guzman’s new teammate, Pablo Sandoval. The two aren’t teammates in Venezuela—Sandoval is playing for Navegantes del Magallanes—but they could find themselves in the same lineup at some point in 2009. Sandoval batted .396/.449/.677 in 214 games this winter and played mostly first base, aside from a few games at third. Sandoval led the league in batting average and slugging, ranked fourth and OBP and tied for fourth with 12 home runs.

Sandoval isn’t a patient hitter, as eight of his 18 walks were intentional.Sandoval simply continued to do what he did all year, which is just flat out hit. Between high Class A and Double-A, Sandoval batted .350/.394/.578 in 112 games, then went .345/.357/.490 in 40 big league games. Pretty solid for a player who didn’t turn 21 until August.

Sandoval offers a hard-to-find combination of a player who is difficult to strike out but who also comes with a serious power stroke from both sides of the plate. While many power hitters have longer swings, Sandoval’s short stroke and ability to hit all types of pitches allow him to hit for average, and his strength gives him the power to hit the ball out of the park to all fields.

Max Ramirez, c, Rangers: Since he was a teenager, Ramirez has always stood out among his peers at the plate. Ramirez followed up an outstanding minor league season by leading the Venezuela League with 15 home runs and ranking second in slugging, finishing with a .291/.391/.618 line in 220 plate appearances. Ramirez has 65 power on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he’s a bit of a different animal from Sandoval offensively, as evidenced by Ramirez’s 57 strikeouts this winter.

"His swing is different from Sandoval’s," said one scout. "Sandoval is short to the ball and can hit the ball out of the park anywhere because of his ability to use his hands. Ramirez is more of a pull-oriented hitter—not a dead pull hitter—but his swing is longer. He could hit 25-30 homers in the majors, but he’s more vulnerable against changeups and curveballs. Sandoval’s swing can adjust better to offspeed stuff because he’s short and compact and stays back a little bit longer."

Like Sandoval, Ramirez will also have to monitor his conditioning to stay behind the plate. Even after trading Gerald Laird, the Rangers still have to sort out their catching situation between Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden and Ramirez. The general scouting consensus from those who watched Ramirez during the minor league season was that he might eventually have to move off the position, but at least one scout who saw Ramirez in Venezuela said that Ramirez has the potential to catch in the big leagues.

"That guy is going to be a major league everyday catcher," the scout continued. "He still needs to improve his catching and throwing, but he’s still young. He can catch, he can block—you can see him getting better. But this kid can hit in the major leagues."

Gerardo Parra, of, Diamondbacks: During the minor league season, Parra hit six home runs in 123 games between the high Class A California League and Double-A Southern League. That led scouts who watched Parra this year to wonder whether the 21-year-old’s lack of power would get exposed at higher levels, especially given that he didn’t light up the Southern League.

He’s starting to alleviate some of those concerns.

In 63 games with Aguilas de Zulia, Parra hit seven home runs and batted .329/.404/.504. He tied for the league lead in hits (81), led the league in doubles (20) and tied for second in stolen bases (15), though he was also caught nine times. He drew 31 walks and struck out 36 times, showing his usual polished approach and pretty swing from the left side with good bat speed.

"He’s growing into his approach, he’s gaining strength, he’s maturing as a man and as a player," Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch said. "Those things are all being funneled toward more power being shown on the field.

"There’s no focus on power or hitting home runs, it’s just a very natural progression for him. He’s still a young guy that has a lot of maturing to do physically."

Parra is not a plus runner, though he has good instincts in center field. If the power he showed this winter is indicative of true improvement, he could profile in right field, where his plus-plus arm would certainly fit well. The Diamondbacks haven’t determined whether Parra will begin the 2009 season back in the Southern League or in Triple-A Tucson, but he’ll likely be in Triple-A at least by the end of 2009.