Nine Prospects To Watch In Winter Ball

While the game's top prospects flock to the Arizona Fall League for development in a laid-back environment, the Latin American winter leagues provide a very different backdrop for player development.

Winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico create a much more competitive environment than the AFL, which is part of why the teams rely on veterans in the high minors and with big league experience to build their rosters.

Amidst those veteran-laden rosters, however, are several prospects who could make an impact in the big leagues as soon as 2011. Here's a look at nine players who have a chance to alter their prospects in a big way in the Latin American winter leagues.
1. Martin Perez, lhp, Rangers
Perez still has frontline stuff, but 2010 was a struggle. Perez spent the entire season with Double-A Frisco, where he showed the potential for three above-average pitches but struggled to throw strikes. Perez finished with a 5.96 ERA, throwing just 100 innings after missing time with a lower back strain.

Still, Perez is just 19 and has as much talent as any Rangers prospect. He got off to a rocky start in the Venezuelan League, giving up six runs in one inning with Magallanes, though he rebounded with two straight three-inning outings without allowing an earned run.

2. Yunesky Maya, rhp, Nationals
Maya was one of Cuba's most successful pitchers before defecting and finally signing with the Nationals this summer. At 29, he's mostly a finished product. Still, Maya's transition to the U.S. had its rocky moments, and he finished with a 5.88 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 11 walks in 26 innings in his five starts with Washington. Maya's first start for Escogido in the Dominican League—he struck out eight in five shutout innings and issued only one walk—was an encouraging sign.

3. Henderson Alvarez, rhp, Blue Jays
Alvarez took a step forward this season by showing more fastball velocity, regularly hitting the mid-90s while still showing his trademark changeup, another plus offering. Alvarez, 20, still offers the head-scratching combination of quality stuff and a low strikeout rate (6.3 per nine innings for high Class A Dunedin this year), but he spent his first three starts for the Tiburones carving up Venezuelan League opponents with 10 strikeouts, two walks and one run allowed in 11 innings.

4. Alex Liddi, 3b, Mariners
The 2010 Mariners ranked last in baseball in runs, home runs and almost every other offensive category. While it might be a stretch to expect the 22-year-old Liddi to make a significant contribution in Seattle next season, his power stroke would be a welcome addition to the Mariners' lineup if he can clean up his defense and cut down on his swing when he needs to. After a .281/.353/.476 showing in 134 games with Double-A West Tenn, Liddi was hitting .292/.382/.479 in 14 games for the Cardenales in the Venezuelan League.

5. Dee Gordon, ss, Dodgers
The Puerto Rican League's best prospect might have been off to the best start of anyone in winter ball. Gordon, 22, opened with five straight multi-hit games for the Gigantes, going 13-for-21 (.619) with two doubles, a walk and a pair of steals. The extra developmental time in Puerto Rico could be especially helpful for Gordon, who despite his tremendous speed and athleticism is still raw is many phases of the game.

6. Dan Cortes, rhp, Mariners
As a starter, Cortes went from a promising power arm to a frustrating prospect who struggled to throw strikes. Moved to the bullpen full-time while in Double-A in July, Cortes morphed from a mediocre starter with a 6.08 ERA in 71 innings to one of the most dominant relievers in the minors, reaching Seattle by the end of the season and flashing high-90s heat along the way. With a strong showing for Lara in the Venezuelan League, Cortes could return to Seattle to begin 2011.

7. Sebastian Valle, c, Phillies
Valle smashed 11 home runs in 52 games in the Mexican League in '09, but the 2010 season provided a speed bump for the Mexican native. Valle, 20, hit .255/.298/.430 with 16 home runs in 117 games for low Class A Lakewood, showing impressive raw power but giving scouts pause about his hitting.

In his return to the Mexican League this winter, Valle was off to a quick start, going 6-for-16 (.375) with a home run and a double. While a big year in winter ball wouldn't completely erase his regular season, he made undeniable strides behind the plate, as he finally zeroed in on becoming a better defensive catcher.

8. Danny Espinosa, ss, Nationals
With Ian Desmond struggling to adjust to big league pitching, Espinosa could soon get a chance to step in at shortstop in Washington. Espinosa has more power, arm strength and athleticism than Desmond, though he will have to prove in Puerto Rico and going forward that his aggressive approach and big swing can be corralled when necessary.

9. Kevin Pucetas, rhp, Royals
In a farm system peppered with premium pitching prospects, Pucetas is just trying to get the attention of his new club since joining the Royals in the trade that sent Jose Guillen to San Francisco. Pucetas doesn't have the stuff of fellow Royals farmhands like Mike Montgomery or John Lamb, and a disappointing season in which he posted five-plus ERA in his second straight year with Triple-A Fresno didn't do much to pad his resume.

Yet the 25-year-old Pucetas is in a much better chance to crack a big league rotation than he was a year ago, going from the pitching-rich Giants to the Royals, whose 4.97 ERA was the highest in the American League a year ago. Pucetas started well in his first Dominican League game, allowing one run in five innings for the Gigantes.