2011 International Reviews: NL Central

July 2 eligible six-figure signings are players who became eligible to sign last year during the July 2 international signing period as 16-year-olds. The “other six-figure signings” include players who signed in 2011 but had been eligible to sign prior to 2011.

Chicago Cubs
Top signing: C Mark Malave, Venezuela, $1.6 million.
July 2 eligible seven- and six-figure signings: SS Luis Acosta (Dominican Republic), 3B Ricardo Marcano (Venezuela), LHP Christopher Pieters (Curacao), LHP Carlos Rodriguez (Venezuela).
Other six-figure signings: LHP Frank Del Valle (Cuba), OF Yasiel Balaguert (Cuba), RHP Carlos Martinez (Cuba), RHP Pedro Araujo (Dominican Republic).

The Cubs’ international department has found several promising players in recent years, including Dominican Starlin Castro and Korean shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who was a critical piece in the Matt Garza trade and is now the No. 44 prospect in baseball. There is a younger wave of international talent still on the way, with players like shortstop Marco Hernandez and third baseman Jeimer Candelario in the lower levels of the system. In 2011, the Cubs were again one of the most aggressive teams in the international market, adding a handful of offensive-oriented position prospects and a host of lefthanded pitchers.

Chicago’s top signing last year was Mark Malave, a Venezuelan catcher who signed for $1.6 million on July 2. Scouts in Venezuela have followed Malave for years. As a 13-year-old at the 14U Pan American championship, Malave was the youngest player on a Venezuelan team that included Rangers shortstop Rougned Odor, Blue Jays righthander Adonys Cardona and Mariners righthander Victor Sanchez. Malave hit .467 (7-for-15) with a home run, a pair of doubles and a walk at the tournament. He spent considerable time as a third baseman and occasionally shortstop before moving behind the plate to work out for teams. 

Malave, a 17-year-old from Miranda who trained with Ciro Barrios, was a dominant hitter on the youth national circuit and scouts expect he will post strong numbers early in his career. He got off to a good start after signing by hitting .286/.402/.364 in 92 plate appearances this winter in the Liga Paralela, the minor league version of the Venezuelan League. Many of Malave’s offensive traits and mannerisms are advanced for his age, including his ability to work the count and get on base. He shows power in batting practice, though he’s still learning to use it in games. Malave is a switch-hitter, but his righthanded swing is more advanced, as he tends to guide the bat from the left side. Several scouts expressed concerns about his bat speed from both sides of the plate, noting that the power he showed in BP is more a result of his advanced physical maturity, and he may swing and miss against more advanced pitching. Malave is strong but unlike Padres Venezuelan catcher Jose Ruiz, Malave’s body lacks athleticism and flexibility. The Cubs list him at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, but scouts say he has a thick, squatty frame that lacks projection and is a below-average runner. He has a plus arm with a short arm stroke, but if he’s going to catch he’ll have to put in a ton of work on his receiving. In the Liga Parlalela, he mostly played third base, which is where he could end up playing, but he’s not a lock to stick there either.

The Blue Jays were pursuing Luis Acosta, but the Cubs swooped in and signed him for $1.1 million on July 2. Acosta, a 17-year-old who trained with Valentin Monero and was represented by Rob Plummer, worked out for teams in the Dominican Republic at shortstop but he’s probably a left fielder in the future. The Cubs bought Acosta for his offensive potential. His hands get started easily with a short load, leading to an efficient stroke with good bat speed, though his swing can get a bit mechanical at times. He hits lasers out of the park in batting practice, but scouts have said he opens his hips early and buckles against breaking balls in games. Acosta may have tried out for teams as a shortstop, but he doesn’t run well or have great range, his arm is neither strong nor accurate and his actions and footwork mean he’s likely destined for left field.

By our estimates on international amateur spending, the Cubs spent $4.54 million last year, excluding Cuban amateurs. One of the reasons we take out Cubans out of those numbers is that many Cubans really are professional players who played in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, including teenagers. Still, those players are evaluated by each team’s international scouting department, often in the Dominican Republic after they leave or in other countries at international tournaments. In the case of the Cubs, they are extremely aggressive in the Cuban market; of the nearly 30 Cuban signings last year, the Cubs signed nine of them, though 2011 wasn’t a great year for Cuban signings aside from Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin. Overall, the Cubs spent $1.67 million in the Cuban market last year, and that doesn’t include the reported $6 million major league package they gave to 20-year-old lefthander Gerardo Concepcion this year.

The Cubs’ most expensive Cuban signing last year was lefthander Frank Del Valle, who was represented by Wellington Gonzalez and signed for an $800,000 bonus in June. Del Valle, 22, was one of the better youth pitchers in Cuba, but he pitched for Metropolitanos in Cuba’s Serie Nacional and didn’t fare well. A thick, undersized 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Del Valle reached high Class A Daytona but spent most of last year in low Class A Peoria, where he had a 2.95 ERA in 42 2/3 innings with 31 strikeouts and 11 walks. Scouts who saw Del Valle said there wasn’t much about him that jumped out. His fastball parks in the high 80s, touches 91 and he complements it with an average slider.

The Cubs also signed Cuban outfielder Yasiel Balaguert for $400,000 and righthander Carlos Martinez for $250,000 in December. Both players were represented by Jaime Torres, who also represented Concepcion, outfielder Rubi Silva ($1 million in 2010) and catcher Yaniel Cabezas ($500,000 in 2010), among other Cubs signings. At 19, Balaguert doesn’t have any carrying tools but he was one of the better hitters in Cuba’s junior leagues and played for Cuba’s junior national team in 2010 at the World Junior Championship in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Balaguert hit .200/.300/.240 in 25 at-bats in Thunder Bay, though he had played better the previous year at the World Youth Championship in Taiwan, where he hit .333/.387/.519 in 27 at-bats. At 6-foot, 190 pounds, Balaguert has a strong, thick frame, a quick bat and finishes with good extension. When he squares one up, the ball can jump off his bat and he flashes average power potential. Getting to his power will be a challenge for Balaguert with his uphill swing that leads to a lot of swings and misses and could get him exposed against pro pitching. Balaguert played center field as an amateur and shows solid defensive instincts and routes, but he’s a fringy runner at best with an average arm, so his best defensive home may be left field.

Martinez, 20, pitched on youth and junior national teams in Cuba as a teenager, then joined Serie Nacional to play for Industriales. He pitched his final season in Cuba in 2009-10, when he had a 5.48 ERA in 23 innings with more walks (23) than strikeouts (19) working out of the bullpen. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Martinez has a thick frame and a low 90s fastball. Every once in a while Martinez flashes an average curveball, but most scouts said it’s usually a below-average, slurvy offering. His changeup shows occasional fade but is also below-average.

Third baseman Ricardo Marcano drew attention in Venezuela for his sweet lefty swing before the Cubs signed him for $400,000 on July 2. Marcano, 16, trained with Hernan Albornoz, who had previously worked for the Indians as an assistant in Venezuelan operations. Some scouts think Marcano has the potential to hit for average and power, with a body (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and swing that remind some scouts in Venezuela of Victor Martinez. Defense is a bit of an adventure for Marcano, whose hands and footwork aren’t ideal for the infield. He has a 40 arm on the 20-80 scale, but some scouts said they could see an average arm eventually. Either way, he may be destined for left field, but it’s his bat that is the draw.

Curacao has developed some promising prospects in recent years, most notably Rangers shortstop Jurickson Profar and Orioles third baseman Jonathan Schoop. Last year only one player out of Curacao, lefthander Christopher Pieters, signed for a six-figure deal. Pieters, 17, landed a $350,000 bonus from the Cubs in July, though the amount came as a surprise to some scouts. Pieters is a lanky 6-foot-3, 185 pounds with a mid-80s fastball and raw secondary pitches. He went to instructional league and struggled to find the strike zone, so he’s still a project for now. 

Like Malave and Cubs lefthander Angel Mejias, lefty Carlos Rodriguez also trained with Ciro Barrios and was a former teammate of theirs in youth tournaments in Venezuela. Rodriguez, who turned 16 on July 18, signed with the Cubs for $120,000 in August. Rodriguez isn’t tall but he has a strong 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame and stands out for his feel for pitching. Scouts praise his competitiveness and ability to pitch to both sides of the plate with his high-80s fastball, which he backs up with a good changeup for his age and a curveball that reaches the mid-70s that he can throw for strikes, although at times he tends to get around the ball. Rodriguez doesn’t have the cleanest delivery, as he throws across his body and he finishes with a head jerk, though it hasn’t hampered his ability to hit his spots yet.

Before July 2, the Cubs also signed Dominican righthander Pedro Araujo for $100,000 in May. Araujo, 18, could prove to be a bargain. He made his debut last year in the Dominican Summer League, where he had a 4.45 ERA in 56 2/3 innings with 51 strikeouts and 27 walks. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Araujo has a big, physical frame, a short stride and a low 90s fastball that he throws to set up a solid curveball and a changeup.

Cincinnati Reds
Top signing: RHP Jonathan Perez, Venezuela, $825,000.
July 2 eligible six-figure signings: RHP Soid Marquez (Venezuela), SS Cesar Mejia (Dominican Republic).
Other six-figure signings: OF Jose Fernandez (Dominican Republic), Aristides Aquino (Dominican Republic).

Venezuelan righthander Jonathan Perez was Cincinnati’s top 2011 international signing ($825,000), and the Reds knew him well. Perez trained at the Henry Lopez Baseball Academy, named after the father of Yhonson Lopez, who was Perez’s agent. Lopez’s little brother, 19-year-old first baseman Jhimmy Lopez, signed with the Reds three years ago for $200,000 and played for the organization’s Rookie-level Arizona League club last year. A 16-year-old from Carora, Perez has just started to fill out his projectable 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame. After throwing in the mid-80s early in 2011, Perez jumped to 87-90 mph with good sink as July 2 approached, and the Reds saw him hit 92 before he signed in July. Perez has a loose arm, a clean delivery, gets downhill angle and has a good idea of how to pitch for his age. His best secondary pitch is his changeup, which flashes average, and while his breaking ball shows decent spin it’s still nascent because he has a tendency to pitch it, which costs him speed and rotation. Perez went to Arizona for spring training and is expected to begin his career in the AZL.

Righthander Soid Marquez trained with Ciro Barrios, whose Venezuelan program has yielded outfielder Yorman Rodriguez, second baseman Ronald Torreyes and lefthander Ismael Guillon, among others, for the Reds. Marquez, a 17-year-old from Cumana, signed for $150,000 in September after the Reds saw him pitch the previous month at the IBAF 16U World Championships in Mexico. Marquez gave up 14 runs (eight earned) in 12 2/3 innings with 11 strikeouts and seven walks, but he showed a small bump in velocity there, touching 90 mph after sitting around the mid-to-high 80s for most of the summer. Marquez, who is 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, has an advanced curveball for his age and sprinkles in an occasional changeup.

Dominican shortstop Cesar Mejia, a 17-year-old from Santo Domingo who was represented by Henry Frias (also known as “Eckys”), signed in July for $150,000. At 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, Mejia has projection remaining on his 87-89 mph fastball and shows good downward rotation on his curveball, which is ahead of his changeup. In August the Reds added Dominican outfielder Jose Fernandez, an 18-year-old from La Romana who trained with Felix Cueto, for $125,000. Fernandez, who is 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, runs the 60-yard dash in 6.7 seconds and could play center field or left field with around an average arm. He’s a righthanded hitter who works the gaps.

In January 2011, the Reds signed Dominican outfielder Aristedes Aquino for $115,000. Aquino, who is from Villa Mella and trained with Amauris Nina, is a physical 6-foot-4, 190 pounds with average raw power, though he struggled with contact in the DSL, where he hit .188/.284/.292 in 202 at-bats. A right fielder with an average arm, Aquino is still working on his jumps and routes in the field. 

Houston Astros
Top signing: SS Luis Reynoso, Dominican Republic, $700,000.
July 2 eligible six-figure signings: RHP Harold Arauz (Panama), SS Arturo Michelena (Venezuela), 3B Randy Cesar (Dominican Republic).
Other six-figure signings: OF Frederick Serrano (Dominican Republic), RHP Samil De Los Santos (Dominican Republic).

Dominican shortstop Luis Reynoso (video) played in the Dominican Prospect League, where he was named co-MVP of the league’s all-star game in May. Shortly after July 2, Reynoso signed with the Astros for $700,000. A 17-year-old from San Francisco de Macoris who trained with Victor Baez, Reynoso is a good athlete with a 6-foot, 170-pound frame, though his tools don’t leap out in tryouts. Reynoso takes a slight uppercut swing in batting practice but his stroke levels out in games. He’s a contact-oriented hitter with good hands at the plate, a solid righthanded swing and a good idea of the strike zone for his age, though some scouts said his bat has been inconsistent. He’s a line-drive hitter with occasional pop, though power won’t be a major part of his game. Reynoso is a 6.8 runner in the 60-yard dash and has good instincts both on offense and in the field. He’s not the smoothest defender at shortstop, but he has playable hands and a good internal clock with first-step quickness. He does have a quick release but his arm strength may be better suited at second base. After signing, Reynoso hurt his left shoulder, which kept him out of game action for three months and caused him to alter his swing upon returning. He’s worked to get his timing back and should debut this summer as the Astros’ DSL shortstop.

Panamanian righthander Harold Arauz (video) signed for $300,000 in July and shows excellent pitchability for his age. Arauz, a 16-year-old who trained with Emilio Sempris, traveled to the Dominican Republic in May for the DPL all-star game, where he shared co-MVP honors with Reynoso after striking out five of the six hitters he faced, including Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and Blue Jays shortstop Dawel Lugo. At 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Arauz has a projectable body, an easy delivery and very loose arm action. With a mid-80s fastball that touches 88 mph, he wasn’t the hardest thrower in his class but he has the frame, fluidity and feel to spin that should portend more speed in the future. Arauz throws a big curveball with good depth, though he can fall in love with it too much at times. He throws strikes, has good feel for pitching for his age and, like most 16-year-olds, he’s still learning to use his changeup.

A couple of weeks before July 2, Houston signed Dominican outfielder Frederick Serrano for $250,000 out of Genio Payero’s program. Serrano, a 17-year-old from Santo Domingo, got his contract approved quickly enough to play in the DSL, though he hit just .169/.300/.267 with 29 whiffs in 59 at-bats. Serrano will have to figure out how to make more contact, but he has good size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and projects to be a big man at either left field or first base. A righthanded hitter, Serrano’s best tool is his raw power.

Last year wasn’t a great one for Venezuelan shortstops, but Arturo Michelena drew the attention of the Astros, who signed him in July for $220,000. Michelena, a 17-year-old from Maracaibo who trained with Emiro Barboza, played for the Venezuelan youth national team at the COPABE 16U championship in October 2010 in Mexico, where he was one of the tournament’s top hitters. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Michelena isn’t big but he has a wiry frame with broad shoulders. Like Reynoso, Michelena stands out more for his savvy and instincts than his raw tools, though Reynoso’s tools are louder. Michelena’s swing has some length but he has a knack for putting the bat to the ball. He won’t be a power bat but he will have to add strength to become more than a singles hitter, though some scouts think he has sneaky power. Michelena is an average runner and his defensive actions are cleaner than Reynoso’s, with smooth hands, clean pivot work on the double play and good defensive instincts. His throwing stroke is solid with average arm strength and he can make throws from any angle. With Reynoso also ticketed for the DSL, Michelena could see most of his time this summer playing second base, though he should get reps at shortstop as well.

Dominican righthander Samil De Los Santos of San Cristobal signed for $150,000 in April, then showed a raw arm in the DSL, where he had a 7.04 ERA with 20 walks in 15 1/3 innings. De Los Santos, 17, needs to improve his control, but he has a good frame (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) and a fastball that’s gone from touching 89 mph when he signed up to the low 90s now. He throws a curveball and a changeup, and while the breaking ball is ahead right now, each pitch is still in its early stage. Dominican third baseman Randy Cesar, signed in July for $100,000, is also still raw. A 17-year-old from Santo Domingo, Cesar was coached by former big league infielder Enrique Wilson. Cesar shows occasional power but is still learning the fundamentals.

Houston’s best signing from 2011 may end up being Teoscar Hernandez, who cost the Astros just $20,000 last February. Hernandez, 19, will come to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League this year after hitting .274/.360/.487 in 226 at-bats with seven home runs and 16 stolen bases last year in the DSL. Hernandez, a 19-year-old from Bonao, combines good size (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), raw power and good speed. He’s a center fielder for now and could stick there, but if not he has plenty of arm strength to play right field.

Milwaukee Brewers
Top signing: SS Carlos Belonis, Dominican Republic, $550,000.
July 2 eligible six-figure signings: OF Juan Ortiz (Dominican Republic).
Other six-figure signings: OF Yunior Santana (Dominican Republic), 3B Sthervin Matos (Dominican Republic), RHP Orlando Torrez (Dominican Republic).

Carlos Belonis was born in the United States, but he moved to San Pedro de Macoris and went to school in the Dominican Republic for most of his life. Belonis, a 17-year-old righthanded hitter, trained with Domingo Ramos, played in the International Prospect League and signed a $550,000 deal with the Brewers in November. Belonis’ father, Andres Santana, played pro ball and stole 91 bases in a season in 1988, most of which was spent with low Class A Clinton. Santana also played in the major leagues briefly for the Giants in 1990; he appeared in five big league games in September 1990 as a defensive replacement, then started the final game of the season for the Giants at shortstop and got two plate appearances, the only two big league PAs of his career.

Belonis has an athletic, high-waisted frame at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds with long limbs and wiry strength. The Brewers believe he will hit, and with his size he should be able to grow into more power with additional strength. Belonis will get a chance to play shortstop, but with his body type he may end up somewhere in the outfield. He doesn’t have a strong arm but he’s an above-average runner in the 60-yard dash.

Dominican outfielder Juan Ortiz signed with the Brewers for $375,000 out of the Arias and Goodman academy in July. Ortiz, a 17-year-old originally from the Santiago area, is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds and has a smooth, easy lefthanded swing that could help him hit for average and a frame that could lead to more power down the road. Ortiz is a fringe-average runner who will play a corner spot, and his average righthanded arm strength could give him enough arm to play right field.

Yunior Santana is an 18-year-old Dominican outfielder from San Pedro de Macoris who trained with Astin Jacobo and played in the International Prospect League before signing for $110,000. At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, Santana has good size and stands out for his raw power from the right side, though he’s still learning to adjust to breaking stuff and lay off pitches outside the strike zone. He’s athletic, shows plus speed and a good arm as well, so he can play center field for now but may end up in a corner as he fills out.

One of the Brewers’ most intriguing signs of 2011 was Sthervin Matos, an 18-year-old Dominican third baseman who signed for $100,000 in March. Matos, who is from Santo Domingo and trained with Christian “Niche” Batista, hit .274/.394/.381 in 38 games with 17 walks, 20 strikeouts and 13 steals in 16 tries. A 6-foot-1, 185-pound righthanded hitter, Matos has an advanced approach, makes consistent contact and doesn’t expand the strike zone much relative to his peers. A former shortstop, Matos may have stood out more in his first season for his defense, where he shows good actions, clean hands, a strong arm and the ability to make accurate throws on the run. He’s not a burner but he runs well for a third baseman, and his instincts help him steal bases efficiently.

Dominican righthander Orlando Torrez, a 19-year-old who trained with Carlos Guzman, touched 94 mph when he signed in February. Two weeks later, he touched 96, but he got sick, lost weight and his velocity dropped to around 89-92 when he came back. He still pitched well in the DSL, where he had an ERA of 0.96 in 28 innings with 23 strikeouts and 13 walks pitching mostly as a reliever. Torrez, who is from San Pedro de Macoris, is 6-foot-3, 195 pounds with a quick arm and a slider that’s ahead of his changeup right now.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Top signing: OF Harold Ramirez, Colombia, $1.05 million.
July 2 eligible six-figure signings: OF Elvis Escobar (Venezuela), Richard Mitchell (Colombia).
Other six-figure signings: OF Carlos Mesa (Cuba), LHP Luis Rico (Venezuela), C Jin-De Jhang (Taiwan), 3B Edwin Espinal (Dominican Republic), LHP Cesilio Pimentel (Dominican Republic), RHP Adrian Grullon (Dominican Republic), SS Carlos Ozuna (Dominican Republic), C Danny Arribas (Netherlands).

While Colombia isn’t as saturated by scouts as places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the country has produced several high-profile prospects in recent years, including Braves righthander Julio Teheran, Mariners righthander Jose Torres and Rangers catcher Jorge Alfaro. Colombian outfielder Harold Ramirez wasn’t a consensus guy (if there can even be such a thing in the world of international scouting), but the Pirates believed strongly in his righthanded bat and signed him for $1.05 million on July 2. 

At times, it seems like the Pirates are scouting players before their age hits double digits. In Cartagena, youth leagues begin at age six and go up through age 15. The Pirates work closely with some of those youth teams in Colombia, and one of the organizations they work with is called Con Familiar, which is how the Pirates became familiar with Colombian infielders Dilson Herrera and Yhonathan Barrios. Ramirez played for another team, the Bravitos, but the Pirates had followed him for years. Ramirez hooked on with Catrain, who took him and other players to Mexico for exhibition games against Mexican League teams last March, when he stole home twice in the series. Ramirez also played well in Major League Baseball’s El Torneo Supremo all-star game in May against Canada’s junior national team. Ramirez is 5-foot-11, 175 pounds with broad shoulders and plus-plus speed, though he has a thick lower half and may slow down. The Pirates like Ramirez for his feel for hitting and baseball instincts. He has strong hands that work well at the plate, though other teams were concerned about his lack of physical projection. Ramirez could be a solid defender in center field if he can maintain his speed, though his arm strength is fringe-average. He will debut in the GCL.

Catrain also represented lefthanded Venezuelan outfielder Elvis Escobar, who signed for $570,000 on July 2. Coincidentally, both Escobar and Ramirez were born on Sept. 6, 1994. Escobar has baseball in his DNA. His father, Jose, played in 10 big league games for the Indians as an infielder in 1991. Elvis’ older bother Edwin signed with the Rangers for $350,000 in 2008 before Texas traded him to the Giants. He’s cousins with both Kelvim Escobar and Alcides Escobar, as well as Yankees righthander Jose Campos. For Elvis Escobar, his lack of size (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) is a concern for scouts who wonder how he profiles, but like Ramirez the Pirates are high on his hit tool and baseball instincts. Escobar, 17, has hit well in games, including the El Torneo Supremo all-star game in May and in another game that month against Canada’s junior national team. Escobar has a good present hit tool, a line-drive swing with gap power. Escobar is a center fielder whose speed and arm both grade out as average tools. He will join Ramirez next summer in the GCL.

Last March, the Pirates made an unusual signing when they added Cuban outfielder Carlos Mesa for $490,000. The bonus was the third-highest of 2011 for a Cuban player, but Mesa’s journey to pro ball doesn’t come out of the standard Cuban playbook. Mesa, 24, left Cuba legally, according to the Pirates. To do so, he had to retire from playing baseball in Cuba. So Mesa retired, but under the cover of darkness he continued to practice and train at night so that nobody would see he was still playing baseball, out of fear the Cuban government might not let him leave. After doing that for a year, Mesa left Cuba to go to El Salvador, where he had a close family friend who was a coach. An organization, the Foundation Educating El Salvadorians (FESA) founded by Jorge Bahaia, helped Mesa go through the the paperwork to leave Cuba and helped him structure his workouts. Mesa also connected with a trainer named German Espinoza in El Salvador, where the Pirates scouted him and ultimately signed him. According to one Pirates official, because Mesa left Cuba legally, he’s still allowed to return to the island.

Mesa had been on the radar for several years having played on the 2006 Cuban junior national team that hosted the World Junior Championships. Mesa hit cleanup for the Cubans in a lineup that included Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin batting leadoff and White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo (then listed as a third baseman/shortstop, believe it or not) in the three-hole. Between his retirement from Cuban baseball and the time he spent playing against inferior competition in El Salvador, Mesa had faced a long layoff last year when he reported to short-season State College, where he hit .250/.321/.379 in 124 at-bats. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Mesa has above-average raw power from the right side, but he had trouble taking it to the games last year because of his tendency to swing and miss. He’s a right fielder with solid speed and arm strength.

Last April the Pirates signed Venezuelan lefthander Luis Rico for $280,000 and played him in the Venezuelan Summer League, where he had a 3.76 ERA, 23 strikeouts and 11 walks in 26 1/3 innings. An 18-year-old from Puerto la Cruz, Rico is another player the Pirates followed for years before signing. Rico is 6-foot-1, 180 pounds with around an average fastball that reaches 92 mph. He has a good delivery, his arm works well and he’s shown the beginnings of an ability to spin his curveball while mixing in a changeup as well. The Pirates eliminated their VSL program, so Rico will likely spend this summer in the DSL.

Righthander Richard Mitchell is from San Andres, a tiny Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea with a population under 100,000, though geographically it’s closer to Nicaragua than it is to Colombia. Pirates Colombian supervisor Orlando Covo first spotted Mitchell at a lightly-scouted national tournament in Colombia. After the Pirates liked what they saw at a workout in Cartagena, the Pirates flew to San Andres to get more looks at Mitchell and get to know his father (who was his son’s youth league coach and handled negotiations) before signing Mitchell for $170,000 when he turned 16 on July 29. With an athletic 6-foot-1 body and a loose arm, Mitchell is understandably still raw. While other teams saw Mitchell’s fastball in the mid- to high 80s, the Pirates saw him throwing 88-91 mph and think he has the projection to throw extremely hard in time. The rest of his game—his breaking ball, his changeup and feel for pitching—are all rudimentary, so he’s very much a developmental project at this point.

The Pirates’ top Dominican signing in 2011 was first baseman Edwin Espinal, who trained with former big leaguer Luis Polonia and signed for $150,000 in April. In the DSL last year, Espinal hit hit .269/.382/.352 in 108 at-bats with twice as many walks (20) as strikeouts (10). Listed at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Espinal is built like a tank but stands out more for his refined offensive approach and rhythm at the plate than his power. Espinal, an 18-year-old from Santiago, has a fast bat that can catch up to good fastballs. He has advanced pitch recognition, showing the ability to stay back on breaking balls and the discipline to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. He didn’t hit for much power in his debut and his swing path is built more for line drives than loft, but with his size and strength potential he should develop natural power. Espinal lost roughly 30 pounds after signing, but he’ll always be a big man and will have to watch his weight. His arm strength has increased from close to the bottom of the scale to near average, but it’s his bat that will have to carry him. He’s expected to head to the GCL this summer.

The Pirates also signed Dominican lefthander Cesilio Pimentel in April for $140,000. Pimentel, 19, pitched well in the DSL, where he had a 2.31 ERA and a 31-7 K-BB mark in 23 1/3 innings. At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Pimentel attacks hitters with a power approach, including an 88-91 mph fastball and a good slider that could become an above-average pitch. Righthander Adrian Grullon, another April Dominican signing, landed a $120,000 bonus after training with Denio Gonzalez but didn’t pitch much in the DSL. Grullon is a 19-year-old from Santiago with a large 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame and a loose arm. He works mainly off an 88-93 mph fastball and a solid slider that’s ahead of his changeup. Dominican shortstop Carlos Ozuna, signed for $115,000 out of Michael Morla’s program in April, is a 5-foot-9 switch-hitter from Santo Domingo with a contact-oriented bat, gap power, good speed and an average arm.

In the last couple of years, the Pirates have tried to become more involved in the Pacific Rim. They moved last year to sign 18-year-old catcher Jin-De Jhang in June for $250,000, the top bonus last year for a Taiwanese hitter. The Pirates followed Jhang for several years and he provided strong early returns after signing with his play last year in MLB’s Australian Academy, where he hit .391/.435/.594 in 133 at-bats. Jhang led academy hitters in nearly every offensive category, including average, OBP, slugging, home runs (4) and doubles (12). He even stole seven bases in 11 tries and had nearly as many walks (11) as strikeouts (13). A stocky 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Jhang is strong, has good bat speed from the left side along with impressive raw power, and he showed the ability to take it to games in Australia. Jhang is an offensive-oriented prospect who spent considerable time at third base as an amateur, so he is still developing as a receiver. He has a chance to catch and has an above-average arm, but he’ll have to put in considerable work to stay behind the plate. 

Danny Arribas signed with the Pirates for $110,000, but his journey to a pro contract was an unusual one. Arribas was born in Miami to a father from the United States and a mother from the Netherlands, and he is bilingual. He moved to the Netherlands and played for the Dutch junior national team at the 18U World Junior Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 2010, when he hit .391/.464/.522 in 27 plate appearances to lead his team in average and slugging and rank second in OBP. Arribas, 19, mostly played center field in Thunder Bay, but last year in the DSL the Pirates had him playing mostly third base with time at catcher, second base and first base as well. At 6-foot, 185 pounds, Arribas’ infield defense is still raw, as is his hitting after he batted .200/.289/.240 in 125 at-bats last summer, though he showed a line-drive stroke and gap power as an amateur.

St. Louis Cardinals
Top signing: RHP Andres Serrano, Dominican Republic, $750,000.
July 2 eligible six-figure signings: LHP Dewin Perez (Colombia), SS Eliezer Alvarez (Dominican Republic), C Jose Godoy (Venezuela).
Other six-figure signings: OF George Araujo (Dominican Republic).

Dominican righthander Carlos Martinez ate up most of the Cardinals’ international budget in 2010. For $1.5 million, it’s looking like money well-spent, as Martinez has a lethal fastball and ranks as the No. 27 prospect in baseball. This year, the Cardinals spread their money out a little bit more, but their main signing again wasn’t a 16-year-old July 2 guy. Instead, the Cardinals agreed to a $750,000 deal with Dominican righthander Andres Serrano, a 17-year-old from Santiago who trained with Maximo Grullon. Serrano agreed to terms with the Cardinals in October, though his contract is still pending the standard background check of MLB’s investigation into his age and identity. Serrano is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds with long arms and projection remaining on a 90-95 mph fastball. He’s a good athlete who flashes a plus curveball along with a changeup that’s still a work-in-progress, though he throws it with good arm speed.

Colombian lefthander Dewin Perez used to be an outfielder, but he moved to the mound full-time to showcase for teams. His representative, Hugo Catrain, brought him to the Dominican Republic and helped him get a $450,000 bonus from the Cardinals in July. At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Perez isn’t a physical guy or a power arm, but the Cardinals liked his pitchability and his three-pitch mix. Perez, 17, is a good athlete with a lean frame, a solid delivery and an 86-89 mph fastball that has reached 90. He throws strikes, has a quick arm and can keep hitters off balance with his deception. Perez doesn’t have a knockout pitch, but he shows feel for both a solid slider with good depth and tilt and a changeup that he maintains his arm speed on and has good fade.

Last year was a strong one for the trainer known as Banana (Raul Valera), who had Athletics outfielder Vicmal de la Cruz in 2010 and a few high-profile Dominican signings from 2011. One of those players was Eliezer Alvarez, a high-waisted, long-armed shortstop who signed with the Cardinals for $425,000 on July 2. Alvarez, 17, is 5-foot-11, 170 pounds and stands out for his bat. He’s a switch-hitter, though he’s more comfortable from the left side, where he shows good balance, rhythm and a smooth swing. He’s shown some surprising pop for his size, but his stroke caters more to line drives with the potential for average power in the future. He doesn’t get out of the box quickly, but he runs well underway. In the field there’s still some rawness, but his arm is a plus tool.

Venezuela had several catchers who signed for big bonuses last year. Jose Godoy wasn’t among those top-level guys, but he fit into the next tier and signed with the Cardinals for $200,000 on July 2. Godoy, a 17-year-old from Maracaibo who trained with Carlos Rios, has a medium frame at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds and showed an improving bat throughout last summer. Godoy doesn’t have huge power, arm strength or speed, so he doesn’t stand out in a showcase. It’s not the most fluid swing, but he has a contact-oriented bat and uses the whole field with gap power. Godoy should stick behind the plate because he’s a good receiver with an average arm that plays up because of his quick transfer and accuracy.

Before July 2, the Cardinals also added outfielder George Araujo for $210,000 out of the Dominican Republic. Araujo, an 18-year-old from San Pedro de Macoris whose trainer is known as “Aguila,” signed in February and then hit .136/.231/.194 in 103 at-bats in the DSL. A lanky 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, Araujo is still pretty raw all-around and will spend another year in the Cardinals’ Dominican academy. 

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