2012 International Reviews: Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays

Top signing: LHP Jose Castillo, Venezuela, $1.55 million.

Seven- and six-figure signings: RHP Jose Mujica (Venezuela), C David Rodriguez (Venezuela), C Eric Maria (Dominican Republic), LHP Frehumar Rivas (Venezuela), OF Angel Moreno (Dominican Republic), RHP Deivy Mendez (Dominican Republic).

Tampa Bay landed some of the top international free agents in last year’s signing class, but the Rays will also be the first team to face the harshest penalties for exceeding their bonus pool set forth in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The CBA limited every team to a $2.9 million bonus pool for the 2012-13 international signing period that began on July 2. The strongest penalty in the CBA is that any team that exceeds its international bonus pool by 15 percent or more will pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and won’t be able to sign a player for more than $250,000 during the 2013-14 signing period. Since July 2, the Rays already have spent more than $3.7 million (not counting players signed for $50,000 or less, since there are exemptions for those players), which is 28 percent beyond their international pool.

As a result, the Rays won’t be able to sign anyone next year for more than $250,000 and probably won’t make any major international splashes until July 2 either because of the tax. Going well beyond the bonus pool is a curious move, but the Rays did pull in a considerable amount of talent, including arguably the two best 16-year-old pitchers on the market. Given that their 90-win season last year will give them one of the lower bonus pools for the 2013-14 signing period, which many scouts believe is shaping up to be a down year for international talent, perhaps it will be a worthwhile gambit.

The Rays signed Jose Castillo (video) from trainer Felix Olivo shortly after July 2 for $1.55 million, a record for a Venezuelan lefty, the biggest bonus for a Venezuelan amateur in 2012 and the second-highest bonus for an international prospect last year since July 2, behind only Mets Dominican shortstop Amed Rosario ($1.75 million). On the same day they signed Castillo, the Rays also signed his older brother, 18-year-old outfielder Manuel Castillo, for $35,000.

The Rays had followed Castillo since he was throwing 82 mph. He became an intriguing arm heading into 2012 because of his size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), loose arm, solid mechanics and arm speed. Castillo was throwing in the mid-80s last year in February, but his value soared as his velocity skyrocketed and scouts noted remarkable improvement in his conditioning. By the time Castillo signed, he was sitting in the low-90s with his fastball and touched 93 mph. Since then, Castillo’s continued to add to his fastball and has hit 95.

Castillo’s secondary pitches are inconsistent, with scouts mixed on whether his curveball or his changeup is the better pitch right now. Castillo’s control is also inconsistent, as he tends to fly open in his delivery, but that’s something that should improve given the way his mechanics and arm work and how athletic he is for his size. He’s also shown the aptitude to make adjustments, as before he signed the Rays suggested he lower his arm angle from nearly over the top down to three-quarters, something he took to quickly and helped him improve. Castillo’s expected to make his pro debut this summer in the GCL.

Several scouts thought the best pitcher in Latin America for July 2 last year was Venezuelan righthander Jose Mujica (video). After it looked like Mujica would sign with the Blue Jays, the Rays stepped in and signed him for $1 million. Mujica, who trained with Carlos Guillen, was one of the youngest players in last year’s July 2 class, as he didn’t turn 16 until June 29. At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Mujica displays an easy arm action and a fluid delivery that he repeats well, enabling him to throw plenty of strikes with his fastball to both sides of the plate. His fastball sits around 89-91 mph and has hit 93 with late, heavy life. With the physical projection he has, Mujica should be throwing in the mid-90s in a few years.

Mujica’s changeup is well beyond his years. It’s already an above-average offering and could be a 70 pitch eventually. He throws his changeup with good arm speed and gets good sink on it, and he’ll throw it to both lefties and righties. Mujica doesn’t have a lot of fluidity in his wrists, which hinders his slurvy breaking ball. Mujica got some exposure to pro ball this winter in the Liga Paralela (Venezuela’s “parallel league,” a winter league for younger minor leaguers), and is expected to join Castillo in the GCL this summer.

The Rays locked in early on 16-year-old Venezuelan catcher David Rodriguez(video), who like Mujica also trained with Guillen, signing him for $600,000. Rodriguez hasn’t played in an official game yet, but his career is already off to a promising start. Even though he was one of the youngest players in the Liga Paralela, Rodriguez performed well both offensively and defensively in the league. He hit .258/.343/.371 with seven walks and 10 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances, and he also erased 14 of 34 basestealers (41 percent).

Rodriguez’s showing in the Liga Paralela reflects his advanced feel for the game. At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Rodriguez has a good catcher’s frame
and a sound hitting approach from the right side. He makes frequent contact and uses the whole field with a line-drive swing. He has gap power and probably will never be a huge home run threat, but he could hit 10-15 homers per year. Rodriguez doesn’t have great bat speed or quick-twitch actions, but scouts who believe in him think he can get his
hands started early enough to hit.

Rodriguez should stick at catcher because he has soft hands, is agile behind the plate, blocks well and looks natural as a catcher. He doesn’t have a cannon, but his arm strength is average. His ability to call a game and his understanding of the nuances of the position are advanced for his age. Rodriguez will most likely stay in Venezuela to start his career in the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League.

The Rays are one of four teams left with a Venezuelan academy and team in the VSL, and they have done the bulk of their international spending in recent years in the country. Another Venezuelan prospect they signed last year was Frehumar Rivas, a lefthander who trained with Gabriel Granja and signed for $200,000 in August. Rivas, who turned 17 in September, has a skinny 6-foot-1, 150-pound frame with wide shoulders and the ball comes out of his hand well, which means he should add to his 87-89 mph fastball as he adds weight. He’s not afraid to throw inside, but Rivas is still a fairly raw projection at this point, as he’s still learning to throw more strikes and bring along his curveball and changeup.

In the Dominican Republic, the Rays signed center fielder Angel Moreno for $188,000 in October. Moreno didn’t turn 16 until July 31, so he was one of the youngest players who signed last year. Moreno is 6 feet, 175 pounds with good bat speed from the right side of the plate. He has slightly above-average speed, a solid-average arm and shows good quickness and solid route running in the outfield.

Tampa Bay also landed Dominican righthander Deivy Mendez for $120,000 on July 2 out of the program from a trainer known as “Polika.” Mendez, who turned 17 in October, has a good frame at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds with long arms, long legs and big hands. He’s a raw projection with good arm speed, good arm action and has already started to add to the mid- to high-80s fastball he showed when he signed, though his curveball and changeup are still works in progress.

Shortly before July 2, the Rays signed Dominican catcher Eric Maria out of La Academia for $300,000, so his bonus doesn’t count against their 2012-13 international bonus pool. The Rays had previously signed Maria to a $300,000 contract shortly after July 2, 2011 when he had presented himself as a 16-year-old named Eric Otanez. He would have been
Tampa Bay’s biggest international signing of 2011, but his contract never became official after Major League Baseball determined that the player was using a false date of birth and declared him ineligible to sign for one year. Maria came forward with a new name and a new date of birth (June 30, 1994) and MLB ended up reducing his penalty, allowing him to sign with the Rays on his 18th birthday for the same bonus on his original deal.

Maria is 6-foot-2, 195 pounds with good defensive tools. He has a strong arm, a quick release and impressed the Rays with his leadership and the way he quickly took to handling pitchers this winter. A righthanded batter, Maria has gap power and his inconsistent bat made some strides while he was ineligible to sign.

Another pre-July 2 signing, shortstop Cristian Toribio, could turn out to be one of the better players the Rays have procured from the Dominican Republic in recent years, even though he only signed for $65,000 in January 2012. Toribio, who turned 18 in September, hit .284/.346/.375 in 55 games in the DSL and stole 13 bases in 16 attempts.
At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Toribio has a good idea of what he’s doing at the plate and is an exciting player to watch with above-average speed and arm strength.

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