Toronto Blue Jays
Top signing: RHP Roberto Osuna, Mexico, $1.5 million
July 2 eligible six- and seven-figure signings: OF Wuilmer Becerra (Venezuela), SS Dawel Lugo (Dominican Republic), OF Jesus Gonzlaez (Venezuela), RHP Manuel Cordova (Venezuela), RHP Jesus Tinoco (Venezuela), RHP Alberto Tirado (Dominican Republic), RHP Osman Gutierrez (Nicaragua), RHP Miguel Castro (Dominican Republic).
Other six-figure signings: LHP Jairo Labourt (Dominican Republic), OF Juan Tejada (Dominican Republic), RHP Kendry Melo (Dominican Republic).
The Blue Jays gave Latin American director Marco Paddy a king-sized budget in Latin America last year, when Toronto outspent every team in baseball other than the Rangers. Paddy left the organization after the season to take a job revamping the White Sox’s Latin American scouting, and the Blue Jays replaced him with Ismael Cruz, who had been running the Mets’ Latin American scouting.
The Blue Jays seem to be linked to nearly every high-profile player in Latin America, and last year they landed several of them. The most expensive of the group was Roberto Osuna, a 17-year-old Mexican righthander. Osuna had signed with Mexico City of the Mexican League, and the Blue Jays purchased his rights from the Red Devils for $1.5 million in August. Osuna’s uncle is righthander Antonio Osuna, the former big league reliever from 1995-2005 who spent most of his career with the Dodgers. Roberto Osuna gained plenty of attention in October 2010 at the 16U COPABE Pan American championship, where had a 3.79 ERA and a 20-2 K-BB mark in 20 innings and touched 93-94 mph. After signing with Mexico City, Osuna even pitched in games for the team, facing the likes of Hiram Bocachica and Karim Garcia. Osuna had a 5.49 ERA in 20 innings with 12 strikeouts and 11 walks, which is rather remarkable for the equivalent of a high school sophomore facing grown men 10-20 years older than him.
Osuna, who’s 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, is very advanced for his age and could move faster than most of his peers because he throws strikes and has good feel for pitching. He also has a power arm, throwing a fastball that ranges from 88-94. His curveball is a good pitch but it’s not a tight downward breaker and has more of a slurvy, three-quarters break. Osuna finishes a bit upright in his delivery, but he’s aggressive and pounds the strike zone with a variety of pitches, including a changeup that he’s shown some feel for, a slider and a sinker. Osuna is strong, but due to his thick build he’s always going to have to stay on top of his conditioning. He’s expected to start this year in the GCL.
Wlimer Becerra played baseball in Venezuela and later worked as a scout for the Cardinals and the Rangers. Becerra last year worked with Ciro Barrios and helped coach is son, Wuilmer Becerra, who signed with the Blue Jays for $1.3 million in July. Before he had signed, Becerra had played in the Liga Paralela (the minors of the Venezuelan League) last winter and went 8-for-26 (.346) with a home run, a double, no walks and eight strikeouts. Becerra showcased for teams at shortstop and the outfield, but he’s a much better fit off the dirt and will play the outfield for the Blue Jays.
Becerra, 17, has size (6-foot-4, 190 pounds), athleticism and plus-plus speed in the 60-yard dash, which he’s run in 6.6 seconds, although he doesn’t get out of the box quick enough to get 70 grades from home to first. For some scouts, Becerra was one of the better righthanded hitters on the international market last year, though there was some disagreement about scouts on his bat. Becerra has a good combination of size, strength and raw power, and some scouts felt he had good plate coverage and feel for hitting. Others contend he’s not as sharp in game situations as he is in BP because he tends to get around the ball with length to his stroke and an uppercut swing, which isn’t uncommon for Latin American amateurs.
In the field, Becerra’s days at shortstop were short-lived due to his size, actions, hands and below-average arm. He fits better in center field, where he shows a better arm stroke than he does in the infield, though with his size he’ll likely get so big that he’ll end up in left field. Part of it may depend on how much of his speed Becerra is able to retain, especially given his unusual build with narrow shoulders, short arms and wide hips. Several scouts praised Becerra for his makeup and work ethic and he has impressed Blue Jays coaches early. If he develops as the Blue Jays hope, he could become a corner outfielder with a power/speed combination.
The Blue Jays awarded three bonuses over $1 million last year, with the third going to Dominican shortstop Dawel Lugo, a July signing who got $1.3 million. Lugo is a 17-year-old from Bani who trained with Victor Franco (known as Mula) and played in the Dominican Prospect League. Lugo’s father, Ursino Lugo, was an outfielder in the Indians farm system in the mid-1990s and reached the Rookie-level Appalachian League. Some scouts considered Lugo one of the better hitters in Latin America. At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lugo is a righthanded hitter with an aggressive approach, a solid swing and good bat speed. His swing is quick, efficient and he has the hand-eye coordination to make contact with balls in the strike zone and off the plate, though that ability may have to be tamed to avoid become too much of a free-swinger. He does a good job of going with the pitch, using turning on balls inside and using the opposite field when necessary. Lugo’s swing has natural loft and he shows sporadic power, though for now his offensive game is more about contact than power. Lugo’s speed improved from below-average last spring to near average as July 2 approached. He won’t be a big basestealing threat, but he helped sway some scouts to believe he might be able to remain at shortstop. He has some physical similarities to former major league infielder Jose Vizcaino and could be a playable, bigger-bodied shortstop along the lines of Jhonny Peralta with playable actions, the ability to make the routine play with little flashiness and a solid-average arm with a long throwing stroke. Others think he’ll end up at third base, but he’ll start as a shortstop, possibly in the GCL.
Venezuelan outfielder Jesus Gonzalez generated attention for his power and arm strength, then signed with the Blue Jays for $700,000 in July. Gonzalez, a 17-year-old who also trained with Barrios, is physically mature with a 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame and the potential for above-average raw power. He can drive balls out of the park from the left-field pole over to right-center field in batting practice thanks to his strength and bat speed. In games, scouts were mixed. Some liked his swing path and said his hands work well at the plate, while others said in games his stroke got long and he looked like a different player. Gonzalez’s best tool might be his arm, a 60 on the 20-80 scale and possibly the strongest arm of any position player in Venezuela last year. He’s an average runner who fits best in right field.
Toronto also loaded up on quality pitchers in the low to mid six-figure range last year. One of those arms is righthander Manuel Cordova, who signed for $500,000 in July. A 17-year-old from Margarita who trained with Pascual Fiorello, Cordova didn’t have the now stuff of some of the other pitchers in his class like Osuna or Venezuelan righthander Victor Sanchez (Mariners), but his 6-foot-3, 190-pound body and easy delivery indicate plenty of projection. Cordova has a natural delivery, his arm works well and he throws 85-88 mph, though the Blue Jays saw him run it up a tick higher as July 2 approached. Cordova has good mound presence and throws a lot of strikes for his age with downhill plane and solid sink on his fastball. Cordova’s changeup shows some promise and some scouts think it’s ahead of his curveball, which the Blue Jays say may be because the youth league he played in didn’t let him throw curveballs, so it’s still a pitch he’s learning. With Cordova’s frame, he projects as a big man, though he’ll have to make sure he doesn’t get too big.
Rigthander Jesus Tinoco wasn’t a big name for July 2, but he developed later on and signed with the Blue Jays for $400,000 in September. Like Becerra and Gonzalez, Tinoco also trained with Barrios. Tinoco is a 16-year-old from Maturin with a projectable 6-foot-3, 200-pound body and a fastball that has continued to escalate. By the time the Blue Jays signed him, Tinoco was throwing a heavy fastball in the high-80s and peaking at 91. He’s added velocity since then and is a potential power arm with a loose arm, solid delivery and good feel for a mid- to high-70s curveball.
Before July 2, the Blue Jays added lefthander Jairo Labourt for $350,000 out of the Arias and Goodman academy. Labourt, an 18-year-old from Azua, pitched well last summer in the DSL, where in 12 starts he had a 2.33 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 14 walks in 36 innings. He didn’t allow any earned runs through his first 23 innings, a span of seven starts. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Labourt is a good athlete with a solid delivery that helps him throw strikes well for his age. The separator for Labourt may be his curveball, an advanced pitch with tight spin and good rotation. He went to instructional league last fall and should make the jump to the GCL.
Righthander Alberto Tirado, who trained with Franklin Ferreira and played in the DPL, signed with the Blue Jays in July for $300,000. Tirado, a 17-year-old from Nagua, is 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, with a thin, athletic frame and long arms. He doesn’t have imposing size but his body does have projection that’s started to fill out, as he touched 91 mph before signing and has been clocked higher since then. Tirado throws a curveball, slider and changeup, and some scouts think the curveball is his best pitch.
Nicaragua produces up to around a dozen players a year who sign pro contracts, but it’s still a country where the signing bonuses combined totaled under $1 million last year. The biggest Nicaraguan bonus of 2011 went to righthander Osman Gutierrez, who signed with the Blue Jays in July for $210,000. Gutierrez, 17, is 6-foot-4, 210 pounds with a tall, lanky body and a loose arm that delivers a fastball up to 90 mph and a solid curveball that’s ahead of his changeup.
Before July 2 the Blue Jays added Juan Tejada, an 18-year-old center fielder from Bani in the Dominican Republic who got $150,000. Tejada, who trained with Miguel Delgado (known as Billiyo), signed last March but had a lengthy investigation that took six months and prevented him from playing in the DSL, so he should get into game action this year. Some scouts think he has a skill set reminiscent of Carlos Gomez, though Tejada isn’t an 80 runner. He has a big frame (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), plus speed, plus power from the right side and the Blue Jays project him as a center fielder. The Blue Jays probably hope Tejada hits better than Gomez, though his bat is still raw.
Once Paddy left and Cruz took over, the Blue Jays made a couple more six-figure signings in November. One of those additions was 17-year-old Miguel Castro, a Dominican righthander who signed for $180,000. Castro, who is from La Romana and trained with Eriberto Jose, is a long, skinny frame at 6-foot-5, 180 pounds with a low-90s fastball, a solid slider and changeup. Another Dominican righthander the Blue Jays signed last November was Kendry Melo, a 17-year-old from Azua who trained with Eury Soto and got $100,000. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Melo has long legs and a lively fastball that reaches 92 mph. His changeup is ahead of his breaking ball, though he’s still a project and in the process of becoming more of a pitcher than just a thrower.