2013-14 International Review: Cleveland Indians
Top signing: RHP Leandro Linares, Cuba, $950,000.
Six-figure signings: SS Willi Castro (Dominican Republic), OF Junior Soto (Dominican Republic), IF/OF Yu-Cheng Chang (Taiwan), OF Juan Garcia (Dominican Republic), SS Yandy Diaz (Cuba), RHP Gabby Vizcaino (Dominican Republic).
Total players signed: 32.
Most of the top Cuban players leaving the island since the Collective Bargaining Agreement kicked in two years ago have been age 23 or older, since that's the sweet spot for players to sign without being subject to the international bonus pools. Righthander Leandro Linares is an exception, as the 20-year-old was one of Cuba's more promising young arms before leaving to sign with the Indians for $950,000 as in July.
Scouts had seen Linares pitch outside of Cuba multiple times before he defected, including the 2009 World Youth Championship in Taiwan and the next year at the 16U COPABE Pan American championships in Mexico. While Linares left Cuba before he could ever make an impact in Serie Nacional, he was one of the top pitchers in the island's 18U national league in 2012, when he posted 1.91 ERA in 66 innings for Villa Clara. He ranked fifth in the league with 76 strikeouts (for reference, Norge Ruiz ranked second with 87 whiffs in 84 2/3 innings), though he was also prone to losing his control, as his 46 walks tied for the league lead.
Linares is strong build at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds and throws 89-94 mph. He misses bats with his curveball, a 73-76 mph offering that flashes as a plus pitch with good depth, though it can get loopy on him at times. His changeup flashes average every once in a while, though it's the pitch he needs to bring along the most. He also has thrown a cutter that might get shelved for now to focus on the development of his other pitches and his command. His delivery is sound, though his control wavers in part because of an inconsistent release point. Linares, who took up permanent residency in Haiti and was evaluated in the Dominican Republic, was represented by Bart Hernandez of Praver Shapiro Sports Management. Linares is with the Indians in Arizona now, with a debut assignment still to be determined.
The Indians went against the general industry consensus in 2012 to sign Dominican outfielder Hector Caro for $1.1 million. They went against the grain again last year for their top non-Cuban July 2 signing last year, giving $825,000 to 16-year-old shortstop Willi Castro. Born in Puerto Rico and signed out of the Dominican Republic, Castro is the son of Liliano Castro, who coached in the Tigers and Mets organizations while Indians director of Latin American operations Ramon Pena worked there. A 6-foot-1, 155-pound switch-hitter, Castro has grown up around the game and the Indians see the evidence in his instincts. Castro stays within the strike zone and has a line-drive, spray approach with a little more thump from the left side. He doesn't have one plus tool, but he has a 50 to 55 arm on the 20-80 scale. He's a 45 runner, but the Indians think he will stay at shortstop with good hands and footwork. Castro has a good chance to skip the Dominican Summer League and debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
The Indians signed Dominican outfielder Junior Soto for $600,000 on July 2. Soto, who played in the Dominican Prospect League and trained with Christian Batista, has a common corner outfield skill set for a 17-year-old Dominican prospect. He's 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, shows promising raw power in batting practice from the right side of the plate but has had mixed results hitting in game situations as he learns to refine his approach and recognize breaking pitches. He has an above-average arm and the Indians have seen him register 60-yard dash times that translate to above-average speed. He will start his career in center field in the DSL but could end up in a corner.
There were two major amateur signings out of Asia in 2013. One was Taiwanese righthander Jen-Ho Tseng, who signed with the Cubs for $1.625 million in July. The other was shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang, who signed with the Indians for $500,000 in June during the 2012-13 signing period out of Taichung Agricultural High in Taiwan. Chang is the younger brother of Pirates catcher Jin-De Jhang, who signed for $250,000 in 2011 and played in the short-season New York-Penn League last year at age 20. Chang, 18, made the all-tournament team as a center fielder at the 16U World Championship in Mexico, where he played against players such as Pirates outfielder Austin Meadows and Blue Jays catcher Franklin Barreto. Chang led Taiwan in batting average and slugging, hitting .414/.469/.690 by going 12-for-29 with a home run, a triple, three doubles, two walks and one strikeout.
At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Chang is a good athlete who doesn't have a plus tool but does a lot of things well. He jumped out for his bat as an amateur with contact skills and gap power. The biggest unknown is where he fits best on the field. The Indians have mostly been using him at shortstop, though several scouts believe he will move off the position. He runs a tick above-average with a good gait and an average arm, so some scouts think he has a chance in center field. Others think he will slow down, making him better suited for third base, second or a corner outfield spot. Chang has a chance to open in short-season Mahoning Valley, though there's a possibility he could be pushed to low Class A Lake County.
Dominican corner outfielder Juan Garcia signed for $300,000 in August a couple of weeks after his 16th birthday. Garcia is 6-foot-3, 195 pounds with projectable power and an aggressive approach. He has a solid swing path from the right side and uses the middle of the field, it's a matter of developing his free-swinging approach to stay within the strike zone. He's a below-average runner with an average arm.
After signing Linares in July, the Indians added another Cuban player subject to the bonus pools in September by signing 22-year-old infielder Yandy Diaz for $300,000. Diaz, like Linares, was represented by Bart Hernandez and Praver Shapiro Sports Management. Diaz played at the 18U World Championship in 2008 and had been one of the top performers in Cuba's 18U national league that year, ranking second in the league to Yasiel Puig in both batting average (.393) and slugging (.606) with 25 walks and seven strikeouts in 146 plate appearances. By comparison, his 18U teammate, Aledmys Diaz, hit .305 and slugged .390 in 103 plate appearances. Diaz had played briefly in Serie Nacional, splitting time between shortstop and second base for Villa Clara. In 2010-11, his final season in Cuba, Diaz batted .254/.399/.331 in 182 plate appearances with two home runs, 30 walks and 27 strikeouts.
Diaz has a mature 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame, below-average speed and a fringy arm. He doesn't have the tools for shortstop, so he will probably spend most of his time at second base, with third or left field also possibilities. Diaz's bat will have to carry him, as he has some strength but will need to tone down an aggressive, pull-oriented approach. Given his age, he's likely to debut in low Class A Lake County.
In November, the Indians signed Dominican righthander Gabby Vizcaino for $175,000. Vizcaino popped on to the radar in 2012, when he had been presenting himself as a 16-year-old. Vizcaino had one of the strongest arms in the class and scouts widely believed he was lying about his age, but he nearly got away with it, agreeing to a $900,000 deal with the Dodgers. That deal never came to fruition, however, as Major League Baseball declared Vizcaino ineligible to sign due to issues with his age. Vizcaino eventually came forward with a new age, petitioning the Dominican supreme court to get a new birth certificate, a process that took more than a year to complete. Vizcaino is now presenting himself as a 19-year-old born March 26, 1994. With a slender 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame, Vizcaino still has a quick, power arm and throws 92-96 mph. His changeup has solid sink and is ahead of his short, erratic slider right now. With Vizcaino's limited command and some effort to his delivery, several scouts see him as a future reliever.