2013-14 International Reviews: Chicago Cubs
Top signing: OF Eloy Jimenez, Dominican Republic, $2.8 million.
Seven- and six-figure signings: SS Gleyber Torres (Venezuela), RHP Jen-Ho Tseng (Taiwan), RHP Jefferson Mejia (Dominican Republic), RHP Erling Moreno (Colombia), C Yohan Matos (Dominican Republic), SS Jesus Gonzalez (Venezuela).
Total players signed: 27.
No team landed more potential impact talent on the international amateur market last year than the Cubs, although it didn't all go as planned and they will have to face spending restrictions during the next signing period for going well beyond their bonus pool.
The Cubs entered the 2013-14 signing period with the second-biggest bonus pool in baseball. Every team can trade for up to an additional 50 percent of their original bonus pool, which the Cubs initially tried to do to fit everyone under their pool. On July 2, the Cubs gave second baseman Ronald Torreyes to the Astros in exchange for their No. 2 and 3 slot values ($784,700). But acquiring more pool space proved more challenging than they had anticipated.
Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez had an agreement to sign with the Cubs on July 2 but agreed to wait to sign his contract. Once the Cubs couldn't acquire any more pool space and became more enthusiastic about a top prospect from Taiwan, the Cubs blew past their pool space, with Jimenez getting a $2.8 million bonus (the biggest of the year for an international amateur by far) on Aug. 1, the day after the major league trade deadline.
The Cubs won't be able to sign anyone for more than $250,000 when the 2014-15 signing period begins on July 2, but they came away with Baseball America's No. 1 and No. 2 international prospects for July 2 and four players from the Top 30. No one player established himself as the clear-cut No. 1 prospect for July 2 last year, but several teams had Jimenez as either the top player or one of the top players on their boards. Jimenez, 17, has plenty of baseball experience, traveling to the Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen, Md., in 2008 as a teammate of Mets shortstop Amed Rosario and Tigers shortstop Domingo Leyba, then helping the Dominican team win its third straight junior division Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series in Miami in 2012. He comes from an athletic background, as his father played professional basketball for 12 years in the Dominican Republic.
Like Royals outfielder Elier Hernandez, who signed for $3 million in 2011, Jimenez trained with Amauris Nina and played in the International Prospect League. Some teams see Jimenez as an upgraded version of Hernandez. He's 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and a good athlete for his size. Jimenez isn't a pure hitter--some scouts saw him in games, while others didn't see the game performance they would have liked given his price tag--but he has good hand-eye coordination, uses the middle of the field and has the ingredients to hit from the right side. With his long arms, there is length to his stroke and he is prone to flying open early against soft stuff, but scouts generally think he has a fairly fluid stroke. With a flat, level swing path, Jimenez has average raw power that results in more hard liners than loft. With his size and strength potential, he should be able to develop above-average pop.
Jimenez will show above-average times in the 60-yard dash, although he has an unorthodox running stride. Some scouts say his speed plays closer to average on the field, and with his large frame, he'll slow down some anyway. After playing center field as an amateur, Jimenez will slide over to right field, where he has a 55 arm on the 20-80 scale. Most teams would probably start Jimenez in the United States, but the Cubs prefer to have players start in their Dominican or Venezuelan academies first. Jimenez will debut in the Dominican Summer League, though a jump to the Rookie-level Arizona League at some point during the year isn't out of the question.
Some scouts preferred 17-year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres to Jimenez for his present ability, solid tool set and potential to play a premium position. His $1.7 million bonus on July 2 was the highest of the year for a Venezuelan player. Like Blue Jays shortstop Franklin Barreto, Torres trained with Ciro Barrios, and while Torres also was one of the better hitters in his class and has a better chance to stay at shortstop, scouts generally considered him a tick below Barreto. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Torres is a smart, savvy player with good instincts in all phases of the game and the potential for five tools that could be closer to average or better. He hits in games with a low-maintenance, simple stroke from the right side. He has good bat-to-ball skills with his ability to stay short to the ball and good hand-eye coordination, though he can get out to his front side too early and pull off the ball at times. He has gap power now but he has good bat speed and should have solid power for a middle infielder, with the potential for 10-15 home runs. He's an intelligent basestealer who reads pitchers well and gets good jumps. After signing, Torres played in the Parallel League (the minors of the Venezuelan League) and hit .302/.351/.396 in 53 at-bats with a home run, three walks and 13 strikeouts.
Torres doesn't have the prototypical wiry frame of most young Latin American shortstops. He has a compact, relatively filled out frame for his age, though he has leaned out some since signing. Some scouts believe he can play shortstop with a build along the lines of fellow Venezuelan and current Orioles shortstop Alex Gonzalez. He has solid hands, a strong arm and has shown above-average speed at times, especially at the end of 2012. Since then several teams saw average speed, though he may have been on cruise control at that point. The Cubs see Torres as an above-average athlete who can play shortstop, though others aren't as sold on his athleticism and see him splitting time between shortstop, second and third base, a role and skill set that elicits comparisons to Freddy Sanchez. Torres is expected to debut in the Venezuelan Summer League, though he would probably be one of the best young hitters in the AZL if the Cubs ended up bumping him there during the season.
The biggest wild card in the 2013 international signing class was righthander Jen-Ho Tseng, who entered 2013 as the potential No. 1 prospect on the international market. In September 2012, Tseng pitched in six of Taiwan's eight games at the 18U World Championship, where he posted an ERA of 0.84 with 22 strikeouts and two walks in 21 innings. Tseng pitched briefly at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in November 2012, then the next month at the Asian Championship in Taiwan he threw six shutout innings in a crucial 7-0 win over South Korea. Tseng was so advanced that he pitched for Taiwan in the WBC last year in March as an 18-year-old, but that's where everything seemed to unravel. Tseng's struggles at the WBC were understandable given his youth, but his stuff and control both had gone backward, with his fastball sitting in the high-80s and his breaking stuff lacking its usual crispness. For the most part, his stuff didn't return as the year continued. A handful of teams stayed on him, including the Cubs, who in June saw him bumping 95 again and were convinced enough to sign him for $1.625 million on July 25.
Tseng, who is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and turned 19 in October, pitched at 89-92 mph and touched 95 when he was at his best at the end of 2012. Back then, his curveball and changeup were both 60 offerings on the 20-80 scale at times, with some scouts hanging a 70 future potential grade on the changeup because of its late, spitter-like action that darts down in the zone. He had shown good command of the changeup and his curveball, a pitch with tight spin that he uses more frequently than a slider that flashes average. Tseng's 2013 struggles and his mechanics, which some believe he started to tinker with to his own detriment last year, concerns some scouts about his durability. Tseng has taken to English quickly and is even picking up some Spanish. He could debut in short-season Boise in the Northwest League, with low Class A Kane County another possibility.
The Cubs added two high-profile pitchers on July 2, including Dominican righthander Jefferson Mejia, who signed for $850,000. Mejia originally would have been eligible to sign in 2012, but Major League Baseball declared him ineligible to sign for one year due to issues with his age. Mejia now uses an Aug. 2, 1994 date of birth, which would make him 19. Mejia became eligible to sign on April 4 and agreed to sign with the Cubs, then waited for the 2013-14 bonus pools to kick in on July 2 to sign his contract.
Mejia, who trained with Edgar Mercedes, looks like a power forward with a thickly built, extra-large frame at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. Mejia stood out in front of hundreds of scouts at the International Prospect League all-star game last year in January, showing a lively 91-93 mph fastball. Since signing, Mejia has been up to 96, and with the way the ball comes out of his hand fairly easily, he could eventually reach the upper-90s. The year before he signed, Mejia weighed under 200 pounds, but the additional weight has helped him keep his delivery together and repeat his mechanics together well for someone that big, as he's fairly coordinated for a guy his size. His fastball has explosive life down in the zone, with downhill plane and hard sink. It's an uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters, who also have to deal with a solid upper-70s curveball that Mejia has added some power to over the past year with late, sharp action at times. Mejia's changeup can be a swing-and-miss pitch at times as well, though his curveball is his No. 2 offering right now. Given his age, the Cubs will send him straight to the U.S. this year after getting a brief taste of the DSL in 2013.
On July 2 the Cubs also signed Colombian righthander Erling Moreno for $650,000. A 17-year-old who trained with Edinson Renteria, Moreno is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and oozes projection to be a power pitcher. He's 6-foot-3, 190 pounds with lots of room to add weight and strength. He threw 87-91 mph when he signed and has since hit 92, but with his build and the way his arm works, he should eventually throw in the mid-90s. Moreno is a good athlete who delivers the ball with downhill angle and works in the bottom of the strike zone. Some scouts feel his best secondary pitch is his changeup, which will flash as a 50-55 offering on the 20-80 scale when he keeps his release point consistent. He also throws a slurvy curveball that he tends to get around on, so there's a chance he may go to a true slider in the future. Since Moreno is from Colombia, the Cubs are deciding whether to send him to the DSL or the VSL, though the DSL would seem more likely at this point.
Another July 2 signing, 17-year-old Dominican catcher Yohan Matos, received a $270,000 bonus. The Cubs were drawn to Matos for his righthanded bat and arm strength. Matos consistently performed for the Cubs in game situations, hitting well against good velocity and breaking pitches. Signed at 6 feet, 175 pounds, Matos has added about 10-15 pounds since then. Power isn't his calling card, but the additional strength has helped the ball start to jump off his bat with more authority. Matos has a plus arm and has only been catching for a couple of years. The Cubs initially thought third base could end up being a backup plan, but they're now convinced he can stick behind the plate as a fair receiver who's worked hard to improve his blocking and technique behind the plate.
During the 2012-13 signing period in June, the Cubs gave a $100,000 bonus to 18-year-old Venezuelan infielder Jesus Gonzalez. After signing, Gonzalez hit .130/.259/.217 in 69 at-bats in the VSL. At 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, Gonzalez signed as a shortstop but played mostly second base last year, though he'll probably move back and forth between the two spots this season. He's an average runner with an average runner and solid hands in the field, with second base probably his best fit. He needs to get stronger and bring better performance to the plate in games.