2013-14 International Reviews: Texas Rangers
Top signing: OF Jose Almonte, Dominican Republic, $1.8 million.
Seven- and six-figure signings: SS Yeyson Yrizarri (Venezuela/Dominican Republic), RHP Marcos DIplan (Dominican Republic), RHP Omarlin Lopez (Dominican Republic), SS Michael De Leon (Dominican Republic), OF Todd McDonald (Australia), SS Yimmelvyn Alonzo (Dominican Republic), RHP Jonathan Hernandez (Dominican Republic), C Melvin Novoa (Nicaragua), OF Cristian Encarnacion (Dominican Republic), 3B Andretty Cordero (Dominican Republic), LHP Yonelvy Pichardo (Dominican Republic), C Yohel Pozo (Venezuela).
Total signings: 43.
No team spent more money on international amateur players last year than the Rangers, which was a product of two factors. At the beginning of the year, the Rangers still had plenty of space left under their $2.9 million bonus pool from the 2012-13 signing period, since the limbo of the Jairo Beras led them to be relatively inactive during July 2 in 2012. After spending more than most during the first half of 2013, the Rangers also soared past their 2013-14 bonus pool on the first day of the signing period, which means they won't be able to sign anyone for more than $250,000 when the 2014-15 period opens on July 2.
The Rangers came away with some of the top talent in Latin America last year, but their biggest signing, Dominican outfielder Jose Almonte (video), wasn't considered a premium talent. Almonte signed for $1.8 million, the second-largest bonus for an international amateur last year behind only Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who signed with the Cubs for $2.8 million. Teams considered Almonte a solid prospect but not near commensurate with the level his bonus would suggest.
Almonte trained with Jaime Ramos, who put him in both the Dominican Prospect League and the International Prospect League. At 17, Almonte has a large frame (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), good bat speed and strong wrists. He has average raw power and can take the ball over the fence in BP with a big leg kick, an uphill swing and a home run derby approach, but his lack of rhythm and timing leads to inconsistent game performance with a fair amount of swing and miss. His hips fly open early, leaving him vulnerable to offspeed stuff, and his swing isn't the smoothest, as he tends to drag the bat.
Almonte's best tool is arguably his plus arm, which will allow him to play right field. It's not the prettiest throwing motion--it's a short-arm, upright stroke--but he gets plenty of strength and carry behind the ball. Almonte has some experience at third base, and his footwork wasn't bad there, but he's probably too big for the position anyway, so he's going to be a right fielder. His speed is below-average. Almonte is ticketed to debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Scouts had more praise for the Rangers' two other seven-figure July 2 signings, including shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri, who landed a $1.35 million bonus. Yrizarri, 17, was born in Venezuela but grew up in the Dominican Republic, where he played in the International Prospect League and trained with Javier Rodriguez and Rudy Santin. He's the nephew of Deivi Cruz, a former major league shortstop who played in the majors from 1997-2005, including five years with the Tigers. His aunt played on the Dominican national softball team and his older brother, righthander Deibi Yrizarri, debuted last year with the Nationals in the Dominican Summer League.
Yrizarri is an aggressive player who sets his hands up lower than most players but has a quick, short stroke from the right side. He's 6 feet, 175 pounds with a wide, athletic body and strong hands that help him hit hard line drives with high exit speed. Scouts who like him the most see him making consistent contact in games while using the middle of the field. He has a chance to hit for average but is still working to tame some of his aggressiveness to work the count in his favor more often and recognize pitches. He has occasional power to his pull side, which sometimes causes him to get out on his front side early when he tries to yank one. For now it's mostly gap power, but with his frame and the strength in his forearms he has a chance to develop average or better power.
Yrizarri's best tool is his arm, a 70 on the 20-80 scale. He's an average runner who could be able to squeeze his way in as a bigger-bodied shortstop, but he doesn't have a quick first step. A lot of scouts think he will end up at second or third base, with a chance to be an above-average defender at either spot. He's likely to start his career in the AZL.
Another player who trained with Rodriguez and Santin was Dominican lefthander Francis Cespedes, who had a $750,000 contract with the Rangers in June at the end of the 2012-13 signing period. Cespedes signed as an 18-year-old who turned 19 on Sept. 28, but the Rangers decided not to continue with his contract after Major League Baseball's investigation came back with his age and identity undetermined. In cases where a player's age or identity is undetermined, the team has the option to continue with the contract or get out of it entirely. Age or identity undetermined rulings are fairly common, and teams generally opt to continue with those contracts anyway, as the Rangers did with Jairo Beras and other teams did with prominent million-dollar signings last year. Cespedes never faced any penalties from MLB, so he's free to sign any time, though his velocity after signing started to decline.
Several teams felt the top pitcher on the international market last year was Dominican righthander Marcos Diplan (video), who signed for $1.3 million on July 2 after playing in the Dominican Prospect League and training with Luis Polonia. Diplan is charitably listed at 6 feet, 160 pounds and could be next in an impressive line of Dominican power arms who lack the height scouts tend to covet.
Diplan threw 89-92 mph and touched 94 before signing. He's still generally around the same velocity, though he did crack 96 once. Diplan has wide shoulders and an extremely quick arm, so there could be more velocity gains coming. Diplan's secondary pitches are advanced for a 17-year-old. He throws two types of curveballs, with a three-fingered curve and a more conventional 12-to-6 breaker, which has good depth and rotation with above-average potential. He hasn't need to throw his changeup much, but it already flashes average. Diplan has had times where he's cruised through hitters for easy outs, but there's some effort and herky-jerky action to his delivery, which causes him to lose his release point and his control. The Rangers have worked with him to get him more online to the plate rather than spinning off to the side, and he has the aptitude and athleticism to make adjustments. His lack of size leads some teams to question whether he will end up in the bullpen, but he has the repertoire of a starter. His opening assignment is still to be determined between the AZL and the DSL.
The Rangers' other major July 2 signing was Dominican shortstop Michael De Leon (video), a 17-year-old switch-hitter. De Leon, who trained with Valentin Monero, is a fundamentally sound player with a knack for squaring up the ball. He has a quick stroke, feel for the barrel, doesn't swing and miss much and laces plenty of hard line drives to all fields in games, including his time in the Dominican Prospect League. He's a disciplined hitter who puts together quality at-bats. He lacks strength and has limited power, which will never be a big part of his game. De Leon doesn't have big tools or do anything flashy at shortstop. He's a fringe-average runner at best who's more about quickness than speed. He has good actions at shortstop, very reliable hands and makes the routine plays. He's not the rangiest shortstop, however, and while his throws are accurate, his below-average arm strength and funky throwing stroke may guide him over to second base. De Leon probably will start in the AZL, but with Yrizarri also in the mix, the Rangers will have to figure out the best way to get both of them consistent reps.
Power is the calling card for Yimmelvyn Alonzo, who signed for $350,000 in September after training with Edwin Sabater. Like fellow Rangers Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara in previous years, Alonzo was a member of the Dominican team that won the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) junior division World Series in 2012 in Miami. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Alonzo is strong and has plus raw power from the right side of the plate. His game hitting runs hot and cold with some swing-and-miss to his game, but when he stays balanced and connects, the ball jumps off his bat. Alonzo showcased as a shortstop, but he won't stay there, and where he ends up remains to be seen. He has a solid arm, but he's not a great runner and scouts were mixed on his athleticism. He will debut this year in the DSL, where he will play second and third base and possibly get some time in left field as well, which some scouts think may be his best defensive fit.
In the first half of 2013 during the 2012-13 signing period, the Rangers made three six-figure signings, with the biggest bonus going to Dominican righthander Omarlin Lopez, who trained with Victor Baez and signed for $825,000 in March. Lopez is a former shortstop who had been on the mound for less than a year when he originally signed with the Rockies for $160,000. That deal never was finalized due to an issue over Lopez's age. Lopez came out with a new date of birth (Oct. 8, 1993) that was one year older than what he used on his Rockies contract, and his contract with the Rangers was approved. Lopez had a solid debut last year as a starter in the DSL, where he had a 3.15 ERA in 60 innings with 47 strikeouts and 10 walks.
Lopez, 20, has a thin frame (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) and throws 87-92 mph. Some in the Rangers organization say they saw him throwing harder before he signed. He shows feel to spin a hard curveball that some scouts have labeled a slider. It was ahead of his changeup when he signed, though he's brought along his changeup since then. Lopez has a loose arm and physical projection remaining. He needs to add weight to ease concerns about his durability.
The Rangers also signed Australian outfielder Todd McDonald for $475,000 in January. McDonald attended the MLB Australian Academy, though he was never one of the top performers there, as he hit .156/.289/.219 in 32 at-bats at the academy in 2012. The Rangers liked his ability to track pitches and he had some solid tools as well with his speed and arm strength in center field. After playing briefly in the DSL, McDonald, 18, hit .241/.309/.315 in 42 games in the Arizona League, so his lefthanded bat is still raw.
Texas signed righthander Jonathan Hernandez for $300,000 last year in January out of the Dominican Republic. His father, Fernando Hernandez, reached the major leagues briefly, pitching in two games as a reliever for the Tigers in 1997. Hernandez, who turned 17 last year in July, pitched well last summer in his pro debut in the DSL, holding down a 1.21 ERA in 44 2/3 innings with a 38-22 K-BB mark. With a fastball that tops out around the high-80sl, Hernandez doesn't overpower people but he mixes his pitches, works around the strike zone and keeps hitters off balance with deception from a low three-quarters slot. There's arm speed and physical projection in his skinny build (6-foot-2, 150 pounds) for him to throw harder, but he's content pitching backwards with a slurvy curveball and a changeup.
The Rangers also added a handful of players for low six-figure bonuses during the current 2013-14 signing period. One was 17-year-old Nicaraguan catcher Melvin Novoa (video), who had originally become eligible to sign in 2012 and signed in November for $200,000. Novoa had trained in Nicaragua at Academia Cinco Estrellas with Eli and Kelvin Delgado. At the end, Dominican trainer Enrique Soto (who also ended up with Colombian catcher Jorge Alfaro before he signed with the Rangers) was brought in to help finalize the deal. The Rangers saw Novoa (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) as an offensive-oriented catcher with a plus arm and solid power from the right side, though scouts from other organizations were mixed on his game hitting. Receiving and blocking are still a work in progress for Novoa
Like fellow Rangers outfielder Jairo Beras, 17-year-old Dominican outfielder Cristian Encarnacion trained with Carlos Guzman. Encarnacion, who is 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, signed for $150,000 in October. The Rangers are close with Guzman, so they have followed Encarnacion since he was 14. Encarnacion's progress has been slow since then, as he lost weight and struggled to put everything together consistently. The Rangers signed him after putting him in their Tricky League team (an informal league for July 2 signings) and were encouraged with the progress he made there, although he doesn't have a standout tool. Encarnacion will be a corner outfielder, with a chance to play right field.
Dominican third baseman Andretty Cordero signed for $135,000 in August after impressing the Rangers with his work ethic and righthanded swing. Cordero is a 16-year-old with good balance and a loose stroke, generating good whip through the zone. The Rangers evaluated him by putting him on their Tricky League team before signing him and he was one of the top performers on the club, working counts, recognizing pitches, consistently squaring balls up and taking quality at-bats. At 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, Cordero shows decent hands and arm strength as he works to improve his agility and lateral mobility. Cordero trained with Juan Martinez.
The same day they signed Cordero, the Rangers signed 16-year-old Venezuelan catcher Yohel Pozo for $100,000. The Rangers had imported Pozo from Venezuela and watched him play for their Tricky League team as well. At 6 feet, 175 pounds, he doesn't have a plus tool but he's a potential offensive-minded catcher who put together good at-bats as a righthanded hitter in the Tricky League. Pozo trained with Carlos Rios.
Texas also gave $105,000 in November to Dominican lefthander Yonelvy Pichardo, whose trainer is known as "Manchu." Pichardo is a wiry, athletic 6-foot-2, 175 pounds and throws a lot of strikes with his 88-91 mph fastball. His arm works well and his fastball control is advanced, with his secondary pitches (a curveball and a changeup) still in their nascent stages.
The Rangers also did a package deal with Quintana Roo of the Mexican League on July 2 to add a trio of players. The best of the group was righthander Edgar Arredondo, but he had Tommy John surgery after signing and is out for the 2014 season. The Rangers had followed Arredondo since he was 13, and like other clubs, they were impressed with his feel for pitching. He has a big, strong body (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) and throws a lot of strikes with his fastball, with sits at 86-89 and gets up to 90-91 at times. He has a nice fastball-changeup mix, with the changeup flashing average and more advanced than his below-average curveball. He's currently in Arizona working on his rehab.
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