In the Dominican Summer and Venezuelan Summer leagues, the players are as raw as you will find in professional baseball. Yet the ceilings and breakout potential in many of the players can be immense.
Take the DSL/VSL Top 20 list from 2010, which had five players who currently rank among the Top 100 Prospects: Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, Cardinals righthander Carlos Martinez, Rockies shortstop Rosell Herrera, Royals outfielder Jorge Bonifacio and Rangers catcher Jorge Alfaro.
The most advanced (and usually most expensive) international signings will sometimes jump straight to the United States, which was the case with Royals shortstop Raul A. Mondesi, Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor and Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. But the Latin American summer leagues are where most young Latin American players begin their careers, a list that includes Oscar Taveras, Miguel Sano, Gregory Polanco and Yordano Ventura.
Hitters who might not stand out in a showcase can elevate their stock with high-level game performance, while a toolsy player who’s striking out more than once per game raises red flags about how he’s going to adjust when he has to face more advanced pitchers. Position players still must have the tools to succeed against more advanced pitchers as they move up the ladder, but at this level, performance tends to matter more for hitters than pitchers. The pitchers are often just learning how to pitch in games and are still growing into their physically immature bodies, so their stock can shoot up once they get bigger, gain velocity and acquire the strength to get better body control and in turn throw more strikes.
To qualify for this list, players needed to have at least 100 plate appearances or 25 innings in either the DSL or the VSL in 2013, so a pitcher like Royals righthander Pedro Hernandez, who was in and out of the league after 12 innings, did not make the cutoff. Players were considered for the list based on their future major league potential and are listed in alphabetical order. Ages listed are as of today.
Victor Acosta, ss, Red Sox
Age: 17. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 160. Signed: Venezuela, 2012.
Within two weeks of seeing Acosta in Pascual Fiorello's program in August 2012, the Red Sox moved quickly to sign him for $50,000. They immediately felt like they had an exciting bargain on their hands, and the enthusiasm has only grown after he showed surprising power (eight homers) in his pro debut in the DSL. Acosta is extremely confident in his hands at the plate. He has strong, quick wrists that help him generate good bat speed. He has a knack for making solid contact with very good plate coverage. He stays within his approach, doesn't try to sell out for power, produces good backspin and generates surprising power from his size. A plus runner when he signed, Acosta has solid-average speed now and may end up losing another half grade off his speed, dropping him to average. He's a good athlete for a third baseman and has the above-average arm strength to play there, though he might also get some exposure at second base this season.
Jose Alvarado, lhp, Rays
Age: 18. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 180. Signed: Venezuela, 2012.
When the Rays signed Alvarado out of Venezuela for $50,000 in March 2012, he was a skinny kid throwing in the mid-80s. After a nondescript debut in the VSL the year he signed, Alvarado blew up last season, ranking seventh in the league in ERA (1.97) and first among starters in strikeouts per nine innings (10.6). He now throws his fastball at 92-96 mph with heavy life, which he can either blow by hitters at this level or use to get easy grounders. His 78-80 mph curveball is a hard, power breaking ball and is ahead of his 83-85 changeup, which is below-average. Alvarado led the VSL with 17 wild pitches and walked too many batters last year, so he needs to learn to repeat his delivery to harness his newfound power stuff.
Carlos Belen, 3b, Padres
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 213. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
Belen had one of the biggest bats on the international market when the Padres signed him for $1 million on July 2, 2012. His numbers got better every month in the DSL, and after he hit five home runs with a .927 OPS in 16 games in August, the Padres promoted Belen to the Rookie-level Arizona League. Belen, who trained with Ney Acevedo and Rodolfo Mendez, has a clean, simple stroke with good bat speed and plus power. He's a strong, physical hitter who can take the ball over the fence from center field over to his pull side. Some scouts have concerns about Belen's ability to react to breaking pitches, but if he can respond to that, he's a potential impact bat. The other question on Belen is where he will end up defensively. He has a 70 arm and playable hands at third base, but he's already a big man and needs to improve his footwork and setup in the field after committing 27 errors in 64 games last year. If he can’t clean up his defense, then he could move to first base or a corner outfield spot. He may be advanced enough offensively to start in the short-season Northwest League.
Omar Carrizales, of, Rockies
Age: 19. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 175. Signed: Venezuela, 2012.
When Carrizales was working out for teams in Venezuela, his trainer had him on the mound and at the plate. The Rockies liked him as a hitter, and in October 2012 they signed him for $30,000. That could prove to be one of the best bargains of the year. Carrizales tied for third in the DSL in hits last season (77) and tied for seventh in the league in stolen bases (30). He's a plus runner with the speed and athleticism to be a high-caliber defensive center fielder. Carrizales hit over .300 in the DSL with a line-drive stroke from the left side. He's an aggressive hitter who makes a lot of contact, uses the whole field and keeps the ball on the ground to take advantage of his speed. He has minimal power, and with the way his swing works, that's never going to be a big part of his game. Given the Rockies history, Carrizales may start out repeating the DSL, with a chance to jump to the U.S. at some point in 2014.
Luis Castro, 3b, Rockies
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 187. Signed: Venezuela, 2012.
Castro was one of the top players on the international market heading into July 2, 2012. He showed a strong bat and a polished hitting approach for his age while representing Venezuela at the 16U World Championship in Mexico in 2011 and during the tryout process. Early in 2012, it looked like the Rockies were set to sign Castro, until the Blue Jays stepped in and gave him a contract for $800,000 on July 2. That deal never became official due to an issue with Castro's knee, and he eventually signed with the Rockies for $50,000 in August. Castro has a natural, simple stroke, recognizes offspeed pitches and stays within the strike zone. Like the Rockies’ Rosell Herrera when he debuted in the DSL, Castro's numbers didn't jump off the page and he didn't show much power, but he has the attributes of a good hitter and should grow into more power in the future. While some scouts like Castro's bat, he will have to put in work to stay at third base. A below-average runner, he led the league in errors, including 33 in 66 games at third base. Some of that has to do with making better decisions on throwing errors, but he will have to get better to avoid moving to left field.
Miguel Castro, rhp, Blue Jays
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 190. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
When the Blue Jays signed Castro in November 2012 after he trained with Eriberto Jose, he was a tall, skinny 17-year-old with a fastball that reached 91-92 mph. He hasn't put on all that much weight, but his fastball has skyrocketed. Castro now operates at 93-96 mph when he's cruising and consistently reaches the upper 90s. He's touched triple digits multiple times and has been clocked as high as 103 mph. His overpowering velocity and improved control led to plenty of empty swings last year, and he generates some sink from his low three-quarters arm slot to get groundballs as well. Castro's best secondary pitch is his changeup, which flashes average now and has a chance to be better. It's more advanced than his slider, which gets sweepy and he needs to stay on top of because of his low arm slot. Adding more size will help his durability. After the Blue Jays pushed him to the GCL in August and then to Rookie-level Bluefield, Castro could move relatively quickly.
Jacob Constante, lhp, Reds
Age: 19. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 215. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
The Reds didn't throw a bunch of money at anyone around July 2 in 2012, which left them with ample space left in their $2.9 million when Constante popped up later in the signing period. After watching him touch 94 mph with a sharp slider in front of hundreds of scouts at an International Prospect League event in January, the Reds signed him for $730,000 from Rudy Santin. Constante, who turns 20 later this month, dominated DSL hitters last year, leading all starters in strikeouts per nine innings (12.8). Constante throws a 90-94 mph fastball that has plus movement, a pitch he can get hitters to swing through or hit into the ground. His 80-83 mph slider flashes above-average, capable of getting lefties or righties to swing and miss with sharp, late break, though at times it turns into a shorter cement mixer. Constante's changeup, which he had little need for in the DSL, is the pitch that needs the most work. He also needs to repeat his release point to be able to throw more strikes. The changeup and control concerns lead some scouts to wonder if Constante may end up in the bullpen. He's already fluent in English, which will help his transition to the U.S. this year.
Michael De La Cruz, of, Pirates
Age: 17. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 165. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
When the Pirates signed de la Cruz for $700,000 from Raul Valera (the trainer known as "Banana") when he turned 16 on July 10, 2012, some other clubs were scratching their heads. De la Cruz's tools kept ticking in the right direction as July 2 approached that year and have only continued to improve. Not only that, but he was more advanced with the bat than many scouts realized. He's a patient hitter who led the DSL in walks (58) and ranked seventh in OBP (.436). His hands work well at the plate and he uses the whole field, though he may never have much power. De la Cruz's game will be more about getting on base and taking advantage of his premium speed. He has the tools to be a shutdown defender in center field between his wheels and plus arm strength.
Ibandel Isabel, of, Dodgers
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 185. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
The Dodgers get a lot of attention for their high-dollar expenditures, but one of the best international players they signed last year was Isabel, who signed out for $80,000 in April 2013. Isabel has smooth, easy hitting actions. He has excellent hands at the plate, quick wrists and a good swing plane that results in plenty of hard line drives. Isabel hit a few home runs last year, but right now it's mostly doubles power. He has plenty of room to add size and strength, so once he gets bigger and learns which balls he can turn on, he might be able to develop above-average power. While the bat is the key for any hitter to move up, that's especially true for Isabel, who is limited to left field with below-average speed and arm strength and may ultimately end up at first base.
Domingo Leyba, ss, Tigers
Age: 18. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 160. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
Leyba has been playing organized baseball for several years and it shows in his maturity in all phases of the game. He was on the Dominican team that won the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) junior division World Series championship in Minneapolis in 2011. One year later, he signed with the Tigers for $400,000 after playing in the DPL and training with Christian Batista, whose nickname is "Niche." The Tigers' early and aggressive pursuit of Leyba that year already looks wise, as Leyba led the DSL in OPS and slugging. Leyba doesn't have one calling card in his tool set, but he's a well-rounded player with an excellent approach at the plate, the ability to control the strike zone and routinely smash hard line drives to all parts of the park. Leyba has a strong, compact frame and produced surprising power last year, though he projects more as a 10-15 home run guy. Leyba is an average runner with an average arm, a quick release, sound hands and footwork at shortstop. He's a smart player who has a chance to stick at shortstop, though he split time between short and second last year with Willy Adames and could ultimately end up at second.
Francis Martes, rhp, Marlins
Age: 18. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 170. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
Despite working with a restricted budget, Marlins scouts have picked up some promising under-the-radar pitchers in the Dominican Republic, including righthander Jose Urena. Their latest find is Martes, a $78,000 signing from November 2012. Martes was a pitchability righthander with a high-80s fastball when he signed, but last summer in the DSL he pitched at 90-94 mph. He's only gotten better since then, hitting 97 mph last month. While a lot of young arms with Martes' velocity are more thrower than pitcher, Martes fills up the strike zone with a loose arm, good delivery, and good arm action. He works down in the zone and generates a lot of groundballs. He has the attributes of a starting pitcher, with a potential plus changeup that's ahead of his breaking ball.
Jorge Mateo, ss, Yankees
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 188. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
Mateo showed big-time tools when the Yankees signed him for $250,000 in January 2012. Now he's showing that he's more than just raw tools. An 80 runner on the 20-80 scale, Mateo led the Dominican Summer League with 49 stolen bases. He's a premium athlete who should be able to stay at shortstop, where he shows very good range, quick feet and a plus arm. Mateo has good bat speed and led both DSL Yankees teams in home runs. He should have good power for a shortstop, with 15-20 home runs a very realistic possibility. Mateo uses the whole field and did a solid job of managing the strike-zone in his debut, though he will have to make adjustments as he moves up the ladder and starts to see better breaking pitches. He and center fielder Leonardo Molina, who signed last year for $1.4 million, are two of the more exciting, toolsy players in the lower levels of the organization.
Jose Medina, lhp, Mets
Age: 17. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 180. Signed: Mexico, 2012.
Every team in the DSL has at least a handful of guys who can throw harder than Medina, but it's hard to find anyone who combines Medina's youth and remarkable feel for pitching. Had Medina been born one week later, he wouldn't have been eligible to sign until July 2, 2013. Instead he signed with the Mets out of the Mexico City of the Mexican League in August 2012, then last year as a 16-year-old had the lowest ERA in the DSL among pitchers with at least 50 innings, though he barely missed qualifying for the official ERA title. Medina throws 85-88 mph but is a supreme strike thrower. Given his youth, there's a chance he could end up throwing harder and cracking the low-90s, but his strengths will always be throwing strikes and using his secondary pitches. His plus changeup makes his fastball play better because hitters have to stay read for the changeup. His curveball also misses bats, a true top-to-bottom breaking ball with tight spin and good depth.
Jose Paulino, lhp, Cubs
Age: 18. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 165. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2011.
After a solid DSL debut in 2012, Paulino build on that with a better season in 2013, tying for sixth in the league in strikeouts. He has a wiry, athletic body with an 89-92 mph fastball. With the room he has to put on size, more velocity could be coming. He keeps the ball down and can get ground balls or miss bats. He throws two good secondary pitches, including a slider that's a plus offering at times. He varies the action on his slider, throwing a hard sweeper against lefthanded hitters and more of a downer-type pitch that he uses to bury in on righties. He also has good feel for an average changeup that could become an above-average pitch in the future. Paulino is an aggressive pitcher who throws a lot of strikes and attacks hitters on the inner third of the plate.
Luis Reyes, rhp, Nationals
Age: 19. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 175. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
On August 22, 2012, the Nationals signed Reyes for $85,000. A year and one day later, Reyes was on the mound in the Gulf Coast League, having earned a late-season promotion after a strong debut in the DSL, where he tied for ninth in the league in strikeouts. Reyes is a good athlete who does a solid job of repeating his delivery and throwing strikes with feel for three pitches. He has a large frame and throws downhill with a 90-94 mph fastball. His power curveball is his best secondary offering and a swing-and-miss pitch when it's on, while his changeup flashes average. Reyes had his best numbers in the first inning last year, but he's still learning to maintain his intensity level and stay on an even keel throughout the entire game.
David Rodriguez, c, Rays
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 200. Signed: Venezuela, 2012.
Rodriguez was one of the top catchers on the international market in 2012, when he signed for $600,000 out of Carlos Guillen's academy. Judging Rays hitters in the Venezuelan Summer League is always tricky, not just because of the overall high-offensive environment of the league, but because the Rays' short wall in left field is especially friendly for righthanded hitters. Rodriguez, who had a higher OPS on the road than he did at home, led the VSL in home runs, ranked third in OBP and fourth in slugging. He has a good hitting approach, uses the whole field and produced a lot of hard line drives. Some scouts question Rodriguez's bat speed, and while the power numbers will deflate once he comes to the United States, he should be able to hit 10-15 homers in a season. Rodriguez should stick behind the plate, where he has soft hands, good lateral movement and blocks well. He's a solid catch-and-throw guy who threw out 28 percent of basestealers with an average arm, though he's still working to improve the quickness of his transfer.
Manny Sanchez, of, Rays
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 220. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
Between Angel Moreno and Sanchez, the Rays had two exciting young prospects in the DSL last year. After training with Rudy Santin and signing for $123,000 in April, Sanchez led the DSL in home runs, giving the Rays the home run leaders in both the DSL and the VSL (David Rodriguez). Sanchez offers a similar package to Dominican outfielder Micker Adolfo Zapata, though at a much cheaper cost than the $1.6 million the White Sox paid for Adolfo on July 2 last year. Sanchez has 70 raw power with good bat speed and a strong, physically mature frame for his age. He can get caught up in swing-for-the-fences mode with his uppercut swing and pull approach, but he showed last year they he can hit in games and leave the yard to any part of the field. He did a solid job of controlling the strike zone last year and didn't strike out excessively, but more advanced pitchers will test him there. Sanchez is more than just raw power. He's athletic for his size, with average speed and a slightly above-average arm in right field.
Antonio Senzatela, rhp, Rockies
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 180. Signed: Venezuela, 2011.
The Rockies had righthander Carlos Polanco throwing 93-96 mph last year in the DSL, though he's still growing into his skinny body and bringing along his secondary pitches. Senzatela, who signed for $250,000 in 2011 after training with Jose Malave, is more advanced. In fact, Senzatela made this list last year, but the Rockies are always conservative with the way they bring their young Latin American arms to the U.S., starting Senzatela last season in the DSL (where he ranked third in the league in walks per nine innings) before promoting him to the short-season Northwest League in July. Senzatela signed throwing 88-92 mph, was up to 94-95 in 2012 and 95-96 last year, sitting consistently at 90-93 mph with good angle. Senzatela has always stood out for his feel for pitching, throwing plenty of strikes down in the zone with a repeatable delivery. He pitches off his fastball and will show an average changeup. The curveball may be something he always struggles to develop and could hinder his ability to miss bats at higher levels. He's polished enough that he could open 2014 in low Class A Asheville.
Edmundo Sosa, ss, Cardinals
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 170. Signed: Panama, 2012.
Sosa's $425,000 bonus on July 2, 2012 was the biggest of the year for a Panamanian player. Sosa had trained with German Gil and played for Panama Metro, the youth team that won a junior national title the year before he signed. While some teams weren't sold on Sosa's raw tools as an amateur, the Cardinals watched him extensively as an amateur in game competition and came away impressed with his feel for the game. He has good hand-eye coordination and a loose, level swing. He's balanced at the plate controls the barrel, which leads to a high contact rate, though he's still learning to use the whole field. Sosa was a skinny, lanky kid when he signed and has put on 10-15 pounds since then. The extra strength has helped, though he's more of a doubles guy than a home run hitter. Sosa's best present tool is his plus speed. He has the range, athleticism and instincts to play shortstop. There are some questions about his arm strength at the position, but he gets rid of the ball quickly and accurately to first base.
Richard Urena, ss, Blue Jays
Age: 18. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 170. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
Urena trained with Decarte Corporan and played in the Dominican Prospect League, where he stood out in 2012 as one of the best shortstops on the international market who projected to stick at the position. The Blue Jays signed him for $725,000 shortly after the international signing period opened that year, and Urena came as advertised in his debut. Urena keeps his hands low in unorthodox fashion, but he routinely squares up the ball and puts together quality at-bats. He has keen strike-zone awareness, good rhythm and uses the whole field. Urena doesn't have much home run power yet, but he got stronger over the past year and started hitting the ball with more authority, ranking fourth in the DSL in doubles. Urena is an average runner with good quickness, smooth hands and good footwork at shortstop, along with an above-average arm. The Blue Jays jumped Urena to the GCL at the end of last season. He's advanced enough to potentially start in the Rookie-level Appalachian League or even short-season Vancouver, although the Blue Jays will need to get playing time for him, Franklin Barreto and Dawel Lugo at shortstop in their lower levels this season.