2014-15 International Reviews: Houston Astros
Top signing: OF Ronny Rafael, Dominican Republic, $1.5 million.
Seven- and six-figure signings: RHP Franklin Perez (Venezuela), SS Miguelangel Sierra (Venezuela), OF Hector Martinez (Dominican Republic), C Brandon Benavente (Venezuela), LHP Javier Navas (Venezuela), C Ihan Bernal (Panama), SS Juan Pineda (Panama).
Total signings: 50.
The Astros had the biggest international bonus pool for the second straight year, and they were able to leverage that advantage by signing three of Baseball America's top 30 prospects for July 2. With two Dominican Summer League teams and a patient development approach, all of their top signings will debut in the Dominican Summer League this year.
Their most expensive signing was Dominican outfielder Ronny Rafael for $1.5 million on July 2. For Rafael, who played in the International Prospect League and was represented by Amauris Nina, the signing was a bittersweet moment, since his longtime trainer, Manauris Munoz, died the month before his signing. Rafael has a strong, compact build (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) with good athleticism and present tools that are ahead of his baseball skills. Rafael has a quick righthanded stroke and makes hard contact when he connects, showing average or better raw power. Cutting down on his strikeouts to tap into that power with more frequency in games will be the key for Rafael. He tends to spin off, which costs him plate coverage on the outer half, and his proclivity for expanding the strike zone contributes to a high swing-and-miss rate, with an offensive profile of power over pure hitting. Rafael runs surprisingly well for his stout build with solid-average speed. His frame suggests he will slow down, which led a lot of scouts to project him as a right fielder with a solid-average arm, but the Astros see him as a center fielder.
Several scouts preferred the other two players the Astros signed for seven figures, including 17-year-old righthander Franklin Perez, who got $1 million on July 2 out of Carlos Guillen's program. Perez pitched in youth leagues in Venezuela, but when he was 14, Guillen put him at third base. Perez's arm stood out more than his bat though, so after a year as an infielder Perez moved back to the mound and made a quick transition. He has outstanding size at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds with good mechanics. He throws 88-91 mph right now, but scouts widely project him to be a big, physical pitcher throwing in the mid-90s or better in the near future. He delivers the ball with downhill plane and has feel for a big-breaking curveball that's ahead of his changeup. Perez's athleticism should help him as he learns to repeat his delivery and command all of his pitches, although he's a solid strike-thrower for his experience level.
Venezuelan shortstop Miguelangel Sierra impressed scouts with his game polish and infield actions, drawing a $1 million bonus from the Astros on July 2. Sierra, 17, has a thin, wiry frame, having grown an inch or two since signing to around 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, with some of the best baseball instincts in the 2014 class. He's a smart, fundamentally sound player who projects as a true shortstop who is light on his feet with smooth hands. Sierra is an average runner and isn't flashy, but he has good range because he knows how to position himself, has quick reactions off the bat and a good internal clock, slowing the game down and playing under control. His arm was fringy when he signed but has improved to solid-average. Sierra's offensive game drew a split camp, with some scouts having reservations about his bat path and lack of power projection, but others liked his contact skills. He reaffirmed the Astros' belief in his bat-to-ball skills with a strong performance in the Tricky League, an unofficial league for recently-signed July 2 prospects. Sierra will probably never be a power threat but he puts the ball in play with line drives to all fields. Sierra trained with Gustavo Salazar.
The Astros signed Hector Martinez, a strong, athletic outfielder from the Dominican Republic, for $300,000 in July. Martinez's righthanded bat caught the Astros' attention. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Martinez has good balance, a sound swing and good feel for hitting, producing hard line drives in games and gap power, with an encouraging showing in the Tricky League after he signed. Martinez has a chance for average or better tools across the board, with average speed and a solid-average arm that would be enough for right field if necessary. He trained with "Pucuy."
Managers and pitchers will love Brandon Benavente, a 17-year-old Venezuelan catcher who signed for $262,500 on July 2. Benavente grew up catching and shows the poise and leadership of a veteran. He earns rave reviews for the way he manages pitchers and his high-energy style teams like to have in their catchers. He's a good receiver with a solid arm, although with a thick 5-foot-10, 200-pound build, he's not the most agile player and will have to keep his conditioning in check. Benavente has a decent righthanded swing and hit well during his time in the Venezuelan youth leagues, but his defense is ahead of his hitting right now. He trained with Andres Mujica.
Venezuelan lefthander Javier Navas signed with the Astros for $175,000 in July. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Navas is a 17-year-old pitchability lefty with feel for his secondary pitches, including a curveball and a changeup. He doesn't project as a power arm, but there's projection to add a little more velocity and have success by mixing his pitches and hitting his spots. Navas trained with Guido Mendez.
Houston gave six-figure bonuses to a pair of players from Panama, including $100,000 to 17-year-old infielder Juan Pineda on July 2. Pineda has a small, skinny frame (5-foot-10, 145 pounds) with good bat-to-ball skills thanks to his hand-eye coordination and a short, simple swing from the right side. Pineda doesn't have much strength right now, so there isn't much extra-base thump but he performed well in games in Panama by putting the ball in play at a high clip. A below-average runner, showcased as a shortstop but will likely move across the diamond to second base.
During the 2013-14 signing period last year in February, the Astros also gave $155,000 to Panamanian catcher Ihan Bernal. With two older brothers who had played pro ball, Bernal has good feel for the game and stood out for his defense. An 18-year-old who has been catching for most of his life, Bernal is a high-motor player who projects to stick behind the plate with an average arm. He's already fluent in English, which will help him handle pitchers once he arrives in the United States. Bernal shows solid plate patience and occasional pop, but his defense is more advanced than his hitting. Bernal hit .200/.411/.284 with 51 walks, 47 strikeouts and two home runs in 52 games in the DSL last year.
Sometimes the best players a team signs are the smaller bonus guys, and that could be the case with Vicente Sanchez, a Dominican center fielder who joined the Astros for $62,500 last year in February and lit up the DSL, batting .281/.390/.479 with five home runs, 22 walks and 23 strikeouts in 32 games. Sanchez is an athletic lefthanded hitting with good bat speed, a sweet swing and the strength to drive the ball out of the park from his 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame. Sanchez, an 18-year-old who trained with Negro Chal (known as "Aguila"), is a solid-average runner with a well-rounded skill set and a bat that could help him move quickly.
With two DSL rosters, the Astros signed more international players last year than any organization other than the Yankees. Andy Pineda, an 18-year-old Dominican center fielder signed for $30,000 last year in March, is a plus-plus runner who stole 23 bases in 35 tries in the DSL while batting .279/.384/.312 in 65 games. At 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, he's a burner who has the potential to be a stolen base threat with excellent range once he learns how to read pitchers and take proper routes in the outfield.
Marcos Almonte, an 18-year-old Dominican shortstop signed for $35,000 in February, is a quick-twitch athlete with a good batting eye and contact skills. An undersized righthanded hitter at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, Almonte batted .233/.359/.353 with 20 stolen bases in 29 attempts, 42 walks and 44 strikeouts in 67 DSL games last year. Almonte played all over the diamond last year just to make sure he got regular at-bats, but he should get more time this year at shortstop, where he has a plus arm.
The Astros also picked up Gabriel Bracamonte for just $7,500 in March out of Venezuela. Bracamonte, 19, didn't play much last year but he did play well, hitting .379/.481/.511 in 15 DSL games before his season ended when he got hit in the face with a ball, which required season-ending reconstructive surgery. The Astros had planned to take it slowly with him when he returned, but he came back quickly and made a strong impression both with his toughness and high level of offensive performance during Dominican instructional league. A converted infielder, Bracamonte is a catcher who's footwork, solid arm strength and quick exchange should help him make the transition behind the plate.