Top signing: RHP Junior Fernandez, Dominican Republic, $400,000.
Total signings: 23.
The Cardinals had the smallest bonus pool in baseball ($1.86 milion) when the 2014-15 signing period opened last year on July 2 so as usual the Cardinals avoided the most expensive players on the market and spread their money around to players for $400,000 and under. They did sign Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz in March, though he was exempt from the bonus pools.
The last time the Cardinals signed a player who went to high school in the United States but signed as an international free agent after moving to the Dominican Republic, they landed righthander Alex Reyes for $950,000, which looks like an excellent investment. Righthander Junior Fernandez isn’t as good of a prospect as Reyes was, but he too lived in the U.S. before moving to the Dominican Republic to pursue baseball. Fernandez, who turned 18 earlier this month, lived in Miami and Port St. Lucie, Fla, playing junior varsity baseball for Valera High in Miami. At the time, Fernandez was throwing in the low-80s, but after moving to the Dominican Republic with his family in April 2013, his velocity steadily increased to the high-80s and eventually the low-90s during his training with Felix Liriano. Fernandez became eligible to sign last year in April, but with most teams having tapped out their international 2013-14 bonus pools at that point, Fernandez waited until July 2 to sign with the Cardinals for $400,000. He pitched briefly in the Dominican Summer League after signing, posting a 5.79 ERA in 28 innings with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks.
When Fernandez signed, he was throwing 90-92 mph and touched 93 with slight cutting action. Since then, his velocity has increased, getting as high as 95-96 mph, and his stuff generates a lot of groundballs. His aggressive delivery adds deception, releasing the ball from a high arm slot with a high glove front side to hide the ball well and allow his fastball to jump on hitters quickly. He throws his changeup with good arm speed and it’s ahead of his curveball, a slurvy pitch with short break. Fernandez is a good athlete but he’s prone to overthrowing and doesn’t repeat his release point, which leads to erratic control, so improving his fastball location and overall feel for pitching will be important. He’s expected to play in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League this summer.
The Cardinals had to wait for Elehuris Montero to turn 16 in August, then signed the Dominican third baseman for $300,000 after scouting him in the International Prospect League from Laurentino Genao’s program. Montero will play the entire DSL season as a 16-year-old, but he already has a mature hitting approach for his age. He shows natural hitting instincts, keeping his weight back on offspeed pitches has a level swing that creates lift. With his youth and big, projectable frame (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), there’s projectable power that should come once he fills out. Some teams had questions about whether Montero would stay at third base because of his size and lack of easy infield actions, but he’s worked to minimize those concerns by keeping his body in check. He has solid hands and quick reflexes, with an average arm to stay at third for now.
The organization also gave $300,000 to Dominican shortstop Starlin Balbuena on July 2. Balbuena, 17, is a lean 6-foot-2, 175 pounds with long limbs and a projectable frame. He’s more of a raw project but he’s very athletic and a 55 runner now with a chance to get faster once he gets more strength in his legs because of the way he’s built and he’s easy running gait. Balbuena has a chance to stick at shortstop with playable hands and enough arm for the position, though like many young shortstops he’s still learning to maintain his focus on every play. If he moves off the position, he could have the speed to play center field. Balbuena’s swing can get uphill with occasional power to the gaps, so he’s going to need a lot of at-bats to smooth out his swing and polish his offensive game. He trained with Aldo Marrero.
Esequiel Delgado doesn’t have Balbuena’s athleticism but he’s a more advanced hitter, which is why the Cardinals signed the Dominican second baseman for $125,000 on July 2. Delgado’s older brother is Angels outfielder Natanael Delgado, who signed in 2012 and is now their No. 27 prospect. A 17-year-old switch-hitter, Delgado is an offensive-oriented player with a good hitting approach. He tracks pitches well, handles the strike zone well for his age and has a level, line-drive stroke. An average runner at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Delgado is more natural at the plate than he is in the field, so his defensive actions will have to come along to stay at second base. Delgado played in the IPL and trained with Josue Herrera.
During the 2013-14 signing period last year in February, the Cardinals added Wadye Ynfante for $125,000 out of the Dominican Republic from the program of Cristian Batista, who is known as “Niche.” Ynfante, 17, showcased as a shortstop but split time between second base and left field in the DSL last year, batting . 200/.306/.313 in 46 games. He has some physical projection at 6 feet, 160 pounds and a good arm, but he will need more experience to slow the game down and let his righthanded bat come around.
St. Louis also scooped up 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Edwin Figuera, who captured attention after signing with his strong performance in the Tricky League, the unofficial summer league for recently-signed July 2 prospects. Figuera signed for just $30,000 in July but could be a sleeper because of his bat, speed and baseball savvy. Figuera is just 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, but he’s a smart, heads up player with a scrappy style that will endear him to managers. He makes consistent contact in games and has a chance to stick at shortstop with quick feet and a solid-average arm.
The same day they signed Figuera, the Cardinals also gave $75,000 to Dominican lefthander Diego Cordero, who is the nephew of former major league reliever Francisco Cordero, who pitched 14 big league seasons from 1999-2012. Cordero can touch the high-80s with a solid breaking ball for a 17-year-old lefty and plenty of room to add weight to his skinny 6-foot-3, 165-pound frame.