2014 International Reviews: Tampa Bay Rays
Top signing: SS Adrian Rondon, Dominican Republic, $2.95 million.
Six-figure signings: LHP Francisco Sanchez (Venezuela), OF Jesus Sanchez (Dominican Republic), LHP Resly Linares (Dominican Republic), RHP Miguel Lara (Dominican Republic), C Ronaldo Hernandez (Colombia), RHP Angel Rodriguez (Venezuela), SS Luis Pimentel (Dominican Republic), RHP Jairo Caba (Dominican Republic), RHP Enyerbeth Lugo (Venezuela).
Total signings: 39.
Before the Yankees spent more than $17 million on international free agents in 2014, before the Cubs and Rangers spiked past their international bonus pools in 2013, the Rays were the first team in baseball to break into the maximum penalty range by going over their pool during the 2012-13 signing period. In doing so, they picked up three of the top prospects in Venezuela, including lefthander Jose Castillo, who has already been used in a three-team trade that sent him to San Diego and brought Steven Souza and Rene Rivera to Tampa Bay. Now the Rays have exceeded their $2 million international bonus pool for the second time (even after trading for another $1 million in slot values), which means they won't be able to sign any pool-eligible players for more than $300,000 for the next two years beginning July 2.
The prize of Tampa Bay's international haul is Dominican shortstop Adrian Rondon, who ranked as the No. 1 prospect last year and signed for $2.95 million when he turned 16 on July 7 after training with Astin Jacobo and playing in the International Prospect League. Rondon separated himself as the top player available for his game skills--several scouts considered him the best hitter in the class--along with athleticism and solid tools that should allow him to stick at shortstop. While many young Latin American players look great in batting practice then disappear in games, Rondon shines the most when the game starts. He consistently hits well against live pitching, routinely barreling up more experienced arms with plus velocity. Rondon's bat speed, compact righthanded stroke and hand-eye coordination give him excellent plate coverage. He has a mature hitting approach, staying balanced, using the whole field and demonstrating good strike-zone discipline, although like many young hitters he will chase hard breaking stuff off the plate at times. Rondon is a line-drive hitter whose power is below-average, but he's already added size since signing and starting to hit the ball with more authority. There's loft in his swing, so with natural strength progression he could grow into more over-the-fence pop and develop average power.
At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Rondon isn't a flashy shortstop but he's a steady defender with the attributes to be able to stay at the position. He's an average runner with a wiry frame, soft hands and an arm that's improved to plus. His baseball savvy and game experience shows in the field, where he's able to slow the game down and play under control, although his footwork will need improvement. Having fellow Dominican shortstop Willy Adames in the system and a few years ahead of Rondon helped create positive competition and a mentor for Rondon during instructional league. Rondon is advanced enough to debut in the United States, possibly as high as the Rookie-level Appalachian League, though even in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League he would be one of the league's youngest players.
For $675,000, the Rays added Venezuelan lefthander Francisco Sanchez for $675,000 in August. Sanchez, 17, is 6-foot-2, 185 pounds with good arm speed that delivers fastballs up to 94 mph from his high three-quarters slot and a sharp, tight-spinning curveball with good rotation that gives him a chance for two swing-and-miss pitches. Sanchez shows some feel for a changeup as well, so he has the stuff to miss a lot of bats but is still learning to be able to harness it in the strike zone. His athleticism should help his ability to make mechanical adjustments and he's already worked to improve his delivery to stay on line to the plate, but he will need time to improve his pitchability and throw strikes more frequently. Sanchez, who should debut in the Venezuelan Summer League, trained with Jorge Cortez.
Dominican outfielder Jesus Sanchez was already an advanced hitter for his age when the Rays signed him for $400,000 on July 2, but his tools have only picked up since then. Sanchez, 17, is listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds but has grown a little taller and started to fill out his frame since signing. More than anything, Sanchez stood out for his lefthanded bat. He has a strong batting eye, controls the strike zone and squares up live pitching routinely with a good swing and barrel control from the left side. For a young hitter, he does a good job of going with the pitch and hitting to all fields. He has strong wrists and can backspin balls in BP with signs of emerging power, though it's more of a hit over pure power profile right now. Sanchez is fairly athletic but figured to be limited to left field as an average runner with a below-average arm. Since signing, he has improved his speed and is now an above-average runner, and after dealing with some arm soreness, he got on a throwing program that improved his arm to fringe-average. He should start out in center field, with some time in the corners as well, most likely in the Dominican Summer League. He trained with Tony Mota and Global Sports Group as well as Rudy Santin.
Dominican lefthander Resly Linares signed for $275,000 in September after training with Pablo Lantigua and playing in the IPL. Linares, 17, is extremely athletic with a loose arm and fairly easy delivery. At 6-foot-2, 165 pounds, there's room to add weight, which should help bump up a fastball that rests in the high-80s and can scratch 90-91 mph, with good feel to spin a breaking ball already.
Another Dominican arm, righthander Miguel Lara, signed for $230,000 in July. Lara, 17, is a former shortstop who had been pitching for less than a year when the Rays signed him, drawn to excellent arm speed that produced a fastball up to 92 mph on a smaller frame at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds. He's added a little more electricity to his fastball since then topping out at 95 mph. He throws a hard curveball that's ahead of his firm changeup, so it's a matter of getting more pitching experience to be able to develop his control and pitchability.
In Colombia, Ronaldo Hernandez had showcased for teams as an infielder, which is where he played in 2013 at the 18U World Championship in Taiwan when he was just 15, making him the youngest player on the team. The Rays liked Hernandez's bat but were intrigued by the possibility of putting him behind the plate, so they signed him as a catcher. More than anything, Hernandez, 17, stood out for his bat, showing good contact skills with gap power from the right side of the plate. Hernandez, who's 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, has a chance to be an offensive-minded catcher, with good hands and a 55 arm.
Venezuelan righthander Angel Rodriguez was a $180,000 sign on July 2 with an extra-large 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame at 17 years old. He has a durable build and gets downhill angle on his fastball, which ranges from 87-91 mph but has a chance to be plus in the future. He could develop into a physical, power pitcher, but his secondary pitches (a curveball and changeup) and feel for pitching are still coming along.
Luis Pimentel is a slick-fielding, 17-year-old Dominican shortstop who signed for $150,000 on July 2 after training with Christian Batista, who is known as "Niche." Pimentel is a thin, frail built at 6-foot-1, 145 pounds, but he already stands out at shortstop with good hands, crisp actions and a plus arm, with more quickness than pure speed. Due to his lack of strength, the rest of Pimentel's tools are still a projection. He's more quick than fast, and while he doesn't have much thunder in his bat, he has good bat speed from the right side and played well last summer in the Tricky League, an unofficial league for recent July 2 signings.
Venezuelan righthander Enyerbeth Lugo signed for $135,000 on July 2. He's a 17-year-old with ample projection on his wiry, athletic frame at 6-foot-3, 160 pounds. His fastball went from 86-89 mph at this time a year ago to touching 91 more recently. With his arm speed and room to add weight, he should be able to push his velocity up even higher. Lugo also throws a slurvy breaking ball that could eventually turn into a true slider. He's still young and raw, though his athleticism bodes well for his potential to be able to repeat his mechanics and improve his ability to throw more strikes eventually.
Righthander Jairo Caba was born in the Dominican Republic, but he lived in New York City for a while before moving back to the Dominican Republic, where the Rays signed him for $125,000 in October. He had worked out for some clubs as a third baseman, but his plus arm was more promising than his bat, so the Rays asked to put him on the mound and liked what they saw from the 17-year-old, including good size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), an 89-93 mph fastball, feel for a curveball that's ahead of his changeup and good athleticism for a pitcher.
When the Rays scouted Cuban shortstop Roberto Baldoquin before he ended up signing with the Angels, their scouts went out to find some pitchers who they could bring in to face him for a private workout. One of those pitchers was 18-year-old Dominican righthander Luis Gonzalez. While the focus was on Baldoquin, Gonzalez him out twice and cranked his fastball into the mid-90s. When he showed that fastball again a few days later, the Rays struck a deal with him for $100,000. With a solid build at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Gonzalez doesn't have much mound experience, but he has a loose arm and can pump 93-96 mph fastballs without much effort in his delivery, along with a slurvy, three-quarters curveball that flashes average or a tick better.
The Rays also may have picked up a $64,000 bargain last year in March when they signed 6-foot-3, 195-pound Dominican righthander Diego Castillo. He's older than most Latin American signings, having turned 21 in January, but he throws 90-96 mph with a solid breaking ball and pitched well last year in the DSL, where in 18 relief appearances he had a 3.96 ERA with a 26-11 K-BB mark in 25 innings.