2019-20 MLB International Reviews: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are Baseball America's 2019 Organization of the Year, with their international department an important factor in the health of their elite farm farm system. Wander Franco, of course, is the crown jewel, a 2017 signing from the Dominican Republic who is still 18 and already the top prospect in baseball. Second baseman Vidal Brujan is another Top 100 prospect the Rays signed out of the Dominican Republic and outfielder Jesus Sanchez is one more, with Sanchez now on the Marlins after getting traded in July.
With Futures Game catcher Ronaldo Hernandez also in the system, relievers Diego Castillo and Genesis Cabrera (now with the Cardinals) in the big leagues and Venezuelan signings Yonny Chirinos and German Marquez (traded to the Rockies before the 2016 season) developing into successful starters, Tampa Bay's international program is much improved from where it was at the beginning of the decade. Not surprisingly, the Rays elevated Carlos Rodriguez from international scouting director to vice president of player development and international scouting after the 2019 season.
One of the top international prospects in the 2019 class, Jhon Diaz was initially expected to sign with the Yankees. But when the Yankees weren't able to come up with more bonus pool money to sign Diaz, he ended up signing with the Rays instead for $1.5 million.
Diaz, 17, is diminutive (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) but has an exciting combination of tools and refined baseball skills for his age. He has the potential to be a plus hitter at the top of a lineup, showing good bat control and strike-zone judgment and the ability to consistently barrel balls all over the field in games, squaring up all types of pitches with good plate coverage. Diaz puts a surprising charge into the ball for his size, driving the ball out of the park already in BP with signs of average power and a strong chance to tap into it during games because of his pure hitting ability. Diaz has the tools to play center field, with his speed and arm strength both grading above-average. He has an extremely high baseball IQ for his age, with instincts that stand out in the field, at the plate and running the bases. He's advanced enough that he could skip the Dominican Summer League and go straight to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2020. He trained with German Rosario.
Before they ended up signing Diaz, the Rays' top international signing on July 2 was Jose Peña, who's represented by Jay Alou and got $750,000. Peña, 16, is an athletic 6-foot-1, 185 pounds and has more room to fill out to add to an already loud tool set. Peña drove the ball well to the middle of the field as an amateur, but he has added more strength since then, flashing above-average raw power now. He has hit well against live pitching at times and been able to put together quality at-bats, though his in-game performance has been inconsistent. Peña has the athleticism and above-average speed to develop as a center fielder, with an arm that has ticked up to become a solid-average tool. If he stays lean and doesn't get too big, he has a chance to stay in center field, though if he adds significant mass and slows down, he could end up in a corner, with the tools to be a good fielder there.
Dominican shortstop Willmer de la Cruz, a 16-year-old switch-hitter, signed with the Rays for $675,000. He has a smaller but strong frame (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) with fast bat speed and a knack for squaring up balls in games, mostly for line drives and gap power, but with enough bat speed and strength to flash over-the-fence pop during batting practice. De la Cruz is a smart, high-energy player with slightly above-average speed and arm strength. He has the athleticism, arm strength and body control for shortstop, though he will need to improve his footwork and some scouts think he could end up at second base. He trained with Yancarlos Perez.
Another Dominican shortstop, Odalys Peguero, signed with the Rays for $400,000 after training with Alfredo Arias. Peguero put himself more on the radar at an MLB showcase last year in September, where he showed more athleticism, a better body, stronger arm and a better swing than he did earlier in the scouting process. Peguero, 16, is 5-foot-11, 165 pounds with a patient offensive approach and a sound swing from both sides of the plate. He has performed well in games, with mostly line drives, a bit of loft in his swing and doubles power. He continued to get faster over the scouting process, running slightly above-average now. Peguero should play in the middle infield, with a chance he ends up at second base, and he has a strong arm that would fit on the left side of the diamond.
Venezuelan righthander Angel Guaiquirian, who trained with Kevin Moscatel, signed with the Rays on July 2. He has a starter look between his body type, stuff and mechanics. He's 6-foot-3, 175 pounds at 16, with plenty of room to fill out to add to a fastball that reaches the low-90s. Guaiquirian has a fairly easy delivery, throws strikes with his fastball and has shown good ability to spin a breaking ball for his age.
Roylems Rangel, a 17-year-old Venezuelan catcher the Rays signed on July 2, is a high-energy, athletic catcher with quick feet and a solid arm from a smaller frame at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. Rangel has the tools to catch and solid bat-to-ball skills from the right side of the plate, albeit without much impact right now. He trained with Javier Mendoza.
Another catcher, Christian Cerda, signed for $325,000 after training with Astin Jacobo. Cerda, 16, was born in New York. He spent time living in the Bronx and Puerto Rico when he was younger before moving to the Dominican Republic in 2016. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Cerda has a plus arm with good quickness and agility behind the plate. Being a bilingual speaker already should also be an asset for him as a catcher when he gets to Rookie ball in the United States. He has been a solid performer at the plate in games with a chance to grow into 15-20 home run power from the right side.
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Mexican righthander Edwin Zamudio, who was with the Mexico City Red Devils, signed with the Rays for $260,000. A former infielder, Zamudio is 6-foot-2, 190 pounds at 17, with a projectable frame to add more to a fastball that reaches 90 mph and the ability to spin a breaking ball at times.
Venezuelan shortstop Yonathan Leon signed with the Rays on July 2, though he had yet to arrive in the Dominican Republic due to visa issues, so there's more uncertainty on evaluating him relative to other 2019 signings who were over for Tricky League and Dominican instructional league. He's an athletic 5-foot-11, 155 pounds with quick-twitch actions, good speed and a quick bat from the right side.
Another Venezuelan shortstop, Edwin Barragan, signed with the Rays on July 2, which was also his 16th birthday. He's 5-foot-10, 165 pounds with no one standout tool but a mix of near-average tools across the board. His speed and arm strength are average, with a chance to play shortstop, though he could move around the infield. It's a line-drive swing from the right side with doubles power and good performance in games as an amateur in Venezuela.
Santiago Millan is a 16-year-old Venezuelan outfielder who trained with Roberto Vahlis and signed with the Rays in September. He's a lean, wiry 6-foot-1, 175 pounds with quick-twitch athleticism and above-average speed and an average arm in center field. He's a line drive hitter from the right side of the plate without much power now, though with his youth, bat speed and strength projection, that could increase over the next few years.
One of the most intriguing pitchers in Tampa Bay's 2019 international class is Yoniel Curet, a 17-year-old Dominican righthander who got $150,000. Curet has a strong, sturdy build (6 feet, 185 pounds) with a power arm, already reaching 95 mph. He throws his breaking ball with power as well up to the low-80s. There's upside for him to throw harder with a chance to rack up strikeouts with his stuff, with good results so far since signing. Curet trained with Luis Scheker.
Another notable signing the Rays made in 2019 came on the final day of the previous 2018-19 signing period, when they added Cuban outfielder Patrick Merino for $375,000 on June 15. Merino turned 21 in August and spent his first year in the Dominican Summer League, where he hit .255/.426/.561 with eight home runs, 23 walks and 28 strikeouts in 29 games. He was significantly older than his competition there, but it was a good start for a physical player with a power tool set. He's 6-foot-2, 225 pounds with plus power from the right side. Merino came up through the Cuban junior leagues as a catcher, but he showcased and signed as an outfielder. He moves extremely well for his size, though better in a straight-line 60-yard dash than going side to side, so he mostly played in the outfield corners after signing, with a strong arm for right field. How Merino does in 2020 when he makes the jump to more age-appropriate competition in the United States will offer a better gauge of his talent level.