Image credit: George Valera (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
Total 2017 signings: 29.
Top 2017-18 signing: SS Aaron Bracho, Venezuela, $1.5 million.
The top two 2017 international signings for the Indians stood out for their bats. The team’s biggest bonus went to Aaron Bracho, a 16-year-old, switch-hitting shortstop from Venezuela who signed for $1.5 million on July 2. Bracho isn’t tall but he has a physically mature build (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) for his age. He played in a lot of games as an amateur and had one of the top performance records among 2017 hitters. His offensive approach is advanced for his age and so is his swing. It’s a smooth, compact swing with good bat speed from both sides that’s especially pretty from the left. Bracho swings hard but stays balanced and under control, with his barrel staying through the hitting zone a long time. It all leads to a high contact rate in games. Bracho has strong legs and generates surprising sock for his size, although his offensive profile will probably always tilt toward his ability to get on base more than power. Bracho ran a 6.6 in the 60-yard dash as an amateur, but he’s already slowing down. He has the athleticism to play in the middle of the diamond and should be able to handle shortstop in the lower minors. However, he is an offensive-minded player who a lot of scouts felt his arm, feet and first-step quickness would fit better at second base. He’s in Arizona right now for extended spring training with a chance to stay for the Rookie-level Arizona League. Bracho trained with Carolina Andrade.
While Bracho received a slightly higher signing bonus, lefthanded outfielder George Valera is the headliner of Cleveland’s signing class. Valera was born and raised in New York, so he speaks fluent English. When he was 13, Valera moved with his parents to San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, where he trained with Alfredo Arias prior to signing for $1.3 million on July 2.
He’s 6 feet, 170 pounds with a beautiful swing that’s efficient and powerful. His hitting mannerisms have similarities to Robinson Cano and Carlos Gonzalez, rocking his hands back with a calm, rhythmic, balanced swing. He generates whippy bat speed from a compact stroke that keeps the barrel on plane through the hitting zone for a long time. Valera has a strong batting eye, recognizing and squaring up all types of pitches and showing great strike-zone discipline. Valera is a smart player with an advanced hitter’s mindset, making frequent contact and drawing a lot of walks to be a high on-base threat. While Valera is a pure hitter, he has also flashed above-average raw power in batting practice and drives the ball with authority in games. As he gets stronger and continues to mature as a hitter, he should develop into a power threat.
While Valera’s almost certain to end up as a corner outfielder, the Indians are planning to start his development as a center fielder. He has shown solid athleticism, but he’s a tick below-average runner and will probably slow down as he fills out. Valera’s reads and routes are better than most his age, and with an arm that’s improved to a tick above-average, his defensive tools would fit well in right field. Valera is in Arizona now for extended spring training and is advanced enough that he should stay for the AZL.
Venezuelan righthander Victor Soteldo turned 16 on Aug. 27, which means that if he had been born five days later, he would have had to wait until July 2, 2018 to sign. Instead, Soteldo is one of the youngest players in the 2017 class, receiving a $650,000 deal in September. He’s a skinny 6-foot-1, 165 pounds with a fastball that’s been as high as 92 mph. Soteldo lacks strength right now, but with his physical projection, arm speed and the way his arm works, he could develop a plus fastball. Soteldo has good mechanics for his age and shows feel for a curveball that’s ahead of his changeup. He trained with Camacho.
Outfielder Alexfri Planez is another Venezuelan player who didn’t turn 16 until August. He signed with the Indians for $400,000 on his 16th birthday last year on Aug. 17 after training with Alvaro Valdez. Planez has a promising combination of youth, physicality (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), athleticism and offensive upside from the right side of the plate. He has sound swing mechanics, keeping the bat head in the hitting zone for a long time and making frequent contact in games. Given his body type, he projects to be a big, strong corner outfielder, flashing solid power now with upside for a lot more if things click. He has a good arm that should fit in right field.
The Indians also gave $400,000 to Jose Tena, a 17-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic who trained with Franklin Ferreras and is a nephew of Juan Uribe. Tena has a smaller frame (5-foot-9, 160 pounds) with good feel for the game on both sides. An average runner, Tena has made a strong impression with his defense at shortstop, where he has good instincts and secure hands with a quick exchange to a slightly above-average arm. Given his size, power might never be part of Tena’s game, but he has a loose, easy swing with good bat control from the left side.
Several other clubs were surprised when the Indians were able to sign 17-year-old Cuban righthander Roberto Hernandez for $320,000 in September. In 2015, Hernandez led Cuba’s 15U national league in ERA at 0.81 in 78 innings. He finished second in the league in strikeouts (101) and walked 31 batters, then after the season ended he pitched well in front of scouts at the COPABE 15U Pan American Championships in Aguascalientes. Hernandez is a strike-thrower with pitchability beyond his years. He’s 6-foot-2, 190 pounds with a fastball that’s been up to 93 mph with the physical upside to throw harder. He has a wide mix of solid secondary stuff, including a curveball, changeup and a split-change.
Dominican shortstop Joseph Paulino signed with the Indians for $315,000 when he turned 16 on Aug. 5. He’s 5-foot-11, 165 pounds with quick, flashy hands at shortstop. He has a quick exchange and an arm that flashes above-average at times. He is a below-average runner who will have to work at his agility in the field. Paulino’s hands play well both in the field and in the batter’s box, where he has a loose, handsy righthanded swing. He has good barrel awareness, flicking a lot of singles but lacking the strength at this point to do much damage on contact. Paulino trained with Javier Rodriguez.
Another Dominican shortstop, 17-year-old Wilfri Peralta, signed with the Indians for $300,000 on July 2. A lanky, wiry 6 feet, 155 pounds, Peralta has a chance to stay at shortstop, where he has good actions and a strong arm. As an amateur, Peralta did some switch-hitting but mostly showcased as a lefthanded hitter. He’s back to hitting from both sides of the plate now, with solid bat-to-ball skills in games, although he will have to get stronger to start driving the ball with more authority.
Shortstop Brayan Rocchio is from Venezuela but spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic training with Roberto Vahlis before signing with the Indians for $125,000 on July 2. Rocchio, 17, doesn’t stand out physically (5-foot-10, 150 pounds), but he’s already nicknamed “The Professor” because of his high baseball IQ and overall game awareness. Rocchio is a switch-hitter with the offensive components to get on base at a high clip. He has excellent plate discipline, rarely chasing much off the plate and drawing plenty of walks. He doesn’t strike out much either, putting the ball in play frequently with a handsy swing, mostly for singles and occasionally doubles. He has a chance to stick at shortstop, where his hands, feet and arm all work well, with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.