Before this season I hadn’t paid much attention to the Venezuelan Summer League (VSL), mostly because following international prospects was of no interest to me. I’m not saying that international prospects are pointless. I am saying that following international prospects in the Pirates’ system has been like a stock broker reading reviews on the acting jobs of daytime television stars: in the end you’re not going to see them in the show.
The Pirates have been horrible on the international scene, mostly due to a low budget. That changed last year, with the budget increased to $2 M, putting the Pirates in the top 10 in the majors in international spending in 2008. The emergence of guys like Starling Marte, Ramon Cabrera, and 2008 signees Exicardo Cayonez, Jorge Bishop, and Jonathan Barrios has made it possible to get exicted about the Pirates’ international scene.
Since following international prospects in the VSL is new to me, I’m going to assume that a lot of people reading this aren’t familiar with the VSL. Here is a quick rundown of the league rules and set-up:
-Only 7 teams in the league (Pirates, Mariners, Cardinals, Tigers, Phillies, Mets, Rays)
-League is closed to all draft eligible players, with the exception of two players from Puerto Rico
-Each team has a roster limit of 35 players, and at least 10 have to be pitchers
-No player on the active roster may have more than four years of minor league service
-There is no age limit
-The 2009 season ran from May 18th to August 8th, 70 games for every team
-The top two teams met in the VSL Championship in a best of three series (Rays beat the Pirates 2-1)
Just like any minor league team, the success of the team doesn’t tell the whole story of the prospects involved. The VSL Pirates had success this season, with a 48-22 record that was good enough to finish in first place by 6.5 games over the Rays. The Pirates beat the Rays in the first game, but dropped the final two games to lose the championship series.
So does the great season equal a great future for some Pirates international prospects? Let’s find out. First, let’s consider where the VSL ranks. The VSL is pretty much the bottom of the minor league system. Players from the VSL and the DSL (Dominican Summer League) go to the Gulf Coast League. From there they go to short season A ball (State College), then low A ball (West Virginia), then high A ball (Lynchburg), then AA, AAA, and the majors. There are six levels between the VSL and the majors, although a player can certainly skip a level if warranted.
Due to the distance from the majors, here are my theories on the ages of the players, and how those ages relate to the quality of prospect those players are:
-18 and under: Proper age for this league, legit prospect
-19 to 20: Getting a little old, but still could have a shot
-21+: Think Yoslan Herrera in AA at 28
One final note, the next stop is the Gulf Coast League, which means any player looking for a promotion has to get a visa to leave Venezuela. These are hard to acquire mid-season, as it is a lengthy process. In the case of a guy like Michaelangel Trinidad, it could explain how he’s not getting called up a level. Of course, if he remains in the VSL after a solid performance, it kind of says something about the player’s chances of making it in baseball. On to the stats (click the tables to see the larger version):
The Pitchers: A few impressive guys in this group. Roberto Espinoza seems like the top prospect, with solid numbers all around and only 17 years old. He also has a good pitching frame at 6’1″, 189 pounds.
18 year old Ericdavis Marquez not only has an interesting name, but seemingly good control, with a 15:3 K/BB ratio in 25 innings. Raul Ruiz looks like a solid left handed pitcher, with a great 29:3 K/BB ratio in 33.2 innings pitched. Luis Figuera has good ratios, but not a lot of strikeouts, although a better frame than Marquez and Ruiz. All three are relievers, and would have to be moved to the rotation to maximize their value and potential as prospects.
The Hitters: Exicardo Cayonez received the biggest contract in Pirates’ history for a Latin American player last year, and showed why this year, with some great hitting at only 17 years of age.
Jorge Bishop could be a steal, signed for around $10,000 last year, and arguably the MVP of the 2009 VSL Pirates with his numbers. You never know with minor league conditions, so it’s hard to make a judgement on the errors, but it doesn’t speak well of his ability to remain at short.
Jonathan Barrios got off to a great start, batting .319/.398/.458 in May and June after getting $250 K to sign last year. He hit for a .176/.232/.253 line in July and August, finishing 0 for 13 in August with eight strikeouts.
Junior Sosa hit for a .249 average last year in the VSL, so a .303 average this year could get him to the GCL next season. Sosa has very little power, and a very small frame, but good speed, leading the team in stolen bases. Elias Diaz has a good frame, good power for an 18 year old catcher, and decent numbers in his first year in the VSL. Kelly Aponte played in just 17 games, but has a good size and put up some nice power numbers in his second year in the VSL (he hit .135 with no extra base hits in 37 at-bats last year).
The Prospects: Espinoza seems like the only guy who has a legit shot from the pitching side. I wouldn’t be surprised seeing him starting in Bradenton next year. The other guys need to get in a rotation before I’d consider them legit prospects. The hitting side shows promise, with some talented young players like Cayonez, Bishop, and the struggling Barrios. Diaz, Kelly Aponte, and Sosa are also interesting cases, and probably deserve a promotion next year.
The Pitchers: Oscar Verdugo and Yomar Pacheco each put up solid ratios as 19 year olds. This was Verdugo’s second year in the VSL, putting up a 1.77 ERA and a 11:8 K/BB ratio in 20.1 innings last year. His strikeout numbers and control have really improved this year. The same can be said of Pacheco. Pacheco pitched 12.2 innings last year, with a 0.71 ERA and a 9:9 K/BB ratio.
The Hitters: There’s really only one hitter here, Michaelangel Trinidad. Trinidad led the team in homers, and was the only VSL Pirate in double digits with 14. His line looks very impressive, although he’s been in the VSL since the 2006 season. This is the first season he’s produced results, so either something clicked, or he’s just 2-3 years older than the competition and dominating as a result.
The Prospects: Verdugo and Pacheco are both big pitchers with solid ratios that I’d like to see in the GCL next year. Trinidad seems like a non-prospect
, kind of like a 25-year old mashing in AA. If he’s going to do anything, he needs to do it quick. A level a year puts him in the majors at 27 years of age. Despite the success, considering Trinidad a prospect seems a bit off, unless he just suddenly learned how to hit.
The Non-Prospects: That’s exactly what this group is. They’re organizational players, just serving as fillers for the roster. The only player who could have a future is David Goatache, and that’s because he’s got a decent frame, good ratios, good control, he’s a lefty, and his last name is awesome. Other than that, not much on this list.
The 2009 VSL Pirates looks successful in our attempt to make a splash on the international scene. There’s not a lot of talent, but the early returns on guys like Cayonez, Bishop, and Barrios look pretty good. Obviously you can’t tell if any of these guys have a shot at being the next Hanley Ramirez or Albert Pujols, and the odds of that happening are smaller due to the lack of talent depth. However, for a team that has been quiet for years in developing good international players, the success of even a few guys is a great start. My top five prospects from the 2009 team:
1. Jorge Bishop, SS
2. Exicardo Cayonez, OF
3. Roberto Espinoza, RHP
4. Jonathan Barrios, SS
5. Oscar Verdugo, RHP