International Hitting Prospects Starting to Emerge

I was watching batting practice at Pirate City towards the end of the day the other day. I was talking with one of the coaches, whose name I’ll leave out of this article. He asked me who I wrote for, and my response to that question always leads to one of two responses. I either get “Oh, that’s you” or “So you cover the minor league guys?” followed by a few questions on my opinions. This instance was the latter.

I was immediately asked what I thought about Willy Garcia. Of all the players in the system, to go to Willy Garcia felt like a test. It was a pretty good one too. If I were conducting an interview with someone who wanted to work for Pirates Prospects, I’d probably ask them what they thought of Willy Garcia. The average person might recognize him as the outfielder who signed out of the Dominican Prospect League in 2010 for $280 K. Then again, the average person might not even know who Garcia is. Someone who really knows would know that Garcia is a potential five tool player, and put up a .770 OPS and five homers in 177 at-bats in the pitcher friendly GCL last year.

My response to the question was similar to Garcia’s rating in the 2012 Prospect Guide. We had him rated 34th. You could grade him higher if you’re going on potential, but a conservative approach puts him lower since he’s only played in short season ball. So I went with a simple “He’s pretty good”.

The coach looked over his sunglasses at me for a few seconds. “You’re darn right he’s pretty good,” he said. Only he didn’t say those exact words. This led to a conversation about the players in the lower levels. Me offering up Gregory Polanco. Him offering up Alen Hanson. A discussion about Jose Osuna and how he’s been working at first base.

The conversation got me thinking about something that I had paid attention to a lot over the last week: the Pirates have some international hitting prospects starting to emerge.

We’ve paid a lot of attention to the draft over the last four years, but what about the international market? The Pirates have upped their spending in this area, and the early results look good. Everyone knows about Starling Marte and Luis Heredia, the top international prospects in the system. This isn’t about them. This is about the minor signings. Guys who didn’t even have bonuses announced when they signed, or guys who were signed months or a year after they first became eligible.

Take Jose Osuna as the first example. He hit for a .331/.400/.511 line with four homers in 178 at-bats last year in the GCL. Baseball America called him one of the top five prospects in the league during the 2011 season. Osuna has the potential for plus power, although his defense is lacking. The Pirates have been working him out at first base over the off-season. His defense won’t matter, because his hitting projects to be enough to carry his value.

Then there’s Alen Hanson. He’s a speedy middle infielder with an athletic frame who projects to have a number of above-average major league tools. He profiles more as a second baseman in the long-term, although the Pirates played him at shortstop over big bonus shortstop prospects like Jodaneli Carvajal and Yhonathan Barrios in 2011.

Gregory Polanco is a sleeper candidate in the lower levels during the 2012 season.

Gregory Polanco is a tall and skinny outfielder who has the ability to add some power if he fills out his projectable frame. He also has a lot of speed, and can handle center field. I’ve watched him a lot in the last week, and he’s put on a show in batting practice. That’s only batting practice, but from what I’ve seen of his hitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some breakout numbers from him this year. He hit for a .237 average in the GCL last year, but had a .333 OBP, thanks to an 11.8% walk rate. He hit three homers in 169 at-bats, and stole 18 bases. That was his second year in the GCL, and he made huge strides with his walk rate, and added a bit of power. He turned 20 in September, and he’s one of my sleeper candidates this year.

I haven’t seen much of 2011 bonus babies Elvis Escobar and Harold Ramirez, but what I have seen has been impressive. Both players have quick swings and take good cuts. They both spray line drives to the gaps. It’s debatable whether they’ll add home run power going forward, but both players look advanced at the plate, and both are expected to be tested this year by making their debuts in the GCL.

Luis Urena is a very interesting prospect. If you knew nothing about him and just went on looks alone, you’d think he was a major league player. His build almost reminds me of Derrek Lee. He’s tall and lean, but he’s got some muscle on his frame, rather than being a rail like Polanco. Urena is still raw, but has the potential for plus power, speed, and a plus arm. He’ll be 19 this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return as a regular starter in the GCL.

There’s other interesting prospects in the lower levels. Jodaneli Carvajal received $350 K in 2008 and is an excellent defensive shortstop. Yhonathan Barrios was listed as a shortstop when he signed for $250 K in 2008, but he projects more as a second or third baseman due to his big frame and lack of range. That big frame does give him the potential to hit for power. Dilson Herrera and Raul Fortunato will both make the jump to the US this year after having productive years in the international rookie leagues last year.

Then of course, there’s Willy Garcia, who we ranked second out of these players, falling only behind Osuna.

The Pirates don’t have a guy from this group who is currently on the level of Starling Marte. Then again, Marte didn’t start to emerge until after his age 20 season, when he had success in West Virginia. This group of players definitely features a lot of talented athletes. It’s almost the same approach the Pirates are taking with high school pitchers in the draft, only we’re talking about projectable outfielders and speedy middle infielders in this case. With so many options to choose from, the odds that one or two of these guys will break through is pretty strong. With most of them making the jump to State College and West Virginia this year, we could see some of those break through performances in 2012.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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