The Pittsburgh Pirates had two Dominican Summer League teams last year and spread the talent out between both clubs. With the added affiliate in Bristol this season, the DSL Pirates2 are no more, at least short-term. That leaves you with a team that is deep in the outfield, infield and behind the plate, but not many pitchers of note.
A lot of players from the DSL last year moved to the States this season, including the best of the group, Michael de la Cruz. That mass exodus of players really hurt the pitching staff this year, as you will see with the lack of prospects listed below. With the one club now, that also led to eight players being cut recently, so there are about 30 fewer players at the Dominican Academy right now than there were last year at this time. The season lasts 72 games and begins on May 31st.
The Loaded Offense
The highest priced talent on this club is third baseman Julio de la Cruz. He signed for $700,000 in 2012, and except for showing some power, he really didn’t have a strong season last year. De la Cruz came to Bradenton for the Fall Instructional League last year, but was one of the few players that got sent back to the Dominican. That didn’t seem like a good sign at the time. The reports from Dominican Spring Training have been good for de la Cruz, with a noticeable improvement to his offensive game. He might not be able to stick at third base down the line, but the Pirates paid for his bat and it sounds like it might be coming around. (de la Cruz was promoted to the United States after this was published)
Next to de la Cruz this year is a player that was signed strictly for his glove, with the hopes he can hit enough to make it to the majors. Adrian Valerio signed for a $400,000 bonus, and it was due solely to the fact his fielding at shortstop is phenomenal for his age. The Pirates believe that if the 17-year-old switch-hitter can hit just a little, his defense will be good enough to get him to the majors. If the bat comes around enough, then you have a Gold Glove caliber starter at shortstop for years to come. He doesn’t have a big frame, so future power is unlikely and his speed is average at best. Reports from the Dominican Spring Training backed up his top-notch glove and quick hands, although he did make a few errors due mostly to concentration in the field. If something goes wrong, then it piles on. At his age, that shouldn’t be a problem to be too concerned over — he may just try too hard to impress.
One player of note won’t be around for most of this season, possibly the entire year. Jhoan Herrera signed for $300,000 in 2012 and showed a little bit of promise at times with the bat, but didn’t hit enough for someone who was signed at age 17 for such a high bonus. He was a third baseman, but he moved to first base this season and would have played there if he didn’t injure his ankle. That might keep him out for the year and push his progress back. He turns 19 in a few weeks, so by the time he returns to action, that is getting up there in age for a DSL player.
A high-priced player that will return is Johan De Jesus, who got a $200,000 bonus in 2012. He had a brutal time last year at shortstop, both on defense and offense. The interesting thing with him is that scouts weren’t high on him, but the Pirates saw enough to give him a six-figure deal. So far the scouts are right, but he will still be 17 years old for most of this 2014 season, so he has time.
First baseman Yunelky Adames returns. He is on the old side for the DSL, but he should anchor the offense. He was hitting the ball well last year, showing great power, before an ankle injury ended his season early. He is a fourth year player this season, so this is all or nothing for him, which is how he swings the bat every time up.
Edison Lantigua was signed last year for a $275,000 bonus. He is a 17-year-old, lefty/lefty center fielder with a strong arm, who makes solid contact at the plate. He’s mostly a line drive hitter now, but occasionally will show some power, which should get better as he gets older.
Jeremias Portorreal is another high-priced signing from last year. He’s still 16 years old, with good size at 6’3″, 195 pounds. He’s an outfielder by trade, but could see first base in his future. His $375,000 bonus was the second highest last year for an international player. The reports from Dominican Spring Training on Portorreal were outstanding, and based on that, he could be ahead of Julio de la Cruz as the best prospect on the team. If not, it’s close between the two players for that top spot.
Eliezer Ramirez is another talented young outfielder on this team. Just like Lantigua and Portorreal, he too signed for a six figure bonus. The 17-year-old out of Venezuela makes good contact, has power potential and a strong arm. He will player a corner outfield spot. Not all first year players see full time playing right away, so don’t be surprised if one of these three young outfielders isn’t out there everyday.
Rudy Guzman is a tough player to figure out. He has all the talent in the world and the Pirates had him on the Spring minor league roster, but visa issues held him back and now he is back in the DSL. Perhaps he moves back to the States during the season. He is already 22 years old, so it won’t do him any good playing back in the Dominican this year. I was told last year that he was the best player for either Pirates DSL team. That doesn’t take prospect status into account, because he was 3-4 years older than most players in the league. Just shows you how much talent he has.
Huascar Fuentes is another wildcard like Guzman. He is already 22 years old and has never played pro ball. It’s not that he was a late bloomer, he just never tried out when he was younger and when he finally did, the Pirates signed him. Like Guzman, he is a very talented player that needs to move quick and succeed in a league that is too young for him.
Yoel Gonzalez was signed in 2012 as a defensive-minded catcher with a strong arm. His arm played well, but he showed some flaws in his catching skills that needed work. He went to the Fall Instructional League, but returned to the DSL for this season. His defense should be at least average, which makes him a valuable player if the bat actually comes around. He did not hit enough last year, posting a .523 OPS. The hope is that he develops into a line drive hitter and the overall defense improves. He doesn’t turn 18 until late this season, so he has time. (Gonzalez has moved back up to the States since this was posted)
Mikell Granberry gives the team two catchers with potential. He was praised for his defense when he signed, although the report I got was that he needs work refining his game because he didn’t have the best coaching coming up. He’s got a strong arm and a decent bat, plus his work/effort in training camp was highly praised. It will be interesting to see how much time these two catchers get. They usually have four catchers per team, maybe a fifth to fill in just in case and they also get work catching bullpens when they aren’t playing. These two should get the large majority of the playing time.
Outfielder Victor Fernandez was recently signed, though he is already 19 years old. The only report we had on him was from someone who saw a lot of him during Dominican Spring Training and said he was the fastest player they have ever seen. He was reportedly 14-for-14 in stolen base attempts during Spring games. If Fernandez gets playing time and gets on base enough, he could potentially be a hidden gem.
Not Much on the Pitching Side
On the pitching side, there are really just two pitchers on note, both from Colombia. Richard Mitchell is a high upside arm from the right side, who will be moved to a starting role this season. He had some success in a relief role last year. He throws a fastball that sits 90 MPH, a change-up that shows good separation from his fastball and a slow curve that could be a plus offering.
Luis Escobar signed for $150,000 last year, and will make his pro debut this season. He showed a lot of improvements, with his fastball recently touching 94 MPH, and that led to the Pirates signing him to the high bonus. First year players don’t always see a lot of time on the mound, but Escobar turns 18 on Opening Day, so he could be an exception. His secondary pitches need work, though that is not surprising, since he was a third baseman up until 2012.
Other possible names to watch are Jherson Esqueda, who pitched well in a limited role during his rookie season last year. He is an 18-year-old, 6’1″ righty signed out of Mexico. Two other players signed out of Mexico could see plenty of time on the mound: Right-handers Carlos Bustamante and Eumir Sepulveda. The Pirates think Bustamente has a lot of potential, while Sepulveda just recently showed huge improvements in his pitching, specifically that he added 8 MPH to his fastball.
Nestor Oronel, a 17-year-old lefty out of Venezuela is a newcomer, but he should get plenty of time on the mound this year. He throws a nice sinking fastball, a plus breaking ball and he has a good feel for pitching. He could be a hidden gem as he was a low-profile signing. Edgardo Leon was signed at the same time as Oronel out of Venezuela. He is slightly older, a 6’3″ righty that throws a sinker/slider combo with good arm action.
Edgar Santana is a 22-year-old 6’2″, righty, who just signed his first pro contract. He throws mid-90′s with a plus slider. If he is a legit prospect at this age, he won’t stay in the DSL long.
Other names will surely emerge during the season, but like Oronel, they were all low-profile signings.
Top Ten Prospects
Every time I do a top ten prospects list for the DSL, I mention that you should take it with a grain of salt. Some of the best players according to their scouting report, went nowhere. I’m basing these off what I’ve heard from people who saw the team this Spring, plus prior scouting reports. As we saw with a couple players last year, they may have huge potential, but those raw tools didn’t carry over into results.
1. Jeremias Portorreal
2. Julio de la Cruz
3. Yoel Gonzalez
4. Adrian Valerio
5. Edison Lantigua
6. Luis Escobar
7. Richard Mitchell
8. Eliezer Ramirez
9. Johan De Jesus
10. Jhoan Herrera