Winter Leagues Notebook: Pirates Have Talented Outfielders in Winter Ball

The Pittsburgh Pirates have 26 players that have played Winter ball so far this season, along with some players that were in the organization during the 2013 season, who are currently minor league free agents. The best players in this group are the outfielders and there are even more on the way. Gregory Polanco has been tearing up the Dominican League, while the Colombian League has two of the younger talented players in the system  hitting well, Harold Ramirez and Tito Polo. There is also Mel Rojas Jr. in the Dominican, Andrew Lambo and Elvis Escobar playing in the Venezuelan League and Jerry Sands is playing in Puerto Rico.

Gregory Polanco
Gregory Polanco ranks second in the DWL in OPS

This Winter season is one to watch due to the amount of right fielders at the upper levels of the Pirates’ system and it will get more crowded soon. Gregory Polanco is a center fielder by trade and a very good one, but his position with the Pirates will be right field. There is very little chance he starts the season in the majors due to service time issues and possibly super two status. If Polanco plays just two weeks in AAA to start the season, the Pirates get an extra year out of him before free agency.

Soon, Starling Marte will be joining Polanco in the same outfield, giving Pirates fans the chance to see a glimpse of the near future. Last year, Marte hit .304 with an .865 OPS in 29 games in the Dominican. This season through 28 games, Polanco has a .320 average and a .950 OPS. He has been showing excellent plate patience during his DWL time, picking up 21 walks. The big difference between Marte and Polanco is the plate patience factor, which gives Polanco even more potential than Marte in the future. It’s no guarantee he will reach it, but it’s interesting to see where Polanco is this year compared to Marte last year. It will also be interesting for fans of the Escogido team to see both players in the same outfield.

With the service time issue in mind concerning Polanco, that leaves Andrew Lambo and Jose Tabata as the top two options to win the starting right field job, with a chance of a platoon between the two players. That could all change with a free agent signing of course, but for now, they are the best options. Lambo has started off slow in the Venezuelan League, going 2-for-20 with 11 strikeouts during his first week. Jose Tabata will be joining the league sometime in the near future, which means Pirates fans will be able to follow a battle for the right field job two months before the start of Spring Training.

Jerry Sands has been showing some power in Puerto Rico early with three homers and on Sunday, he had three outfield assists. He is playing Winter ball to try to make up for what amounted to as a lost season this year. After a slow start, he missed time due to injury and didn’t hit once he came back. It also didn’t help Sands on Monday that the Pirates acquired Jaff Decker, who is an outfielder that is younger and more highly regarded. Sands’ chance of winning a roster spot in 2013 doesn’t look good right now, but if he can get back to where he was at this point last year, he could be a possible bench option. Playing Winter ball and then coming into Spring Training performing well, is the best way to get back to that point.

For the future of the organization, Mel Rojas Jr. has seen action in a few games. He has a lot of raw tools, but hasn’t reached his potential yet. Rojas is getting good experience playing in the Dominican League, which is on par with the pitching he will see at AAA. It’s possible he returns to Altoona to start next year, which wouldn’t be a bad idea considering he has been pushed a level each year without dominating any level.

Elvis Escobar is playing in an advanced league for his age
Elvis Escobar is playing in an advanced league for his age

One of the most interesting placements this Winter is Elvis Escobar getting time in the Venezuelan League. He played with Jamestown this season as an 18-year-old and showed potential. The VWL is a big jump for him, so the experience of seeing and competing at a high level is potentially good for his development. Escobar has played just three times off the bench so far, but he was just added to the roster within the last two weeks. Any playing time at all at his age in the VWL is impressive.

The Colombian League is a step below in competition from the other leagues, but for Harold Ramirez it is probably a little better than what he will see with West Virginia next year. Ramirez was named the top prospect in the NYPL this season and he is playing well in the Colombian League. Batting right ahead of Ramirez on that same team is Tito Polo, who was an All-Star in the Dominican Summer League this year. Polo isn’t playing as much as Ramirez, but he is doing just as well. He has a .348 average and four extra base hits in eight games. Ramirez is hitting .341 in 11 games and leads the league in stolen bases.

When Marte and Tabata start playing, it will give Pirates fans a total of nine different outfielders to keep an eye on during Winter ball. It is a very talented group that includes two top ten prospects, three major league outfielders in their 20’s and a group of young outfielders with tons of potential. The outfield situation for the future is strong for the Pirates and the Winter leagues give fans a chance to follow some of the top outfielders in the system during the off-season.

Winter League Recap

Monday was a slow day in Winter ball. Just one game on the schedule in the Dominican League and none in Venezuela, Colombia, Australia and Mexico. Puerto Rico had two games on the schedule like normal.

In Puerto Rico, Ivan De Jesus Jr. went 2-for-3 with two walks, two runs scored and an RBI. He is hitting .333 in 66 at-bats with 15 walks.

In the Dominican, Oscar Tejeda went 1-for-4 with a double and run scored. Like De Jesus, Tejeda is a minor league free agent at this time.

In Nicaragua, Adolfo Flores has pitched ten times, including twice in the last week. He has given up a total of three runs on nine hits and two walks in 8.2 innings

One player that was overlooked yesterday was Carlos Ruiz, the Pirates pitcher. He has spent four years in the Summer Leagues for the Pirates, playing in Venezuela in 2010-11 and the Dominican the last two years. As a fourth year player, Ruiz needs to be promoted to a stateside team next year or be released. He has had strong results in relief and as a closer, but lacks strong stuff, relying more on the deception that comes from a submarine delivery. Ruiz made his debut in Venezuela on Sunday for Caribes de Anzoategui. He faced three batters, giving up a single and getting two fly ball outs.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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Great work as usual John. So OF and SP has a ton of prospect depth. Let’s keep the SP for now to see who and how many pan out, but how quickly can NH turn those legit OF prospects into legit IF prospects at 3B, 1B and in the middle too? Seems like that process should be starting very soon.

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