DSL Season Recap: Youth and Injuries Lead to Tough Season in the Dominican

The Dominican Summer League wrapped up the regular season on Saturday and the Pirates finished with a 30-42 record. The team was filled with first-year players and dealt with numerous injuries to begin the year, so they had almost no chance to compete from the start.

The pitching was really young due to the fact that all five starters from last year’s team were moved up to the States and they were replaced by five rookies. When the two best prospects got injured early, they were replaced by two lesser rookies. That led to some very poor overall pitching stats. The Pirates finished 37th out of 38 teams in ERA and runs allowed, while posting the 36th best WHIP.

The hitting also faltered early, with some of the higher bonus players doing poorly and older players leading the way. By the end of the season, they finished 12th in OPS, as a few of the younger players picked up the pace near the end.

Below are brief reports on all 41 players, who either saw action this season, or didn’t due injuries and in one case, a suspension. Tomorrow we will have an article on the top players to watch.

Right after the last game of the season, the Pirates told ten players they are going to the Fall Instructional League. They will be noted by “FIL” next to their name. They also released two players, infielder Jesus Ronco and relief pitcher Luis Brun. Ronco played the maximum four years in the DSL and never showed any signs of being a prospect, while Brun dealt with command issues for his three seasons. Earlier in the season, pitcher Cesar Santos was released. He broke his hand during a play last year and came back out of shape and was topping out around 80 mph, so he didn’t last long into the season. They gave him a chance to see if he could regain some velocity, but he really only stuck around due to all the injuries early in the year.

The team had two players miss the entire year due to injuries, both pitchers and both due to Tommy John surgery. Ivan Cespedes was supposed to play last season, but he ended up having his TJS instead and spent this year recovering. Pitcher Saul de la Cruz got hurt during Spring Training and tried rest and rehab, but that didn’t work and he is having his TJS soon. Johan De Jesus was the third player that never saw any action, but his absence was due to a season-long PED suspension. He was at the academy for almost the entire year working out with the team, but attitude problems in late July got him sent home early. He signed a six-figure bonus and has gone nowhere in three years. Assuming he is back next year, he has a long way to go before he’s considered a prospect.

As for the players still around that put on the uniform, we start with the catchers. Gabriel Brito was signed for $200,000 last July, the second highest bonus last year. His season started slow due to a shoulder injury and was interrupted in the middle by a left hand injury. When he came back the second time, he started to hit better and never stopped. The 17-year-old put up impressive numbers at the plate with a .306/.415/.429 slash line in 32 games. His defense didn’t get high marks, but he’s very young and inexperienced, so that’s not a surprise. Brito is very small for a catcher at 5’9″, 170 pounds.

Mikell Granberry was around last year and hit well, though he missed some time due to a back injury. His defense was rated as average last year and while he looked better behind the plate this season, his arm became erratic and he had trouble throwing out runners. That was partially due to him rushing throws, as the Pirates’ pitchers did a bad job as a group at holding runners on base, and there were obviously a lot of runners on base. Granberry played more first base after Brito returned, but he was still doing all the catching drills daily, so they aren’t moving him from the position. He hit well for a second straight season and they rewarded him with an FIL invite.

Raul Hernandez signed out of Venezuela last August and turned 19 in December, so he can be considered a late-bloomer. His defense was his calling card back when he signed, but he ended up hitting well with a .742 OPS, which was well above league average. He has the best arm of any catcher on the team and his all-around defense is above average. Hernandez didn’t show much power, or the ability to take walks, so his numbers might not translate well at higher levels, but his defense will keep him around and give him a chance to work on his hitting. He was an FIL invite.

The Pirates signed a catcher named Roberto Noguera last year, but cut him this spring due to vision problems. They replaced him with 20-year-old Julio Gonzalez, who was supposed to catch this year. He ended up getting hurt in spring and returned as a third baseman. Gonzalez didn’t hit at all and his defense was very poor, so it’s hard to see him being more than just a filler next year. Paul Brands caught for the team briefly, but that was due to visa issues. While the 18-year-old from the Netherlands waited for his work visa, he got in some time at the Dominican academy. When the visa issues cleared up, he went to the GCL, where he is playing now.

Veteran Ramy Perez didn’t see much time behind the plate, but he played a lot at third base due to improvements to his offense, plus the need based on injuries. Those that saw him last year said he looked like a totally different player, but Perez slowed down a little at the end. He turns 21 next month and didn’t get an FIL invite, so it looks like he could return to the DSL next year for one final season.

On to the infield, where the Pirates got a nice surprise from Melvin Jimenez, who was named the team MVP. The scouting reports from spring sounded like he could be a solid player, but he ended up being the best all-around player on the team. Jimenez played some 3B/2B, but it was shortstop where he really put on a show. Voted the best defensive infielder on the team, he made just two errors in 35 games at shortstop. Playing on DSL fields, surrounded by DSL players, that error total is the most impressive thing you’ll read in this article. Jimenez hit .301 and had a 34:26 BB/SO ratio, while going 8-for-9 in steals. The Pirates didn’t let players steal often, so the low totals are due more to that, rather than a lack of team speed. Jimenez was an FIL invite.

The regular shortstop was supposed to be Cristopher Perez, one of three position players last July, who got a six-figure bonus. Perez was one of the numerous spring injuries and when he returned, he was bad on both sides of the ball. His final stats don’t look good, but I was told that he showed a lot of improvements late in the season when something clicked. Perez is 18 years old and needs to add some muscle/weight to his skinny frame. He’s a player to watch for next year.

Williams Calderon was signed at the same time as Jimenez, and the two players got similar overall comps to each other. Jimenez turns 20 in two weeks, while Calderon is only 17, and the difference in age showed once the season started. Calderon had an average season as the regular second baseman. Reports on him said he improved as the season went along, but he will need another year to show he can be more consistent and the plate and in the field. The switch-hitter had some success against left-handed pitching, but he struck out too much from the other side.

First baseman Huascar Fuentes was the best hitter on the team, but that comes with a huge asterisk. He is already 23 years old. He signed late because his family wouldn’t let him play pro ball at an earlier age, then last year he got hurt early in the season and missed almost the entire year. He got an FIL invite, but we have seen a lot of older first baseman put up big numbers in the DSL and go nowhere. When you realize he’s at the lowest level and he’s older than players like Alen Hanson, Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna, it’s tough to picture upside, but he’s a player that should be able to handle something above the GCL next year.

Kyle Simmons is a rare player that we don’t see often. Not only is he from the Bahamas, but he was a July 2nd signing this year. Most players sign for the next season, unless they are fillers. The 18-year-old Simmons played just six games, and wasn’t an FIL invite, though less than a month ago it was said that he wasn’t supposed to stay at the Dominican academy long. He has a strong arm and can play shortstop or second base. Simmons also has real good speed, which helps with his range in the field.

In the outfield, the Pirates got very little from their three players than signed six-figure deals over the last two years. Yondry Contreras was the top signing last July, with a $400,000 bonus. Defensively he played the part, looking like a plus center fielder with a strong arm. On offense, he set a DSL Pirates’ team record with 84 strikeouts. He hit .195, with a .546 OPS. Contreras didn’t draw walks, barely showed any power and was 2-for-8 in steals. As good as his defense was, his offense was equally as bad. He was young for the league, turning 18 next month, but you still expected more from the top signing.

Jeremias Portorreal signed in 2013 for $375,000 and then had a really tough rookie season, similar to Contreras on offense, and without any defensive value. This season was better, but it was more like what was expected last year for him. He picked up his walk rate, leading the team with 45 base on balls. He also showed a little more pop in his bat with 16 extra-base hits. The problem is that all his value is in his bat and he hit .230, with 67 strikeouts. Portorreal is actually close in age to Contreras because he was one of the younger eligible signings in 2013, while Contreras just missed the cutoff and had to wait until 2014. Portorreal was an FIL invite.

Eliezer Ramirez signed his six-figure deal in 2013 and was said to be very raw at the time. He didn’t play much last year and his 2015 season was cut short by a broken hand, when he dove for a ball in right field. He only played ten games, so it was a lost season, but he is still 18 years old.

Eddy Vizcaino was signed at the same time as Calderon and Jimenez. Vizcaino played in the Dominican Prospect League, which is reserved for some of the better unsigned talent. He turned 19 last month and had a decent rookie season with a .688 OPS, ten stolen bases and a 24:13 BB/SO ratio. He has above average range and a strong arm. It looks like he will return to the DSL next year and should get a chance to play regularly.

Felix Vinicio was an All-Star this year and he finished with a .753 OPS, which was fifth best among regulars. He also received an FIL invite. Vinicio has limited upside, in that he doesn’t do anything well, he just plays the game right. He’s on the small side, turns 21 in October and lacks any real tools, but he’s a solid player, who should fill out the lower level rosters for a few years, with the hopes that he turns into more.

Rudy Guzman is a tough case to cover. You want to say great things about him, but two years ago he was called the best all-around player for the Pirates’ DSL team and he hasn’t been able to get a visa since then due to a lack of identification. The family has no records before age 12, so a very talented player has been stuck for three years in the DSL. According to Guzman, he is 24 years old, so he is not in a good situation. If he ever gets to the U.S., expect him to get a very aggressive push.

Young Pitchers Showing Inexperience

The Pirates signed five pitchers for over $100,000 last July and all five were supposed to see plenty of time on the mound, but it didn’t work out that way for the two considered to be the best. We got reports before the year that Adonis Pichardo, Domingo Robles and Brian Sousa all showed improved velocity after signing. Pichardo and Sousa both ended up getting hurt twice, while Robles wasn’t throwing that hard as a starter.

Pichardo ended up being the biggest disappointment of the group, with poor results all around. He had a 7.24 ERA, 1.95 WHIP, a .346 BAA and he hit 12 batters. He is already 19, despite signing last year. Pichardo can hit 96 mph, but his issue was throwing a lot of pitches right down the middle and batters teed off on him. He sat low-90’s most of the time, which is one of the better velocities on this team. Last year there were a lot more hard-throwers, while this season Pichardo was said to have the third best fastball. He missed time with a lat strain and then again due to arm fatigue. Expect him to be in the starting rotation next year.

Sousa had shoulder issues twice, getting shutdown for the season after the second injury. He was also expected to be able to handle regular starting duties after playing two year of winter ball in his native Panama, facing many players 5-10+ years older than him. Sousa pitched just five times and you can’t take much from those games, since he got hurt in two of them and may have been pitching through an injury in others. When healthy, he can hit 93 mph.

Robles made all his starts, pitched better as the season went on and got an FIL invite. The disappointing part with him was the reported velocity. He’s a 17-year-old lefty, so there is obviously room to add velocity at his age, but the reports were that he sat high 80’s in his starts. That was after we heard that he was hitting 92 mph prior to the season. He may have hit that number, but he was mostly 87-88 in the starting role. Robles got better as the season went along because he became more aggressive/confident on the mound and attacked hitters, complementing his fastball that has good downward action, with a solid curve/change combo.

Yerry De Los Santos was another six-figure signing last July. He was a regular in the rotation and struggled with allowing too many hits. He only had 17 walks, but he wasn’t good with attacking hitters, leading to high pitch counts and eventually a lot of hits when he would throw the ball right over the middle to avoid the walk. He throws 88-89, with a curve/change combo. De Los Santos got praise for his ability to hold runners on, and he had a lot of practice at it this season.

Roger Santana was the fifth player that received a six-figure bonus and he could end up being the best, which is hard to believe based on his stats alone. He showed a lot of improvements as the season went along, becoming a much better pitcher, as opposed to being a thrower. Santana is a 17-year-old lefty, who sits 89-90, with a lot of movement on his fastball. He finished with one earned run over his last five appearances and was really coming along as the season ended. He will likely be a regular in the rotation next year.

In June, the Pirates spent the last of their 2014-15 international pool on two pitchers, Wilmer Contreras for $85,000 and lefty Randy Jimenez for $100,000. Both were at the academy for most of the season, but only Contreras got into games. Contreras is a 17-year-old, who looked very raw on the mound. He sat high 80’s in long-relief and also threw a slider/change combo. He injured his elbow in his third game and didn’t pitch after August 13th.

With starters getting injured, the Pirates went with three other pitchers that got a lot of work and one turned out to be a pleasant surprise, while the other two ended up with FIL invites. Miguel Hernandez had a 3.54 ERA in 61 innings, with 51 strikeouts. He’s a 19-year-old, 6’5″ right-hander, who hit 93-94 as a starter. He throws a slider/change combo. Hernandez obviously has some talent, but he isn’t a good pitcher yet, being labeled as a thrower. He still needs to learn how to pitch and not just overpower young players with an above average fastball

Ronny Agustin split the year between relief and starting. In 48 innings, he had a 4.50 ERA. He got an FIL invite, likely due to his age(21 in September) and his advanced feel for a change-up, which you don’t see often at this level. The 6’2″ lefty sits high-80’s, throwing a big curve that could be a plus pitch. If he could added a couple ticks to his fastball, that would give him an intriguing combo from the left side.

Argenis Romano was a late signing, working out for the team this spring. The 20-year-old righty had a 4.99 ERA, though he posted a decent strikeout rate and did a better job than most at keeping runners off base. He split his season between starting at the bullpen. Romano sat 89-90, with a hard-breaking curve and a change. He got an FIL invite as well, likely due to the fact he follows the Pirates’ motto of pitching to contact.

On to the bullpen, where there is one big name to watch. The best fastball on the team belongs to Julian Villamar, who also may have the best curve when it’s on. The problem is that his command is spotty at best. He will have stretches where he looks like a dominating pitcher, throwing mid-90’s heat and breaking off hard curves. He will also go through stretches where he can find the strike zone. He got an FIL invite and the Pirates will have a chance in Bradenton to straighten him out, because there is some huge upside in his arm. He could also never leave the GCL if they don’t have any success.

As for the other bullpen arms, there is some upside, but you usually don’t find much if players are relegated to a limited role at this level. Sometimes it’s due to control like Villamar and sometimes it’s due to youth. Raymond Rodriguez spent his second season trying to get better command on his fastball. The 18-year-old lefty added a tick to his velocity(now 91-92) and his control was slightly better, but he still needs to improve a lot to be considered a prospect. He rarely uses his secondary stuff because he can’t control the fastball yet.

Angel Vasquez has four pitches he throws for strikes and his curve is above average, but that still hasn’t translated to an FIL invite for the 21-year-old lefty, so that says something about his upside. He also saw limited use this year.

Oddy Nunez was another tryout signing right before the season. The 18-year-old lefty was sat down by MLB for a month due to visa issues. He’s 6’5″, with a very good slider, and he put up strong results this year, so there could be some potential. He will need to add to his fastball, which has a lot of movement, but only sits 87-88 at this point.

Closer Ramon Garcia has great off-speed pitches, can hit 90 mph and doesn’t mind pitching in pressure situations. He throws all of his pitches for strikes and had great results this year. The problem is that he is already 23, so he was too old for the league, but he did get an FIL invite, so the Pirates think he has potential.

Jherson Esqueda was supposed to pitch more this season, but off-season surgery caused him to miss most of the year. He is the best/smartest pitcher on the team, but his upside is really limited due to a fastball that sits mid-80’s, sometimes in the 83-85 range. If he adds to that fastball, then you have someone who should move through the lower levels quick, but if he doesn’t, he may never get further than the DSL.

Edgardo Leon works 87-88, throwing mostly fastballs, while he worked on his command for a second straight season. Eumir Sepulveda missed a lot of time due to injury, but looked strong after he returned, hitting 90-91 consistently, with good secondary pitches. Carlos Bustamante sits high-80’s, touching 90 mph. He showed some improvements this year in command, which led to fewer walks and more strikeouts, but similar overall results.