Over the off-season, we are going to use the Sunday night/Monday morning First Pitch article to recap the week that was in fall/winter ball. I started off today with a recap of the first two weeks in the Arizona Fall League, as well as a look at some interesting players in winter ball who are Rule 5 eligible. Within the next two weeks, we will see winter leagues begin play in Puerto Rico, Australia and Colombia, so there is a chance for the list of interesting players to get bigger. Alen Hanson and Elias Diaz are both scheduled to start winter ball next month, which would make them the top two prospects to follow this off-season.
The Arizona Fall League wrapped up the first two weeks of action on Saturday. They are now just over 1/3 of the season complete, playing 11 of the 32 scheduled games. On the offensive side, the Pittsburgh Pirates are seeing strong hitting from two of the players they sent there, while the pitching side has mostly been inconsistent.
Starting with Eric Wood, who is not only adding versatility to his resume, he is off to a nice start. Wood has only played third base since turning pro in 2012. He had a strong season at Altoona this year, with improved offense and defense, including more home runs than he hit in his first four seasons combined. In the AFL, he has played left field and first base, to go along with third base. Wood will be at Indianapolis next year, and if he can continue his improvements at a higher level, the versatility will help open up a spot for him in Pittsburgh. He is hitting .370/.452/.481 so far in the AFL. He is Rule 5 eligible this year, so the Pirates will need to make a decision on adding him to the 40-man roster soon.
Jin-De Jhang has played just five games so far, two of them as a DH, and three behind the plate. The low game total is not unusual because teams carry four catchers. The catchers in the AFL actually get a lot of side work because of the amount of pitchers there and the number of pitching changes during every game. Jhang is hitting .412/.450/.471 and hasn’t struck out yet in 19 plate appearances. He is also Rule 5 eligible this off-season.
Connor Joe has been in left field and at third base this fall. He has also played just five games, reaching base at least once in each game. Joe has a .235/.381/.412 slash line, which isn’t bad once you look past the average. He has struck out seven time in 17 at-bats, so that’s a little more than you want to see. The upside is that he played in High-A ball this year and most AFL players were either in Double-A or Triple-A in 2016. The downside is that he is slightly older than both Wood and Jhang, and was at a level lower this season.
On the pitching side, you could lump Alex McRae and Tanner Anderson in the same group. That both had a bad outing and looked good the other times. McRae is pitching in relief and has allowed three runs on six hits and a walk in six innings. Anderson has started twice, and just like McRae, he has allowed three runs on six hits. He has done that over 6.1 innings, with two walks and five strikeouts. Both of them are showing nice velocity, with Anderson getting a lot of ground balls from his fastball that sits 92-94 MPH. McRae is effective with his 92-93 MPH fastball, while mixing in more off-speed pitches than Anderson.
Edgar Santana and Montana DuRapau are having opposite results in relief. Santana has been extremely effective with his fastball/slider combo, putting up 4.2 scoreless innings over three appearances, with no walks and eight strikeouts. He’s been sitting 94-97 with the fastball. DuRapau has been hit in all three appearances, posting a 12.00 ERA and 2.33 WHIP in three outings. Judging by the Game Day strike zone, he is having the same issues he had during the season, leaving everything up in the zone.
That brings us to winter league baseball, which is currently going on in Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. As with Jin-De Jhang and Eric Wood, there are some Pirates in winter ball right now who have Rule 5 decisions to be made.
I’ll start with Jose Osuna, who doesn’t exactly fit the bill because he will be a minor league free agent soon if the Pirates don’t re-sign him or add him to the 40-man roster. I think it’s doubtful that he will be Rule 5 eligible because it would mean that he decided right away to sign as a minor league free agent and got no offers that included a 40-man roster spot. If he does do that, then you could almost guarantee he won’t get picked up in the Rule 5 draft. If a team didn’t want him with no 25-man roster guarantee and three options, it’s highly unlikely that they would want to pay an extra $50,000 (cost of a Rule 5 selection) to keep him on the active 25-man roster all season. It has happened before, but the only examples I know of off-hand included players with previous Major League experience.
There are two other players who would be considered dark horse candidates to either be added to the 40-man roster or selected if they aren’t added. Elvis Escobar is hitting .347/.360/.531 through 15 games in Venezuela. I talked about him briefly in the Sunday Winter Leagues article. Escobar just turned 22 last month and he already has Double-A experience, getting called up to Altoona this season after a great month of July in Bradenton.
He’s a small player, listed at 5’8″, 169 pounds, though he is strong for his size and is probably a little heavier than that listed weight. Escobar would still be considered raw as a player. He has above average speed, though he hasn’t been able to put it to good use on the bases. He can play center field in a pinch, but he doesn’t take the best routes, which is an area where the speed comes in handy. He also doesn’t have the best plate patience, so there are flaws which are both experience related and approach related. Besides the speed, he has a strong arm, and a solid line drive stroke that gives him excellent gap power.
Escobar is definitely an interesting decision for the team. He has the tools to be a solid fourth outfielder, but the flaws will likely keep him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. If he keeps up the hot start in Venezuela, then he will get attention from the scouts. If those experience related mistakes start going away, then he’s a type of player who can spend the entire season on a roster, bringing value with his speed and ability to play three outfield positions. The fact that he showed some nice improvements at the plate this season and he’s still young, might give teams more confidence that he could reach his upside and be worthy of a pick.
Just below Escobar would be Edwin Espinal, who I think won’t be added or be an option to be taken in the draft, but I do think he has Major League potential. I’ll start by saying that first basemen rarely get picked in the Rule 5 draft, so that helps (or hurts from his perspective) his case. He can play third base in a pinch, though I wouldn’t say it’s a possible future spot for him. He’s a big guy, who doesn’t have much range. His ability to play third base is mostly the fact he can catch balls hit to him and he has a plus arm.
Espinal’s value comes from his bat, and he’s someone who I think could break out at some point. The Pirates really liked his bat when they signed him for $150,000 back in 2011. The scouting report said the ball made a different sound coming off his bat, and they believed he could hit for power in the future. He has advanced a level each season, which could temporarily come to a halt next season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to Altoona to start the season. Espinal is big and strong, which hasn’t really led to power yet, but it’s there in his bat. He hit .289 this season and had 25 doubles and seven homers. He also makes consistent contact, striking out 67 times in 423 plate appearances.
He will be 23 years old next season, so this could be the year that he puts the average and power together finally for a strong season. Espinal is a player to keep an eye on in the Dominican this winter. We have seen players breakout in recent winters, and it’s usually the same season they reach Double-A.
As for other Rule 5 eligible players in winter ball, we have Miguel Rosario in the Dominican, John Kuchno in Venezuela, and Luis Heredia and Carlos Munoz in Mexico. Rosario would be the highlight of this group, though there is a reason I separated these players from the others. I don’t think any of them have a chance to be added or picked. Heredia looked like he was headed that way early this season, then he really hit a wall in the second half. He had a 7.40 ERA after June 27th and wasn’t used in either round of the FSL playoffs. Munoz had an average season in Low-A this year, and he’s really struggling with a .176 average early in winter ball. Kuchno is a strong ground ball pitcher, who didn’t have good results in his time at Indianapolis, and his low strikeout total holds him back. He’s getting innings as a starting pitcher in Venezuela.
Rosario looked strong for Altoona this season, as I noted in early August after watching him a few times. He has a deceptive sidearm delivery, with the ability to work low-90s. He relies more on his breaking balls though, which have a ton of late movement, and he’s able to throw them for strikes. In 33.2 innings for Altoona, he had a 1.87 ERA, 29 strikeouts, and a .167 BAA. He used to get more grounders, but his delivery has changed and he relies more on that deception and off-speed pitches, rather than the pitcher who would regular sit 92-94 MPH a couple years ago. That has turned him into a pitcher who gets a few more fly balls than grounders, but I like him better as a prospect now.
So you have two Rule 5 possibilities in the AFL, and another two in winter ball who are a little less likely to be picked or added. You also have the decision with Jose Osuna to watch, as well as some other players of note in winter ball, with more to come soon.
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