BRADENTON, Fla. and INDIANAPOLIS – The Pirates set expectations for their international hitting prospects pretty high in 2012 when they had Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Jose Osuna, Willy Garcia, and Elias Diaz all making the jump to West Virginia at a young age. Add in Starling Marte’s emergence in the upper levels, and his eventual MLB debut, and the Pirates were looking like an organization set to churn out international hitters.
Marte has quietly been one of the best players in baseball since he came up. Polanco has arrived, but hasn’t come close to his upside yet, so far looking like an average starter with around a 2.0 WAR per year. Osuna is looking like a strong bench bat, and maybe more if he wasn’t blocked in Pittsburgh at his two positions. Diaz is blocked, but could be a starting catcher elsewhere. Garcia and Hanson didn’t get much of a chance in Pittsburgh, and both are trying to make it with the White Sox as bench players.
But after that group, the international hitters stopped arriving. There have been prospects who have shown potential, with Harold Ramirez and Tito Polo being two notable guys. Ramirez — the top signing in 2011 — topped out as a top ten prospect, before seeing a decline in value in Double-A, and being traded in the Francisco Liriano deal last year. Polo was traded along with Stephen Tarpley to receive Ivan Nova at the same deadline.
There are reasons why the Pirates have seen the supply chain dry up, and they range from a lowered budget with MLB’s new CBA, a trend where they were finding more pitching talent than hitting talent, and just missing on a few hitters. But the supply of international hitters might not be completely dry, and not just because Adrian Valerio is starting to show promise in West Virginia. The GCL currently has two outfielders who are also showing some of the promise that led them to being top signings in their respective years.
Lolo Sanchez and Jeremias Portorreal got off to slow starts in their pro careers, but adjustments in the last year between the DSL and their jump to the US have led to a turnaround. I talked with Gera Alvarez — current manager of the Bradenton Marauders, and coordinator of the Pirates’ Dominican Academy from 2014-2016 — and Brian Peloza talked with Andy Barkett — current manager of the Indianapolis Indians and assistant hitting coordinator last year — about some of the changes being made with Sanchez and Portorreal.
The Pirates paid Sanchez $450,000 on July 2nd, 2015, making him the top signing in the 2015-16 international signing class. He got off to a slow start in the DSL last year, but has turned things around.
Sanchez has been impressive this year in the GCL, hitting for an .855 OPS in 63 at-bats so far, along with strong plate patience that has led to eight walks and six strikeouts. He shows a lot of speed, leading to seven steals in ten attempts, and also resulting in strong defense and range in center field. He’s been hitting for some power, which he lacked in his first pro season.
I showed Alvarez some video of Sanchez hitting, and he immediately noticed that Sanchez had dropped his hands lower this year, and also was getting to his back leg with more of a load in his swing. Alvarez had some good things to say about Sanchez from a makeup standpoint as well.
“He’s fun to watch,” Alvarez said. “He’s got a lot of energy. He was an infielder before, we converted him to play center field. He’s a good leader. I think his makeup is what’s going to separate him. His work ethic, his character, his makeup is what is going to carry him.”
Brian checked with Barkett on the development of Sanchez last year, and while Barkett wasn’t the only one involved, he did shed some light on those adjustments.
“I did some work with him, but there were a lot of people that were working with him and had an impact on him,” Barkett said. “He’s a talented kid. I saw tools in the guy. The adjustment was to get his hands back and loaded. He had very little gather and we were trying to get him to get his hands back. I just remember getting them loaded.”
The early signs are positive for Sanchez, as he’s making solid contact, showing good plate patience, and maximizing his impact at the plate with his speed.
It’s rare for a guy to get a mid-season promotion from the DSL to the GCL, but that is what happened last year with Jeremias Portorreal. I saw him in the DSL in 2015, and noticed he had a long swing that led to a lot of strikeouts. His tall, skinny frame looks like it carries some power potential, but he was never able to tap into that, with just a .117 ISO in 2015 — his second season in the DSL.
Portorreal was one of the top signings in 2013, agreeing to a $375,000 deal, which was just below the $400,000 that Adrian Valerio received that year. He followed the trend of 2012 top signings Michael and Julio De La Cruz, struggling to show his upside for a few years. Unlike those two, it looks like Portorreal might be finding his way.
Prior to the promotion last year, Portorreal started hitting in the DSL, and hitting for some power. When he arrived in the GCL, I noticed a shorter swing than he had before. Talking with him about it, he noted that Barkett worked with him last year before the promotion. After seeing him consistently making hard contact with the shortened swing, Brian asked Barkett for more details on the adjustment.
“That kid just has the prototypical body for a major league hitter, and he had one of the most jacked up looking swings that I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but yet he was able to always hit the ball consistently and always barrel it,” Barkett said. “And so one day in the Dominican he was not playing in the game and I took him off the bench and we went to the batting cage. I just taught him how to use his lower half for power, instead of really trying to wrap his upper body. He was able to pick it up really fast. I encouraged him to go inside and write down everything he did.”
Barkett showed the progress to Alvarez, who was impressed by the changes Portorreal had made so quickly.
“I’ve never seen you look like this Porto, this is unbelievable,” Alvarez said during the batting practice session, per Barkett.
Barkett didn’t make another trip down to the DSL that year, but kept checking the stats. Portorreal didn’t have immediate success, but eventually picked it up. Barkett ran into Amaury Telemaco, the Latin American pitching coordinator, who relayed Portorreal’s success.
“You should see Portorreal now,” Telemaco told Barkett. “I looked at his stats and he raised his average 80 points and he’s the best hitter we have now.”
Barkett got his next look at Portorreal during the instructional leagues that fall.
“He came to the instructional league and I was so tickled,” Barkett said. “It was just showing him how to generate bat speed and power to use his lower half and he didn’t need to try to make such a big move with his upper half to do it. It wasn’t like something revolutionary. It was just something I saw in the kid and the kid trusted me. I’m bilingual and can speak to the kid and we connected. He clicked with everything I taught him and was able to apply it right away.”
While Barkett didn’t claim much credit for Sanchez, he seemed to be really proud of the work that Portorreal did, and how quickly things turned around for him.
“It gives me chills talking about it because in our job at this level (Triple-A) you can really impact lives,” Barkett said. “But sometimes when you’re a rover and down in the Dominican you can change the course of someone’s life by one hour in the batting cage. It really just makes you feel good that you do what you do, because that kid might have not ever gotten out of the Dominican if we didn’t have that one session. He might have gotten it anyway or it could have been someone else teaching him, I have no idea, but the fact I was able to impact the kid and help get him across the water is a great feeling. He’s in the United States now and has a chance to have a career here and maybe get to the big leagues one day.”
I followed up with Alvarez on the early success this year from Portorreal, who is hitting for a .764 OPS with a .169 ISO.
“Portorreal is a prospect,” Alvarez said. “He’s very raw, but you look at his body, with his approach. He simplified everything. I know he had a big crank in his set-up in his load. He simplified that. He came over for instructs, saw him play in instructs. He opened some eyes. He’s got the size and he’s got the barrel. He’s an exciting player to watch.”
The one concern at this point would be that the strikeout rate is still high. He’s at 27.8% this year, which is about where he was in 2015, although with a much better average and much more power. If he can find a way to further adjust and reduce the strikeouts, while maintaining power, average, and his 9.7% walk rate, then he could do some damage. And with his tall, skinny frame, I don’t think we’ve seen his full potential from the power and offensive standpoint.
Reversing the Trend
The Pirates have seen a lull with their international hitting pipeline in large part because of the struggles from the De La Cruz’s, along with Harold Ramirez seeing a decline, and stalled development from Portorreal and Valerio in 2013. Portorreal and Valerio are starting to put things together this year, while Sanchez is on more of a seamless development path, showing his potential during his second season.
If these trends continue, the Pirates could have their next wave of young international hitters reaching West Virginia next year. Sanchez would be in his age 19 season (actually still 18 on Opening Day), while Portorreal would be in his age 20 season. They could also be joined by shortstop Rodolfo Castro, who would still be 18 on Opening Day, and who is also showing good results this year in the GCL. And Valerio would be a step ahead of them, in his age 21 season in Bradenton.
All of those ages would be similar to what we saw from Polanco, Hanson, Garcia, Osuna, and Diaz in 2012. And if the results from this next wave can match that group, then the Pirates will be in good shape with offensive talent coming through the lower levels of the system again.
Brian Peloza contributed to this report.