The 2017 DSL Pirates lacked experience coming into the season. They were filled with first-year players on the pitching side and on offense. Despite that inexperience, they finished the season with a winning record and saw some breakout performances from a few second-year players.
The Pirates used a total of 36 players this season, with two of them heading to the GCL early in the year. They had multiple pitchers return from injuries that cost them all of the 2016 season, and both Luis Gonzalez and Reymundo Pena missed the entire 2017 season due to injury. Pena pitched just once last year and spent this season at Pirate City in Bradenton rehabbing. Gonzalez is a rookie who hasn’t made his pro debut yet and spent his time in the Dominican on rehab.
They also didn’t get any production from pitcher Angel Suero, who was one of their best Spring Training pitchers, but after suffering a minor injury at the end of spring, he never appeared in a game. That’s because he completely lost control of the strike zone and only pitched in bullpens and on the side. It says a lot about how poor his control was when he didn’t appear in a game, but multiple pitchers this year and last year walked more than one batter per inning and still saw regular action.
I’m going to go through the entire roster of 36 players, concentrating on the better players from the group, but I received multiple reports on everyone. You’ll find the top ten prospects at the bottom. The list was put together with lots of help from people who saw these players all year, though I had final say on where they ended up. That’s because I base the list more on upside at this point rather than actual performance, whereas someone who saw a 20-year-old look much better than a 16-year-old might overlook the latter at this stage and ignore the tools. DSL successes and failures do not guarantee anything at the next level, or at higher levels. Tools are still the most important way to judge players at this level.
We start on offense because it’s a better group for prospects and had the two biggest breakout performances. Catcher Samuel Inoa was one of the second-year players who saw his stock rise this season. That’s despite missing time after a beaning, then missing the end of the season due to a hand injury. When he did play, he put up a .921 OPS in the very pitcher-friendly league. Keep that in mind when looking at the offensive stats, as well as the pitching stats. Inoa was called a team leader on the field and those who saw him last year and this year said that his defense improved tremendously.
Inoa was part of a very large group of DSL invites to the Fall Instructional League. That list is usually helpful in the ranking of prospects department, but it’s usually 10-12 players. This season, 23 of the players you see listed here have been invited. That’s 21 players from the article, plus Samuel Reyes (see below) and Reymundo Pena, who is going there as part of his rehab. So the Fall Instructional League (FIL) invites don’t really tell you much this year. They invited a large group because they already signed over 20 players since the July 2nd signing period started, so the 2018 DSL Pirates promise to be an inexperience group as well.
Back to the recap and most of the catching this season was done by Ruben Gonzalez, a rookie catcher who just turned 20 last week. He did not hit much, but he had some success on defense. He’s a stocky 5’8″ backstop, who will likely lose time next year to Jommer Hernandez, who was one of the top signings during the July 2nd signing period this year. Yair Babilonia was the third-string catcher. He is two weeks older than Gonzalez, but he’s a second-year player. Babilonia had a lot of trouble throwing out runners this season and didn’t show any improvements on offense. He’s likely going to be the third string catcher next year as well.
On to the infield and we start at third base, where Sherten Apostel had the biggest breakout. The 18-year-old from Curacao had a nice finish to his 2016 season after a very slow start. That finish carried into 2017, and the 6’4″, 215 pound Apostel also added power to his game. He hit nine homers, then stopped seeing pitches to hit. He ended up walking 56 times in 61 games, with 48 of those walks happening over his final 39 games. Apostel has a cannon for an arm, but his defense needs some cleaning up, especially on throwing accuracy. He’s 18, so there is plenty of time to work on that aspect, but he could end up at first base down the line.
At shortstop they had Francisco Acuna, who had a lot of press for a DSL player going into his rookie season. He played winter ball in Colombia at age 16 this past winter and held his own against much older players. Acuna had a somewhat disappointing season in the sense that we already saw him perform well in a much tougher league than the DSL. For a 17-year-old though, he showed some indications of future success. He played well defensively, went 19-for-22 in steals and drew 53 walks in 58 games. A .201 average with ten extra-base hits doesn’t stand out, but his .677 OPS was still above average for the league. Add in his age, position, defensive ability and speed and he actually had a solid season.
I’m skipping over to first base before getting to the rest of the infield and you will see why in a second. Ronaldo Paulino impressed in one area, and that was bat speed, along with the power than came with that speed and being 6’4″, 223 pounds. The 18-year-old rookie hit the ball harder than anyone else on the team, as told to me by multiple people. The problem with Paulino is that he has a ton of swing-and-miss to his game. He struck out 80 times in 185 at-bats. That’s going to be something he needs to work on, but he just needs to look to the 2016 leader in strikeouts (Apostel) to see that a lot can change in one season.
The rest of the infield had their issues. Third-year player Kyle Simmons saw most of the time at second base. I expected more from him after he looked solid in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers last September, both on offense and defense, as well as his speed. That didn’t translate well to success for the 20-year-old from the Bahamas, although a high walk total (the Pirates led the league in walks by a huge margin) led to a .402 OBP. Ivan Rosario struggled both offensively and defensively in his first season, seeing very limited time because he was clearly over-matched. He was signed as a shortstop and played there a couple of times, but mostly served as the backup second baseman.
Williams Calderon played all four infield positions and was one of the few third-year players on the team. He put up a .781 OPS, which is very good for the league, but it was based more on him being one of the older players and not so much him turning into a potential prospect. Rookie Matthew Mercedes was signed as a third baseman, then spent the season platooning at first base with Paulino, who saw the majority of the time. Mercedes finished strong and showed some pop in his bat, but he still has work to do at the level and should see more time next season.
The outfield was crowded with seven players seeing time. That logjam was “helped” a little by injuries making it possible to get more time for certain players. We start with Jean Eusebio, who at $550,000 was the biggest signing for the Pirates since 2012 on the international side. At 16 years old for almost the entire season, he was also one of the youngest players in the league. He was just nine days older than the league minimum, so it’s possible he was the youngest. Eusebio had an impressive Spring Training and I was able to view many of his at-bats, which showed a strong approach, ability to go the other way with power and impressive speed on the bases.
Eusebio’s .583 OPS during the season doesn’t tell half of the story with him. The tools are there for him to be a five-tool player, who covers center field. He walked 35 times in 50 games and went 13-for-15 in steals. He also had a few minor injuries, which cost him some time. Eusebio wasn’t over-matched in the league and he’s a case where you have to look past the OPS and rely on the reports of his defense, speed, approach at the plate and the fact that he was extremely young, plus had success during Spring Training. That means a lot more than success in MLB Spring Training, because in the Dominican, you’re facing the same players you’ll see during the season, so it’s closer to an extension of the season. Eusebio will be one of the top players to watch on the 2018 GCL Pirates.
The other big first-year prospect going into the season was Pedro Castillo and unlike Eusebio, he was over-matched at times, including a poor performance during Spring Training. Castillo missed some time with a quad injury, which along with the struggles, limited him to 37 games. His .562 OPS tells a much better story than the low OPS with Eusebio. Castillo is a 17-year-old, with a solid 6’2″ frame and a nice lefty swing, so he’s a possible breakout player next year in the DSL. He isn’t a potential five-tool player though, with most of his value in his bat, so he will need to hit.
Larry Alcime was a potential breakout returning player like Inoa and Apostel, and while the reports indicated that he showed some improvements, that didn’t translate into stats. He had a few injuries during the season, including a hamstring tightness due to dehydration and a shin injury from a foul ball. He also ended the season with a scary injury, getting hit in the face with a pitch, which required a hospital stay and a visit to Pittsburgh to get checked out. There is potential in the bat, but the improvements this season were minimal at best.
Carlos Garcia really struggled last year as one of the younger players on the team. The 18-year-old lefty didn’t get off to a strong start this season either, but his .813 OPS in August earned him a trip to Bradenton for instructs. He’s another bat only prospect, so you hope that the final month is a sign of things to come. He did a great job cutting down on his strikeouts, while showing a little more power than last year.
At 21 years old and 5’7″, 167 pounds, Emison Soto was one of the oldest players on the team and one of the smallest. He was also a rookie who signed for $10,000 last July, so there weren’t many expectations. He put up a solid all-around season on offense and defense, while posting a very impressive 36:13 BB/SO ratio in 54 games. Soto was an FIL invite and the type of player who should be able to skip right to Bristol, which would help his prospect case.
John Lantigua saw limited time due to a leg injury at the end of spring and the 20-year-old struggled with a low average and no extra-base hits in 105 plate appearances. He was an FIL invite, but appears to be more of a case of making room for newer players rather than him earning the spot. Rayvi Rodriguez was the clear seventh outfielder, seeing most of his time off of the best as a pinch-runner, who stayed in the game on defense. He didn’t collect a single hit after July 24th (season ended August 26th), but his speed and defense at all three spots made him a valuable bench player late in games. That doesn’t translate well to being a prospect though, not at 19 years old in the DSL.
Very Little Experience Among the Pitchers
The DSL Pirates used 19 players during the season. I’ll briefly mention the two who left early in the season, before getting to the 17 others who spent the entire year in the DSL. Both Samuel Reyes and Angel Vasquez were promoted to the GCL to help fill innings. Reyes is the younger brother of prospect Pablo Reyes, and he’s a possible sleeper prospect. He can hit 96 MPH and has control over five pitches. He will be covered more in the GCL recap because he pitched just five games in the DSL before moving up. Vasquez also moved up after five games, though he had a slightly late start to the season due to missing all of 2016 with Tommy John surgery. He has a plus curveball and solid command, but he’s also 23 years old.
The top 11 pitchers in innings pitched for the DSL Pirates all got invites to the FIL. Those invites usually indicate that the player will go to Spring Training in Bradenton the following season, so the 2018 DSL Pirates are going to be a young pitching staff again. The leader in innings was 18-year-old lefty Jose Marcano. He went from 6’1″, 180 after signing in July 2016, to 6’2″, 195 pounds. He has strong fastball command for a young player and excellent stamina on the mound. Marcano’s best pitch is his curve. He put up solid results across the board, doing a good job of keeping runners off the bases. One poor outing at the end of the season really skewed his stats, raising his ERA nearly a run.
Noe Toribio didn’t put up the best pitching stats, but he’s probably the best prospect on the pitching staff. He finished the season very strong, going from a 6.00 ERA through eight starts, to 4.13 at the end. Toribio was hurt by control issues. He sits 91-92 MPH and has topped out at 97 reportedly, although he didn’t get near that during the season. He holds his velocity well and has a nice curve/change combo to go along with his fastball. Toribio also filled out his 6’2″ frame a little and he just turned 18 years old, so he’s got more projection there.
Oliver Garcia was the best pitcher for the DSL Pirates before getting injured late in the year. His improvements over when he first signed were huge this season. He was a scrawny 6’3″ project, who threw high-80s back in 2015. He added 46 pounds over two years, which sounds bad, but I’ve seen the before/after pictures and he filled out nicely, looking like a solid frame now at 19 years old. He also added to that fastball, kicking it up to 92-93 MPH, while improving his slider and his changeup. Garcia was not on the prospect radar at the end of last year, but it looks like proper conditioning turned him into a potential prospect.
Santiago Florez remained in the rotation all season despite some poor results, especially with 38 walks in 53.1 innings. It’s easy to see why they stuck with him all season. He’s 6’6″, 223 pounds, with room to fill out and he turned 17 in May. He was hitting 92 MPH with a sinker that was tough to square up. He was clearly his own worst enemy, but you’re talking about a very young pitcher with a huge frame and solid velocity at a young age. That’s a great starting point.
Early in the season, Luis Arrieta was working shorter outings, but the reports I got said that he could be headed for longer outings and some starts. His last four outings were starts and he went six innings in the final game, something that didn’t happen on the DSL Pirates for many years until they loosened the reins a little and let pitchers go longer if they limited their pitches early in games. Arrieta put up a 2.56 ERA and a .202 BAA, but he did it mostly by commanding a fastball that hit 92 MPH. Sometimes all you need in the DSL is strong command to have success, although a starter who touches 92 with command at the level is a nice foundation to build upon. Arrieta is 18 years old, with a projectable 6’2″ frame. He needs to improve his off-speed pitches before we get too excited by the results.
Osvaldo Bido was signed at 21 years old this February. He had an odd season in the Dominican, looking strong in Spring Training and finishing strong during the season, but pitching very poorly in between. Eight games into his pro career, he had a 7.13 ERA and a very high walk total, which led to the Pirates giving him a short break from the rotation. It seemed to help Bido, who cut his ERA in half during the second half of the season. He didn’t improve the control issues really, but we are talking about a player who hits 95 MPH as a starter and has a projectable 6’3″ frame, so there are reasons to not write off a bad rookie season so quickly.
Pablo Santana held batters to a .201 average and posted a 1.15 WHIP in 40 innings thanks to a nice three-pitch mix. The 18-year-old righty, stands 6’1″, 186 pounds. His fastball sits at 90 MPH, and he mixes it with one of the best curveballs on the team, along with a solid changeup. He wasn’t one of the bigger signings on the pitching side last July, but he put up some of the best results.
Francis Del Orbe turns 19 next month. He put up solid results in his rookie season with a 2.43 ERA, 1.46 GO/AO ratio and 33 strikeouts in 29.2 innings. It’s slightly misleading, because he had a 1.42 WHIP and allowed more unearned runs than earned runs, so he had trouble backing up his team after miscues. He had success with a plus slider, though he doesn’t throw hard. He’s got a 6’4″ frame with plenty of room to fill out, so there could be more velocity coming to help back up that slider with a second solid offering.
Kleiner Machado showed solid improvements in his biggest area of weakness, cutting his walk rate to an acceptable level. He has a nice three-pitch mix, but no pitches with plus potential. He’s small for a Pirates pitcher at 5’10”, 169 pounds. There’s limited upside here, but he at least showed improvements and got an FIL invite.
Wilmer Contreras had some success on the mound this year in his third season of DSL ball. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, which can work in the DSL, since there aren’t a ton of home runs hit. In fact, Contreras hasn’t allowed a single homer in his last two seasons. Batters have hit just .195 against him the last two seasons and he has a solid 6’4″, 213 frame. There are things to like, but a low strikeout total this season and the high fly ball rate, don’t scream future success for the 19-year-old.
Julio Rosario was in the Opening Day starting rotation, which didn’t last long due to very poor control. He improved his control late in the season as a reliever, but still ended up with 26 walks and four hit batters in 24.1 innings. The Pirates gave him a six-figure bonus last July and he looked decent during the spring, but that quickly went away. He hits low-90s, has the makings of a nice slider and has a projectable 6’2″ frame (turned 18 in June), so you can’t totally write him off yet.
The Pirates really liked 6’3″ lefty Randy Jimenez when they signed him in June of 2015 for $100,000, saying he had a lot of upside. He has flashed that upside occasionally, but mostly he has just been very wild, with 43 walks in 43.1 career innings. They keep using him because of a strong curve and decent velocity, but the fact that his control hasn’t improved at all in two seasons is a bad sign.
Julio Gonzalez didn’t see much mound time for the second straight season despite solid results. He began his career as a catcher before moving to third base during his 2015 rookie season. He could not hit, so he took his strong arm to the mound, where he relies on a 90 MPH fastball for results. Gonzalez will likely return next season to the DSL as a fourth-year player, which is never a good sign.
Saul de la Cruz spent his first two season with the Pirates injured. He had Tommy John surgery after trying rehab first. At 19 years old now, he made his debut in early June and had some nice results, albeit with too many walks. He held batters to a .209 average and had a 1.75 GO/AO ratio. He also had 35 strikeouts in 36 innings. They say command is the last thing to return after Tommy John surgery, so you can give de la Cruz some leeway on the walks. He was an invite to the FIL.
Luis Diaz was signed in 2015, but immediately got hurt (shoulder) and didn’t pitch until late in the season this year. When he did pitch, he struggled badly each time. The lefty was intriguing when he signed due to the fact that he added a lot of velocity (10+ MPH) while the Pirates were keeping tabs on him, but the injury has derailed him for quite some time now.
Yerry De Los Santos missed all of 2016 with a shoulder injury. In 2014, he was signed for $100,000 and spent the 2015 season in the DSL rotation. The results were not good. He threw high-80s and would often work in the middle of the plate to avoid walks, which led to a lot of hits and very few strikeouts. He returned this season and had some solid results in limited relief work, but was shutdown in July and didn’t pitch again. De Los Santos wasn’t an FIL invite, so that’s not a good sign with how many players they brought over.
Angel Martinez has issues staying healthy. In two seasons, the 20-year-old southpaw has thrown 15.1 innings. He sits high-80s, so that isn’t exciting, but he has a nice curve/change combo, with above average control, so there is some potential. He was an FIL invite.
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
1. Jean Eusebio
2. Sherten Apostel
3. Francisco Acuna
4. Samuel Inoa
5. Noe Toribio
6. Samuel Reyes
7. Oliver Garcia
8. Santiago Florez
9. Pedro Castillo
10. Luis Arrieta
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical order): Larry Alcime, Osvaldo Bido, Carlos Garcia, Jose Marcano, Ronaldo Paulino