The Pittsburgh Pirates made Dominican outfielder Jean Eusebio their biggest international signing of the 2016-17 signing period. Since the Pirates finished the 2015 season with the second best record in baseball, that meant their bonus pool for the 2016-17 signing period was the second lowest in all of baseball. At a $550,000 bonus, Eusebio took up nearly 30% on their entire bonus pool. He didn’t put up the best stats in his first year of pro ball, but he showed why the Pirates were heavily interested in him.
Most of the best players during each international signing period end up signing on July 2nd, which is the first day 16-year-old players can sign each year. Eusebio was only 15 years old on July 2, 2016, still 51 days away from his birthday, so he wasn’t eligible to sign. Ben Badler from Baseball America noted that the Pirates were favorites to sign him once he turned 16, but there was a wait. We reported here that he signed in February, although Eusebio told us that day that there was never any doubt he would sign with the Pirates, so the delay was nothing more than the two sides waiting slightly longer to finalize the deal.
With an August 22, 2000 birthday, Eusebio was one of the youngest players in the entire 42-team Dominican Summer League. The signing cutoff for 16-year-old players each year is August 31st, meaning anyone turning 16 after that date has to wait until the next signing period to sign. I didn’t check the entire league, so he may have actually been the youngest, but you can say without a doubt that no one was more than nine days younger than him this season.
Most July 2nd signings play in the Tricky League their first year. It’s a league designed for newly signed players, many of whom are signed for the following season, so they can’t play in the DSL their first year. It’s basically a minor league version of the DSL. That league runs at the same time as the DSL season, ending in late August, and it’s played on the backfields while the regular games are going on. From there, the players return to the Dominican Academy in October for six weeks of the Dominican Fall Instructional League.
Since Eusebio signed in February, he didn’t go through the same beginning process as all of the July 2nd signings. He did spend some time at the Pirates Dominican Academy before signing, but his winter was spent playing in a prospect league in the Dominican for unsigned kids between 16 and 18 years old. He was one of the best hitters in the league, posting a .926 OPS and he led the league with 45 games played. So despite missing those first couple steps, Eusebio was still busy playing regularly and against competition that wouldn’t be far off what he would have faced if he signed on his birthday.
Eusebio reported to Spring Training in the Dominican at the beginning of April. Once the games began, I was able to get video of many of his at-bats and came away impressed. The video was from a still camera placed in straight away center field so it limited what you could view, but I was able to see that he used the entire field, drove the ball the opposite way with authority and displayed impressive speed on the bases. The reports from others I talked to down there were equally impressive. While all of the videos on Eusebio were his at-bats, what I wasn’t seeing was the solid defense in center field and the strong arm that he displayed.
Once the season began, Eusebio got off to a slow start. It took some time for him to adjust to the better pitching he was seeing and the way pitchers were working him.
“One day you got a guy throwing 94 MPH,” Eusebio said about the competition in the DSL. “The next day you got a lefty pitcher throwing 86 and nasty changeup. You have to make a big adjustment.”
He also noted that early on he was surprised by the pitch selection in pro ball. By all accounts, Eusebio did a great job of working the count, but he was used to seeing a fastball every time he got to a 3-2 count and he could sit on that pitch. Once he got to pro ball, he quickly learned that the pitchers in the Dominican weren’t afraid to throw curveballs on 3-2 and that’s something he had to adjust to in a hurry.
The plate patience is something you don’t see often down in the Dominican. The Pirates as a team did an outstanding job of drawing walks and Eusebio was one of the better ones. They draw 402 walks total, which was so far ahead of second place than Eusebio could have had zero walks and the Pirates still would have led the league. As it was, he drew 35 walks, but also struck out 42 times in 217 plate appearances. Eusebio mentioned that the walks (and strikeouts) came from his approach at the plate.
“When I go to home plate I’m looking for my pitch in my zone,” Eusebio said. “If you don’t throw me it there, I don’t swing.”
That’s an approach we have seen from players like Max Moroff and Mitchell Tolman recently. It’s rare to see such a young player take that same approach. Mason Martin, a 2017 draft pick out of high school, was very patient as well, sometimes to a fault. It’s something that took Moroff until Double-A to change, becoming more aggressive with pitches early in the count. The higher you go in the system, the more often pitchers will expose that style and get the hitters behind in the count early, putting the pitchers in control. Eusebio may have to expand his strike zone late or be more aggressive early, but that type of plate patience is so hard to find at a young age, that right now it’s more of a tool than a flaw.
Eusebio finished with a .191/.330/.253 slash line over 50 games in the pitcher-friendly DSL. The average and slugging were low for the league, but thanks to the walks, he was just six points below the league average OBP. Once he got on base, Eusebio was a threat to run all of the time. One of the big things as far as progress that he took away from this season was getting better jumps. He noted that some teams down in the Dominican throw over often and others don’t, while many teams have pitchers go to a slide step to quicken up their delivery towards home plate. Eusebio went 13-for-15 in steals and plans to take what he learned this season to help him run more often, while maintaining a high success rate.
That speed also helped in the outfield, where he was the starting center fielder for the DSL Pirates. He got high marks for first step quickness, as well as the range he showed. Eusebio noted that his biggest outfield weakness was getting reads off the bat. His speed made up for some mistakes early, but he got better as the season went along. He also displayed a strong arm, picking up four assists. There’s room for improvements in that area, including accuracy and when to make certain throws, but try to find a 17-year-old who doesn’t have room for improvements on defense.
Eusebio followed up his rookie season with a trip to the Fall Instructional League in Bradenton. Like every other player I have talked to about instructs, he mentioned how much he learned in a short time. The Pirates did a lot of work on the mental side of the game, with every player noting that they were able to take what they learned there and apply it to game situations.
“They pushed us to show us we can give more than we have,” Eusebio said of the mental training. ” Instructs were very good for me because I learned so much.”
Now that he is in the off-season, the goal for Eusebio is to add more muscle. That’s likely going to be an off-season target area for him for awhile because he just turned 17 in late August. He’s list at 6’1″, 170 pounds, but has put on ten pounds already. There is still plenty of room to fill out, which will help him add power to his game. He hit seven doubles, two triples and no homers this season in the DSL. I’d expect much more from him as he fills out and matures. He has a quick swing and drives the ball well already, plus his plate patience should allow him to do damage to pitches in his zone and avoid weak contact. He’s still going to look to get on base first, but the power will be there.
I talked to Edgar Varela, who is the Latin American Hitting Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at length about Eusebio and his hitting. He gave a long answer, which I left together here as one quote.
“He has a good idea at the plate of what he’s looking to hit,” Varela said of Eusebio. “Surprising for a 16-year-old to be aggressive but selective at the same time. Rarely did I see him swing at pitches out of the zone. As he matures with the league, where they throw more strikes as well, he will attack what he’s looking for early in counts. Has some feel for using the big part of the field as well, which is tough for younger player due to lack of strength or simply experience. Usually maturity level is ‘I want to pull everything’, but he showed different. Very mature for his age. A tremendous and hungry young man ready to learn and compete.”
Eusebio is a very toolsy player with five-tool potential and youth on his side. He’s got a strong frame and already does a lot of things right on the field, from base running, to center field defense to displaying advance patience at the plate. He’s in the same mold as Lolo Sanchez, who had a breakout season this year in the GCL after a so-so rookie season in the DSL. Eusebio knows Sanchez well and has referred to him multiple times as a big brother type. The potential for Eusebio to follow in Sanchez’s footsteps is there, which could plant him firmly on the prospect map by this time next year.