We plan to have an article dedicated to the international side each Sunday throughout the season. So until the Dominican Summer League begins play on June 2nd, we will look at recaps of the previous international signing classes and see where they currently stand.
Today we look at the progress of the 2012-13 signing class. If you missed it last week, we looked at the 2013-14 class, which has produced an MLB player already and more could be on the way. Before that was the 2014-15 class, which has a few pitching prospect and not much else. The week before was the 2015-16 class, which looks like it could have some solid prospects in the early stages. Prior to that, we went over the very early results from the 2016-17 class. We also looked at the 2017-18 signing class during the previous week.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had a $2,900,000 bonus pool in 2012-13. That was their highest bonus pool until this current one, when MLB corrected a broken system that rewarded the pools based on win-loss records and punished the Pirates for their three playoff seasons.
The Pirates decided to put nearly half of their 2012-13 bonus pool into two players and the decision failed to pay off. Both Michael de la Cruz and Julio de la Cruz received $700,000 to sign. They didn’t work out as planned.
Michael de la Cruz had potential star written all over him, but his career got derailed. He’s still in the system, but is far from a prospect at this point. He put up terrific numbers in the DSL in 2013, but more importantly, he looked the part of a future star to those who saw him daily.
He didn’t hit for power then, but he had a frame he could add plenty of muscle to in the future. Michael de la Cruz had plus speed, terrific plate patience and he had a line drive stroke, using the entire field. He covered a lot of ground in center field and had a strong arm. Unfortunately, the Pirates probably brought him to the U.S. before he was mentally ready, even though the tools screamed prospect.
De la Cruz had a lot of things go wrong as a 17-year-old at Pirate City, between a bad leg rash that benched him for awhile, then an ankle injury, which he tried to play through and then made it worse. All of that built up to a young kid away from home for the first time in a foreign country and he became homesick. It was a lost season, but it got worse from there.
Already a skinny kid, de la Cruz needed to add muscle over the off-season in 2014-15, but he treated winter like a party back at home and came back ten pounds lighter. They say that you never know how young players will react to life-changing money and he was one of the bad examples of what could go wrong. He bounced back with a solid season in 2015 repeating the GCL, then had a tough time in Bristol in 2016 and was injured for much of last year. As I said, he’s still around, but not a prospect.
Julio de la Cruz is a different story. He wasn’t a toolsy player like Michael. Instead, the Pirates saw a lot of potential in the bat. He was a poor fielding third baseman with no speed, but he had raw power. Almost a full year older than Michael, Julio never played the part of a prospect, at least not on paper. He is no longer in the system after topping out at Morgantown last year. Julio de la Cruz posted a .601 OPS in five seasons, which is not what you want to see from someone who added negative defensive/base running value.
The only reason the Pirates kept him around for five seasons is that he was an Extended Spring Training superstar by all accounts. For three years in a row, we received great reports about his hitting and for three years in a row, the lights went off when the regular season started. It’s odd, because he was basically facing the same level of competition, so not much changed.
The next highest bonus was given to catcher Yoel Gonzalez, who received $350,000 to sign. He’s still in the system too and was surprisingly left back in Extended Spring Training this year after playing well at the end of last season in West Virginia. It looked like the 21-year-old could be taking the next step, but this season is quite the setback for him. His defense has always been his strong point. The bat was much better last year though, so that likely didn’t carry over into this spring.
The signing of third baseman Jhoan Herrera came about quietly, but he ended up receiving a $300,000 bonus. The Pirates liked the power potential in his lefty swing. He has had two bad injuries during his career, missing much of 2014 with an ankle injury and much of last year with a leg injury. He’s still around at Pirate City right now, where he is hitting the ball well, albeit at age 23. He has shown signs of a nice bat when healthy and you do need to give him some credit for lost time, but the fact that he isn’t with a full-season club yet isn’t a good sign.
The Pirates then went to Australia for a talented young shortstop in Sam Kennelly. The 16-year-old signed for a $225,000 bonus. He came from a baseball family, with three older brothers who played pro ball and two of them made it to the upper levels. People who saw all four growing up, said Sam was the best of the group.
For some unknown reason, Sam Kennelly peaked in talent at age 18, and unlike Michael de la Cruz, it wasn’t for a lack of effort. He played winter ball in Australia every year and played international and local tournaments between his time with the Pirates and winter ball. He played a lot of baseball and was athletic enough to handle all four infield spots. He’s a really hard case to figure out because he topped out at Bristol, and didn’t even do well there. He didn’t have any significant injuries either, just somehow peaked at 18 despite tons of baseball talent and athleticism.
Shortstop Johan de Jesus looked awful in two seasons in the DSL, then was suspended for all of 2015 for PED use. The Pirates brought him to the GCL in 2016, mostly because they were short on players until the draft picks started to sign and fill out the roster. He played for Bristol last year, but he has never shown any indication as to why he received a $200,000 bonus. De Jesus is still in the system down at Extended Spring Training, but don’t expect him to be anything more than a roster filler for one of the three short-season teams if he makes it that far.
Between those six players, the Pirates spent all but $425,000 of their bonus pool and you have four players in Extended Spring Training right now, two with no potential for success.
The best signing from this year ended up being Dario Agrazal, who is currently on the 40-man roster. He was highly-touted in his native Panama and had coaching from his famous father, who was a star pitcher for many years in the country. Agrazal is dominating in Altoona this year (leads the league in ERA and WHIP) and throwing about 5-6 MPH harder than he did back in the DSL. He needs his strikeouts from last year to return before he jumps in the prospect rankings, but the early Double-A results are outstanding.
Hector Garcia was a talented lefty, who made our top 50 prospects list after his 2014 season in Bristol, then had Tommy John surgery. He did not recover well from that surgery, both in how quickly he returned and his talent. He was injured again last year, then released. Garcia skipped over the GCL and pitched well at a young age, so it was extremely disappointing to see him get injured the next year and have setbacks during his recovery. The added arm injury last year signaled the end.
The only other signing that was announced during this time-frame was Australian pitcher Nick Hutchings. He is no longer in the system after topping out at Bristol. His release was slightly odd timing. While he was at Bristol and not really pitching well, he was still developing as a pitcher, throwing his hardest right before being released. His bonus was never announced, but was likely a somewhat small amount. He signed at 16 and had other teams interested, so I’m guessing it was mid five figures.
Outfielder Alexis Bastardo wasn’t announced, but he looked like a hidden gem and probably received a decent five figure bonus. He played well in the DSL and showed off a lot of tools in 2013, then moved to the U.S. and was sidetracked by a shoulder injury. Unfortunately for the Pirates, he had a lot of off-field issues (mostly coming up after his shoulder injury) that eventually led to his release last year.
Outfielder Sandy Santos had five tool potential, tons of athleticism and an absolutely horrible baseball IQ. He could hit for power, run well, play center field and had a rifle for an arm, but made mistakes regularly, usually from trying to be too aggressive or trying to show off his arm. Easily the most frustrating player the Pirates have had recently, he was released after last season. Santos should have been much better.
Rudy Guzman was another five tool potential outfielder. It’s tough to say the Pirates missed on this one because he was never allowed to come to the U.S. due to identification issues. He could never get a visa to come here, but the reports I got from the Dominican (keeping in mind that he claimed to be 22 at the time) said that he was easily the most talented player there. That’s with Michael de la Cruz getting nothing but highly positive reviews from everyone I talked to that year.
As for other signings with that small remaining bonus pool, catcher Ramy Perez spent four seasons in the DSL. Edgar Figueroa showed off some solid tools as an 18-year-old rookie in the DSL in 2013, then jumped to Bristol the following year. After two seasons there, he was released.
Young lefty pitcher Jose Batista looked to have lots of potential, but he lasted just three seasons, despite solid stats. Mexican pitcher Jherson Esqueda joined his brother Carlos with the DSL Pirates in 2013 and pitched well over three seasons in the DSL, but he had injury issues and never made it to the States. Luis Brun was a small pitcher from Colombia, who never made it to the U.S. due to major control issues. Horelbin Ramos showed potential, then skipped out on the Pirates when he made it to the U.S., taking a job in a restaurant and never playing again.
Jandy Vasquez was a starter in 2013, then never pitched again after an arm injury. He didn’t put up great stats, but he started over some better arms, so the Pirates saw potential. Delvin Hiciano failed a drug test and was suspended shortly after he started pitching, then had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and was released shortly after his return. Jesus Perez was injured in 2013, couldn’t throw strikes in 2014 and was the first player gone from this signing class. Jonathan Minier signed at age 23 and made it up to Morgantown within two years, but was released in 2015.
Out of 22 players signed, just five are still in the system and that number could drop once draft picks start to sign and short-season rosters are filled. The Pirates missed on all of their big signings, but may get something nice out of Dario Agrazal. He would have to be pretty good to ignore how bad the rest of this signing class turned out. They stocked up on toolsy outfielders, which is a smart approach and won’t usually turn out this poorly.