Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Breaking Down the International Signing Period

At 16yo, Mateo has already been a baseball hero in the streets of the Dominican for a number of years

A day that passes in relative obscurity by all but those that are the die hardest of the prospect watchers, Thursday will signify the beginning of the International signing period in Major League baseball. This is that period where millions of dollars will be shipped from the shores of the U.S. to the families and buscones of 16yo boys in tiny Latin American countries.

This year, the talent of crop may be the deepest ever. While last July left us with perhaps 6-9 players that would have been worthy of being selected in the first two rounds of that June’s Amateur draft, this year there are more than double that number with the requisite skills. More significantly, while last year’s talent was headed by two pitchers, this year, the top 7 to 8 players are position players, which should help supplement what was a weak position player draft. Not only is this group deep in talent, but the top two names available are likely the best hitting talents to come out of Latin America since at least 2007 when the Giants signed Angel Villalona and the Yankees grabbed Jesus Montero, but Miguel Sano could quite possibly be the best 16yo signed since the Marlins grabbed Miguel Cabrera a decade ago.

A couple of notes about the list, first a special thank you to Kiley McDaniel at Baseball Prospectus who has made video of many of the top players available from his recent trip to the Dominican Republic. Second, keep in mind that we adhere to a couple of philosophies about the International talent market: 1) While hitters are safer bets than pitchers, hitters with advanced control of the strike zone are safer bets than those that are free swinging power hitters, and we therefore place a premium on them. 2) We are evaluating 16yos. They have the potential to change physically in significant fashion, so projecting their eventual size and therefore eventual defensive position becomes difficult. We therefore place premiums on players we feel have the requisite defensive skills to stay in the middle of the diamond, while discounting those players that are already locked into a corner OF or 1B position. Our experience from watching this market for more than a dozen years has taught us that certainty yields better results than ceiling when assessing this talent. These conclusions have allowed us to favor players like Kelvin DeLeon, Jefry Marte and Eduardo Sosa over Michael Almanzar in 2007 and Julio Morban over Yorman and Rafael Rodriguez last year.

The following list consists of the players that we feel are talented enough to have been selected in the first two rounds of the June draft had they been available, along with the approximate position that we feel they would have been selected.

1) Miguel Sano, SS/3B, Dominican Republic (Top 10 pick) – Sano is still dealing with some age verification requirements that may drag out his actual signing, but, provided everything checks out, he is the best talent available since 1999. At 6’3”, 190lbs he is expected to outgrow SS and end up at either 3B or RF, but he can flat out rake, showing the best control of the strikezone by a 16yo Latin American talent in recent memory. The Pirates would have made him their pick at #4 if he was in June’s draft, and most clubs would have taken him in the Top 10.

2) Wagner Mateo, CF, Dominican Republic (Top 10) – Only a notch behind Sano, Mateo has been somewhat of a ‘folk’ hero in the Dominican where his advanced skills are the subject of lore. More power and more speed than Sano, Mateo is one of those ‘toolsy’ type players that are loaded with projection. For my money, he is a better 16yo talent than any previous player since Fernando Martinez in 2005. Mateo has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Cardinals.

3) Guillermo Pimentel, LF, Dominican Republic (Top 20) – Pimentel could have possibly challenged the top 2 names on this list, but nagging injuries have kept him under the radar for the last few months. Pimentel possesses a smooth stroke that produce substantial raw power, and leaves little concern for his ability to hit. A minus arm and only average speed though will likely leave him in leftfield and hence he ranks third on this list.

4) Jose Vinicio, SS, Dominican Republic (1st round) – One of the few Latin American talents that both projects to stay at SS and possesses plus hitting skills. Vinicio is likely to end up with 15-20 home run power as a switch hitting shortstop with above average speed. His is considered a better SS prospect than either Carlos Triunfel or Wilmer Flores were when they came out.

5) Gary Sanchez, C, Dominican Republic (1st round) – I almost typed New York Yankees when I was putting in the country of Origin, because Sanchez has been tied to the Yankees seemingly forever. Unlike Jesus Montero, Sanchez is expected to potentially remain at Catcher for the long-haul. He is renowned for his batting practice displays, but many teams seem wary of whether those skills transfer well to game environments. He has as much upside as perhaps any on this list, but a few more questions than most.

6) Jose Pena, RF, Domincan Republic (1st round) – Pena has enough talent that would have likely gotten him selected in the first round in June. I like Pena perhaps more than most for a couple of reasons: 1) He is likely the most advanced hitter outside of Sano and 2) He is the only one of the top Latin American prospects that remains in school, which validates the stories on his exceptional make-up. At 6’4, 195lb, Pena could easily develop into the best power hitter in this class.

7) Jean Carlos Batista, SS, Dominican Republic (Top 50) – Batista is another of those that we are a little higher on than most. A true switch-hitting shortstop, with tremendous athleticism, Batista possesses the combination of hitting and fielding ability that was rare in this past June’s draft. We like him very similarly to, and would rate him only slightly below, Jiovani Mier who was selected 21st overall.

8) Juan Urbina, LHP, Venezuela (Top 50) – Unlike last year when Michel Ynoa and Adys Portillo were the top two International talents, this year Urbina is the top pitcher on this list at #8. Personally I feel that it is an up year for hitters, moreso than a down year for pitchers, but Urbina is a sizeable notch below Ynoa and Portillo. A projectable, 6’2”, left-hander, Urbina already throws a low 90s fastball, a solid breaking ball, and shows excellent command and feel for both.

9) Rossel Herrera, SS/OF, Dominican Republic (Top 50) – Already at 6’4’, 180lbs, it seems unlikely that Herrera won’t eventually move off of SS and the best guess at the moment is that he will take his plus arm and solid speed to CF or RF. Herrera is tremendously athletic, and while he looks to have a decent bat, there are concerns about the holes in his swing.

10) Noel Arguelles, LHP, Cuba (Top 50) – Arguelles doesn’t really fit as he is a 19yo Cuban exile who has spent the past year in the Domincan and is already signable. Nonetheless it seemed like a good spot to talk about him. He possesses a low 90’s fastball with an advanced feel for pitching and could easily step into some team’s AA rotation.

11) Chesler Cuthbart, 3B, Nicaragua (Top 50) – Cuthbart is likely the best position prospect to come out of Nicaragua since…I don’t know since who. There have only been three Nicaraguan Major League players since 1999 and none (Devern Hansack, Evereth Cabrera & Vincente Padilla) were significant talents. Cuthbart has a body that reminds people of Andre Dawson, but a stiffness in his swing that causes significant concern. The good news is that there are few questions as to whether or not he can stay at 3B.

12) Jurrickson Profar, SS/RHP, Venezuela (2nd Round) – Personally I’d avoid Profar like the plague, but someone is likely to give him a high six-figure bonus. He has more talent as a pitcher than a position player, yet is insisting on playing SS with whomever he signs. As a RHP he’d be a top 10 talent, as a SS he wouldn’t make this list.

13) Luis Jolly, LF, Domincan Republic (2nd Round) – His deficiencies are in the field, but his bat looks worthy of someone taking a chance on him and hoping that he develops enough power to become an everyday LF.

14) Jacob Beltre, 1B, Dominican Republic (2nd Round) – Arguably the best power hitter on this list, Beltre is a behemoth at 6’5”, 210lbs, and seems relegated to 1B. There is a lot to like with his bat, but huge concerns about his agility and will come with significant risk.

15) Edgar Ferrera, LHP, Dominican Republic (2nd Round) – Ferrera is the best Dominican arm available, touching the mid-90s with his fastball. Still much more of a thrower than a pitcher at this stage, he will be signed off of projectability.

16) Santo Luis Aybar, SS/3B, Dominican Republic (2nd Round) – A typical 16yo Latin American prospect, Aybar has some skills, a lot of projection and a lot of flaws. His approach to defense will make a move to 3B or OF likely.

17) Jose Iglesias, SS, Cuba (2nd round) – The other 19yo, that defected with Arguelles, Iglesias appears to be a talent with similar upside to Yuniesky Betancourt.

18) David Perez, RHP, Dominican Republic (2nd Round) – Perez has a fastball that sits in the high 80’s, with a respectable curve and changeup. He is more polished than most latin American prospects.

19) Victor Payano, LHP, Dominican Republic (2nd Round) – Payano throws a high 80’s fastball and has potentially four pitches in his arsenal. Like Perez, he is more polished at this stage than the typical 16yo Latin pitcher.

20) Wilfredo Solano, 3B, Venezuela (2nd Round) – To me, Solano looks like he has a bat that will play at 3B. While he is not tremendously athletic, the skill set appears more certain than many on this list.

Other Players of Note: Rafael DePaula, RHP, Dominican Republic – DePaula was supposed to be one of the top arms available, but is currently suspended by MLB for age related issues. There is a rumor that this may be straightened out and that he will be allowed to sign this year. With a low- to mid-90s fastball, watch for this if it should happen; Daniel Sanchez,RHP, Venezuela – Sanchez has significant questions regarding his true age and so therefore is really difficult to assess. He did appear at a recent Perfect Game Showcase event here in the states and appears to have the requisite skills ; Max Kepler, CF, Germany – May be the best prospect signed out of Germany ever.

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