In addition to the draft, many teams scour Latin America to acquire and stock talent in their system. While the National League West doesn’t have a huge reputation amongst baseball circles in terms of influence in Latin America (the AL East and AL West have been far more active as of late), there still is a plethora of Latin talent that resides in NL West organizations.
In order to be fair, I am going to take a look at the position prospects first and then pitching prospects in another post. So, here are the Top-Five Latin American position prospects in the NL West that baseball fans should be paying attention to in 2012. At the end, I will give each of the prospects a letter grade, which follows a very similar system to what John Sickels does at Minor League Ball.
Highest Level played: High-A (California League)
Summary: Liriano is the most decorated Latin position prospect from the NL West, as he was rated the 48th prospect in the Top-100 on this site, 48th best prospect according to Baseball America and 71st best prospect according to the Minor League Baseball Analyst. The accolades are all merited, as Liriano projects as an athletic outfielder with strong five-tool potential.
From the Dominican Republic and signed by the Padres in 2007, Liriano is a physical specimen at six-foot, 230 pounds. Despite his linebacker size, he sports tremendous speed both on the base paths and field. Last year, in the Midwest League, he swiped 65 bases on 85 attempts (a 76 percent success rate). The speed wasn’t a fluke, as he did steal 33 bases total amongst campaigns in the Northwest, Midwest and California League in his first full season stateside in 2010.
Furthermore, the athletic outfielder also shows exceptional range in the outfield, as many scouts project him to have the tools to be a starting Major League center fielder. However, he also has the arm strength to play multiple outfield positions, as Baseball America rated his arm strength as the best amongst outfielders in the Padres system.
Offensively, his power tool stands out the most of the bunch, as he flashed exceptional slugging and home run potential in 2011. His extra base hit percentage was 34 percent in Fort Wayne, and he also posted a .180 ISO and 12 home runs to boot. While the power is still raw, with his size and athleticism, Liriano certainly has the potential to be a 20-20 guy (and that’s minimum) at the Major League level.
The main concern with Liriano as a prospect may be his plate approach, as he hasn’t made consistent contact as a professional (he hasn’t hit the 80 percent mark in the minors). He struggled immensely in the California League to start the 2011 season, as he posted a .395 OPS in 55 at-bats with Lake Elsinore. While he does generate a decent amount of walks (his walk rate was nine percent in the MWL last year), he could afford to cut down the strikeouts a bit, though he has showed signs of making adjustments. Last year in Fort Wayne, he posted his best strikeout percentage as a professional at 18.3 percent (then again, it was his second go-around in the MWL). Prior to last year’s MWL campaign, Liriano hadn’t posted a strikeout percentage below 20 percent. If Liriano wants to bounce back in the California League this season after struggling a year ago, he has to show improvement with his eye at the plate. If his BB/K ratio improvement from 2010 is a sign of things to come though (he improved his BB/K ratio from 0.19 in the MWL to 0.49 in the MWL in 2011), then he should be on the right track, which makes Liriano’s ceiling even more enticing.
Liriano is a strong, athletic outfielder who sports a ton of potential as a player. His speed and arm strength are already plus tools, and his power could be a plus one as well considering his size and progression last year. I worry about his ability to make contact as he moves up the Padres system, but at 20 years old, he still has a lot of time to develop his approach at the plate.
Highest Level Played: Majors
Summary: Rosario will not be a prospect much longer, as he tore it up this Spring and earned the backup catcher’s position for the Rockies this upcoming season. That being said, while he will be a backup to start the year, Rosario has the potential to where he could be Rockies’ starter at some point as soon as this season, should the chips fall in the right place.
Rosario may have the best power tool set of any Latin position prospect in the NL West, as he has displayed big fly potential at every place he’s played at, Majors included (he hit three home runs in 54 at-bats with the Rockies last years). In Double-A Tulsa, Rosario’s power was evident, as he hit 21 home runs, and posted an ISO of .207 and extra base hit percentage of 39 percent in 405 at-bats in the Texas League. Amazingly, those power numbers were actually a regression from his 2010 stint in the TL, as he posted a .267 ISO and 43 percent extra base percentage in 207 at-bats the previous season in Tulsa.
Defensively, he projects well at the Major League level, as Rob Gordon of the Minor League Baseball Analyst noted that he had plus arm strength and a quick release. While Rosario is still far from a polished product behind the plate (Baseball America noted that he still has to work on blocking balls and moving laterally better), with his athleticism (he’s five-feet, 11-inches and 215 pounds) and at his age, he still has room and time to hone his defense and game-calling skills. The fact that he won’t be thrown into the fire so soon at the Major League level will help him in his defensive development.
The key to whether or not Rosario becomes an elite catcher or a mediocre one at the next level is his plate discipline, as he is a notorious free-swinger who strikes out often (354 career minor league strikeouts in 1,597 plate appearances) and walks rarely (101 walks). Scouts have noted that breaking balls have given him problems, and that was evident in his call up to the bigs last year, as he struck out 20 times (a 35.1 percent rate). If he can develop his eye at the plate and make more consistent contact, then he will have tremendous value because his arm strength and power are such plus tools. However, if he doesn’t show improvement, his ceiling may be that of a Miguel Olivo.
Rosario may be the second best catching prospect out of the NL West (I grade Yasmani Grandal of the Padres higher; and though Grandal is from Cuba, I don’t consider him a Latin prospect in this list because he played college ball at Miami; same goes for Yonder Alonso. Those guys would probably be on the list otherwise), and I think his power is legit. That being said, how he will adjust to Major League pitching will be huge for him this year. He struggled once pitchers adjusted to his free-swinging ways. If he can lay off the breaking stuff a little bit better in his second go-around with the Rockies, then Rosario could be a mainstay for the Rockies behind the plate very soon.
Highest Level Played: Double-A (Southern League)
Summary: Silverio has quietly climbed up the ladder in the Dodgers system, as he has showed good progress at the plate from Low-A to Double-A from 2009-2011. Though his transition stateside may have come later than the Dodgers probably expected (he signed as a 16 year old, and spent three seasons in the Dominican Summer League), Silverio is an enticing prospect who could be due for a call up at some point this year.
Offensively, Silverio flashes plus power potential, as he has hit 39 home runs in 363 games between Single-A and Double-A. Last year in Double-A Chattanooga was his best offensive performance yet, as he posted a slash of .306/.343/.542 in 533 at-bats as well as an extra base hit percentage of 47 percent and ISO of .236. He doesn’t sport the “home run” power potential of Rosario or perhaps even Liriano, but he does drive the ball and shows good gap-to-gap power, which would be invaluable considering the parks in the NL West. Additionally, he has displayed a strong ability to make contact at the plate, as he hasn’t posted a contact rate under 80 percent the past two years in campaigns in the Southern and California League (his contact rate was 83 percent last year and 84 and 81 percent in Inland Empire and Chattanooga, respectively).
With ample athleticism and good arm strength, the 24-year-old from the DR projects to be a solid right fielder at the Major League level (and with his power tool set, right field seems like a great fit). Scouts have also noted that he has good speed and range to cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Silverio does have some potential on the basepaths with his speed set, but he hasn’t exactly been efficient when it comes to swiping bags. While he did have 11 steals last year, he was caught 12 times. He did steal 17 bags on 24 attempts in 2010 in Lake Elsinore, so he has the ability and speed, but I’m not sure if he has the instincts to be a 20-20 guy at the next level (though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, because his athleticism is that strong).
Like Rosario and Liriano, plate discipline is an issue with Silverio, but he has showed improvement as he has gained more experience state side. He raised his BB/K ratio from 0.29 in High-A in 2010 to 0.33 in Double-A last year, and he raised his walk rate almost 1 percent in the move from the California to the Southern League. Baseball America was adamant about his adjustments at the plate, noting that he tightened the strike zone and started putting together more quality at-bats in 2011.
With Andre Ethier suffering a regression last year, and Juan Rivera an obviously temporary solution in left field, there should be an opportunity for Silverio to break in at the Major League level, probably as soon as this year. He’s an affordable, athletic, high upside option that the Dodgers could use, especially considering the team is going through an ownership change and is in a bit of a rebuilding phase. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Silverio competing for a starting job by Spring Training next season.
Highest Level Played: Double-A (Eastern League)
Summary: Peguero is a player who has constantly been touted as one with “five tool” potential by many prospect analysts and scouts. However, while Peguero has hit everywhere he has played in the minors, his plate approach has been much maligned as a prospect.
In terms of the positive, there may not be a Latin prospect out of the NL West who makes contact better at the plate than Peguero. The lowest contact rate in his minor league career was in 2010 in San Jose, where he posted an 83 percent rate in 510 at-bats. However, while his contact did drop from his previous year in Augusta and Salem Keizer (where it was 84 and 87 percent, respectively), he did add more power with the drop in contact frequency (he posted a career high ISO of .159). Even at the Major League level, Peguero should be a candidate to hit for high average on an annual basis.
Defensively, Peguero also projects well, as scouts note that he has good range in the field and plus arm strength. He could play all three positions in the outfield, though certainly a lot of his value has been tied with his ability to play center field (his main position in the minors). Last year, due to pre-season knee surgery, Peguero mostly played right, but he held his own at the position in 2011 and his combination of range and arm strength could make him an ideal candidate to play the position in San Francisco (due to AT&T Park’s big dimensions) in the future, even though he doesn’t fit the typical profile of a corner infielder.
While scouts have touted Peguero’s baserunning and power potential, Peguero probably projects to be average in those categories, mostly so in the latter category. He does have potential on the base paths, as he stole 40 bags in 2010 in San Jose, but he has never stolen more than 15 in any other stint in the Minors (though I’m sure his knee issues in 2011 prevented him from running more). I think Peguero could have 15-20 stolen base potential at the Major League level, but nothing more than that. As far as power, he did hit 15 home runs in 2010 and seven total in 2011 between San Jose and Richmond, but he has never flashed much power outside the California League. I would say that even him having 10-12 home run potential at the Major League level is generous, especially since he has never posted great extra base hit percentages in the minors (his high was 27 percent in 2010 in San Jose).
The biggest concern with Peguero is his EXTREMELY free-swinging ways. He makes the other guys on this list look like Brett Gardner by comparison. Peguero just doesn’t walk. In 2,906 career minor league plate appearances, Peguero has drawn just 80 walks. That’s right…80. While he doesn’t strike out often, one has to wonder if that kind of approach will bring sustained success at the Major League level. The Giants have proven in the past that free-swinging players can be successful at the Major League level, as evidenced by Pablo Sandoval, who notorious for not walking in the minors. That being said, Sandoval was a special player, and even he walked more in the minors than Peguero.
At the very least, Peguero sports three solid tools (ability to hit for average, defense and arm strength). His speed tool could be solid or plus depending on how healthy he stays, but I think his power tool is average, maybe slightly below. At this point in his career, to say Peguero needs to change his approach could be a waste of breath. His approach may just be what it is, and the Giants might have to just gamble that he’ll make enough contact at the next level to be a serviceable Major League player. Still though, even with the questionable plate discipline, Peguero still offers a lot of upside and strengths to the point where he could be a viable option in the Giants outfield in 2013.
Highest Level Played: Rookie League (Pioneer League)
Summary: When it comes to shortstop prospects in the Rockies system, Trevor Story seems to get most of the attention. Yet while I think Story has a bright future in the Rockies organization, I think Herrera is a dark horse infield prospect who could have just as much upside as Story, even if he may be a little more raw in terms of skills.
Since being signed by the Rockies in 2009 for $800,000, Herrera has impressed the Rockies since making his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2010. While statistically his numbers weren’t anything spectacular (.237/.323/.284 slash in 232 at-bats), his performance was good enough for the Rockies to give him an invite to the instructional league that Fall, according to Baseball America (And he was the only one from the DSL that year to earn an invite; remember, he was 17 years old and the DSL environments tend to favor pitchers, so one has to take those numbers with a grain of salt). Last year, the Rockies’ decision to bring him stateside that Fall paid off, as Herrera had a solid year as an 18 year old in the Pioneer League. He improved his slash to .284/.361/.449, and his extra base hit total jumped from 8 to 20 (including six home runs and eight triples).
Because he played in the same league as Story, Herrera split time between shortstop and third base in Casper. Story rates much better defensively, as many scouts and experts are concerned about Herrera’s frame (he’s six-foot, three inches and 180 pounds) and tools (Gordon of the MiLBA notes that he has limited range, and Baseball America noted that his throwing motion and footwork were very inconsistent) for the position. I think Herrera could be able to stay at the position because of his arm strength, but his ceiling defensively if he sticks at the position might be Hanley Ramirez (who’s not great defensively, as evidenced by his move to third base this year in favor of Jose Reyes).
However, one of the reasons I would like to see Herrera at shortstop is because I think his bat could be a plus for the position. He made great strides in Casper from the DSL, as Baseball America noted his exceptional hand-eye coordination, and that he toned down a lot of aspects of his swing in the transition to the Pioneer League (though BA did note that his swing can get lofty and that he can have a lot of moving parts at the plate). I was impressed by the increase in power, for he profiled more as a slap hitter prior to 2011. He has the skills and potential to be a 15-20 home run hitter in the future (and perhaps even more), especially as he grows into his body.
The main concern with Herrera right now (other than his defense) centers around his abilities as a switch hitter. He profiles very well from the left side as scouts and analysts note that he has a very strong swing and good bat speed. However, from the right side, the reports haven’t been as good, as Baseball America and Gordon both noted that his swing from the right side is slower and less effective. He still has time to work on it, but sticking to the left side of the plate may have to be an option for Herrera if he wants to keep his stock high.
Overall, I like what Herrera brings to the table. Yes, his contact rate wasn’t that impressive (74 percent) and he did strike out at a good clip (22.5 percent), which hurt his BB/K ratio (0.44). But as stated before, he was only 18 and he more than held his own in the Pioneer League. He put up very good numbers for a shortstop prospect, and I do believe in his Hanley Ramirez-potential. I think the power profile is very similar, and even the defense too (though whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to debate). The only difference could be the speed, as Ramirez was a much better baserunner as a prospect, and considering the reports and from the tape I have seen on Herrera, I’m not sure if he’ll ever be a 20 stolen base guy at the Majors (he only stole five last year, though he did steal 17 in the DSL, so next year will be a good sign of how his base running will project). However, I think the Rockies would be more than happy with a Ramirez clone without the stolen bases, especially if something should happen to Troy Tulowitzki in the future.
Honorable Mentions (In no particular order):
Reymond Fuentes, Outfielder, San Diego Padres (B-)
Ehire Adrianza, Shorstop, San Francisco Giants (B-/C+)
Hector Sanchez, Catcher, San Francisco Giants (B-/C+)
Rafael Ortega, Outfielder, Colorado Rockies (C+)
Edinson Rincon, Third Base, San Diego Padres (C+)
Jonathan Garcia, Outfielder, Los Angeles Dodgers (C+)
Michael Perez, Catcher, Arizona Diamondbacks (C)