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May 27, 2009

The Latin Talent Market

Back Bearing Fruit

by Kiley McDaniel

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I'm back from the Dominican and I come bearing gifts: full scouting reports, on-the-ground buzz, first-hand accounts of top prospects, and the videos to prove it. I've got way more than I can fit in one article, but I'll try to cram as much as I can into this space. For non-subscribers who can't read much further, the embedded videos below can all be found here.

Before we jump into things, I wanted to revisit a topic that I covered last week. Teams seem to be even more open to a give-and-take between their draft and international budgets when it comes to a weak draft class, a struggling economy, and increasing bonuses being paid out in Latin America. One club official noted that it has always been common for teams that didn't plan to spend their entire draft budget to roll the excess into their international budget once they know what players they selected. It has also been circulating that a few teams may be trying to dump big-league salaries to free up more money for international purposes, with the most frequently mentioned team being San Diego, and their most mentioned contract being Jake Peavy's. The fact that Peavy blocked a trade to the White Sox recently didn't do much to quell this talk.

There is a precedent for such a move. The Rockies dumped Larry Walker's $12.6 million contract to St. Louis late in the 2004 season, and it was said that this helped provide the Rockies with the money to sign high school draftee Dexter Fowler to an over-slot deal for $925,000.

In a Prospectus Q&A from Sunday, Rays GM Andrew Friedman quickly references this thought process:

DL: When asked about their philosophy, most scouting directors will say it is to take the best player on the board, regardless of position. What you're saying seems to be somewhat counter to that.

AF: I think that, definitely, it is the approach that most teams employ, but for us, we factor in a lot of other things as well, in terms of overall player procurement, and which type of players we feel are more fungible and which types of players we feel are most difficult to acquire. We place a premium on those types of players. We also factor in the international market. Simply said, all of those things contribute, philosophically, to how we approach things.

I am including comparisons for these players, and I can already hear some of you moaning about how inexact it is trying to project 16-year-olds without comparing them to big-leaguers. Read my last two articles and you'll see that I freely admit this, and that I even put off this article so I could bring some context to this crapshoot.

BP's own Kevin Goldstein doesn't like comparisons unless they're obvious. I like them as guides to quickly paint a picture of what you see now and project for later. The scouting reports given in this article will be for players projected to receive bonuses of at least $2 million. They're elite players that will be compared to elite big-leaguers, because you wouldn't pay a player that much unless they had that kind of talent. This doesn't mean that I think they'll become equal to these big-league stars, because the odds are stacked against them to even be major leaguers of consequence. The comparisons are simply a guide (along with the videos) to give you an idea of the type of body, tools, and projection possessed by each player.

They're ranked in order of expected bonus, not my evaluation of their skills. With the caveats out of the way, let's jump into the good stuff.

1. Miguel Sano, SS, Dominican Republic
DOB: 5/11/93
Height/Weight: 6-3/190
Bats/Throws: R/R
Agent: Rob Plummer

Background: Sano has been considered one of the top July 2 talents for some time. He emerged as the consensus top pick in the last few months, and accordingly his price has rocketed north from original estimates of a $2.0 to 2.5 million bonus.
Pros: Sano has been described as "special" by multiple international scouting directors, and it all starts with the bat. He has a short, direct stroke that consistently shows up in games along with his present average-grade raw power to all fields, which will grow as his projectable frame fills out. Sano is athletic, with the hands and the arm to play shortstop for now. All reports on his makeup are excellent.
Cons: Sano's speed is average, and as he fills out he'll lose some of it, moving to third base or even right field. Some will nitpick and say that Sano is stiff, but even his detractors agree he's easily a seven-figure talent. As with many high-profile Dominicans, there are incessant whispers about his age. There is no evidence to suggest that he isn't 16, and one international scouting director commented, "Everyone thought Shaq and LeBron looked older too. It's a combination of a rare talent and jealous teams." Sano's agent went so far as to get a DNA bone graft, which is becoming very common for top prospects. The results have a 12-month window, and say that Sano is 16 or 17; nothing to see here.
Quick Fact: Sano is pronounced like Robinson Cano's last name, in case you were wondering. His nickname is "Bocaton," meaning big mouth, which doesn't have a negative connotation in this instance. It literally means his mouth is larger than average. One scout said that Sano's mouth was a 65 on the 20-80 scale.
Comparison: No one, even those in Sano's camp, disputes that he will fill out and eventually move off of shortstop, likely to third base. Given the size and tools, comparisons typically invoke All-Star third basemen who made early-career moves from shortstop, such as Evan Longoria.
Projected Team: Pittsburgh has been heavily rumored in themedia as a top suitor, creating a legitimate frenzy, with Pirates fans looking for something to pin their hopes on. It's been confirmed to me that it isn't just optimism or the Pirates flapping their gums for publicity; the Pirates are extremely interested and are truly the favorites at this point. They won't be bidding against themselves, though. There has always been a large group of teams interested in Sano. With the probable bonus amount becoming clearer, the field has whittled itself down, but it still includes clubs with small Latin America budgets. These clubs are completely aware of where the price is headed, and it's been indicated to me that multiple teams have ownership approval to go over budget in order to sign Sano. The clubs believed to be hot on his trail are the Pirates, Rays, Cubs, A's, Jays, Yankees, Rangers, and Twins. That being said, it appears that Pittsburgh is in the driver's seat, and Sano is theirs to lose. There is even talk from reliable sources that the size of the bonus could end up affecting who the Pirates choose with the fourth overall pick in June's amateur draft, widely believed to lack top-end talent beyond projected first pick Stephen Strasburg.
Projected Bonus: The ultimate price will come down to how many teams get into a bidding war. The price was $2.0 to 2.5 million just a month ago, and as the market came into focus, everyone quickly realized that the price had zoomed past $3.0 million. Sano's agent, Rob Plummer, has already broken the bonus record twice (with Ricardo Aramboles and Joel Guzman), and he is poised to take another shot at it this year. Based on dozens of conversations, I would set Sano's odds of breaking Michael Ynoa's 12-month-old Latin bonus record ($4.25 million) at 50/50. Because of the fluidity, I won't hazard a formal guess right now, but there is legitimate talk that this thing could get close to $5 million if the bidding becomes as heated as some expect.

2. Gary Sanchez, C, Dominican Republic
DOB: 12/2/92
Height/Weight: 6-2/190
Bats/Throws: R/R
Agent: Brian Mejia (CAA)

Background: If you're looking for a controversial top prospect, you can stop the search here. Nearly every team I've spoken with is very wary of Sanchez, and it appears there is only one team left in the running, but they're known for their deep pockets, and are set to pay retail.
Pros: Sanchez has some very take-notice attributes: a projectable pro's body, a plus arm, plus-plus power, and the ability to put on one of the most impressive batting-practice displays in Latin America. He has solid agility and adequate receiving skills, and many think he'll stick as a catcher longer than most Dominican catching prospects. The believers in his talent write him up with four plus to plus-plus tools (and below-average speed).
Cons: His representation has been very aggressive, making him available to a number of teams multiple times over the last few months, but many have said that he looks tired and overworked as of late. Nearly every team I talked to has seriously questioned his ability to hit in games and/or have not seen him take more than a handful of swings against live pitching. This understandably turns many teams off, having no idea how a potential seven-figure investment will perform in a game situation.
Quick Fact: At one private workout, Sanchez refused to hit live pitching after dazzling in batting practice. After throwing down to second base a few times, he was asked to perform the same drills with catching gear on, but his representation pulled him off of the field. While this may appear to be the behavior of a prima donna, these kids are young and do what they're told by the people they trust. In addition, if Sanchez gets paid as much as many think he will, this will look a lot more like an agent successfully controlling his client's perception and a client following his representation all the way to the bank.
Comparison: The easy comparison is Yankees prospect Jesus Montero, the last seven-figure July 2nd catching prospect, who signed for $1.6 million three years ago. One long-time Latin talent evaluator cautions against that: "Gary has a better body and a better chance to stick behind the plate, but can't carry Montero's iPod when it comes to hitting."
Projected Team: The Giants and Angels have made runs at signing Sanchez, but it appears they were only willing to go to $2 million. These clubs were trumped by the Yankees, who have long been rumored as Sanchez's destination. Given that the Bombers normally have their top money signees locked up long before July 2nd, every other team appears to have conceded him to the Yankees at this point. It's an open question whether the only team willing to top a $2 million offer is the Yankees, leading to suspicions that they're bidding against themselves.
Projected Bonus: Talk circulated of a $2.5 million bonus after the Yankees were widely believed to be the team to beat. Since then, rumors have gone as high as $3.5 million, with talk that won't go away that a verbal deal has been struck for $3.4 million. I'll split the difference and predict a $3.0 million bonus.

3. Wagner Mateo, CF, Dominican Republic
DOB: 3/30/93
Height/Weight: 6-2/190
Bats/Throws: L/L
Agent: Edgar Mercedes

Background: Mateo is represented by well-known agent Edgar Mercedes and, like Miguel Sano, has been a recognized top talent for some time. He played at a showcase organized by Mercedes in Santo Domingo versus Team Canada that drew over 60 scouts and 29 of the 30 clubs. I took video at the event that is embedded below.
Pros: Mateo is what scouts like to call a toolshed: some have projected him to own five plus tools. He put on quite the show in batting practice, as you can see in the video. One swing sent a ball over the wall in center field, an easy 400-foot shot. Mateo's game isn't just power, as he utilizes his plus speed on the basepaths and in the field. His arm has also shown improvement, grading as a 60 on the 20-80 scale with the display he put on for scouts at the event.
Cons: He can rely on his speed too much in an attempt to make up for the areas where his instincts fail him. His bat is impressive in batting practice, and he showed solid plate coverage in the game against advanced competition (Team Canada), but he's still a free swinger with a bit of a hitch in his swing in games. One scout suggested that Mateo will fail early in his pro career at the plate, but contends that he'll be able to make the adjustments and become a big-leaguer in the end.

Wagner Mateo from Kiley McDaniel on Vimeo.

Quick Fact: Mateo is something of a celebrity in the Santo Domingo area, being recognized at a young age as one of the top players in the country. You can tell by the audio during his longest batting practice home runs that the locals showed up in force to cheer him on. He was featured on the front page of the paper the next morning.
Comparison: Not a lot of players have owned the skill set that Mateo possesses. Carlos Beltran has been tossed around, with Curtis Granderson and Grady Sizemore also getting mentions.
Projected Team: He has long been tied to the Dodgers and Giants, with the Cardinals also mentioned. It has been confirmed that he is not locked into a verbal deal. The Giants brought a large contingent of their scouting brass to the showcase, and they're mentioned by many insiders as the leaders for Mateo's services. They're also my pick.
Projected Bonus: The rumor making the rounds was that Mateo was set to sign with the Giants for $2.25 million, but, as I said, a deal is not in place. The Giants are still believed to be in the lead, and I'll stick with the rumored number as the final outcome, but there is room for it to go higher.

4. Guillermo Pimentel, LF, Dominican Republic
DOB: 5/11/93
Height/Weight: 6-0/180
Bats/Throws: R/R
Agent: Fifo

Background: Pimentel is another controversial prospect, but not because of his talent. Instead, it's because he allegedly agreed to a verbal deal with the Rangers, and then went into hiding beginning in the first week of February. Other clubs have been effectively blocked from seeing him, and a few have lodged formal complaints with MLB.
Pros: Pimentel's tools had some international scouts giddy; hence the disappointment when he disappeared. He has a smooth stroke from the left side with plenty of leverage and enough raw power to launch balls over the wall. He had a three-homer game at the Rangers' Dominican academy that no doubt contributed to the alleged early verbal deal. He's a solid defender with above-average speed, and though some feel that his speed is enough to stick in center field, most believe that he'll eventually be destined for a corner.
Cons: If Pimentel moves to a corner outfield spot, his below-average arm will limit him to left field, but the bat projects as more than enough to profile as an everyday left fielder. The video below also illustrates the last negative on Pimentel: teams simply haven't seen him. A number of clubs were on him before early February, and most have likely seen him before, but he was not available to be crosschecked by the decision makers. That makes this video quite rare, and many teams don't have any video at all of Pimentel; some joke that he's a Sidd Finch-like character. This footage was taken late in January, just before he stopped working out for clubs:

Guillermo Pimentel from Kiley McDaniel on Vimeo.

Quick Fact: I'll discuss this in more detail next week, but nicknames are extremely common in the Dominican, and no one seems to know the real name of Pimentel's agent, who goes by "Fifo". One agent that's seen Pimentel a few times told me that he could get well over $3 million if given the opportunity, but the allure of a guaranteed big payday a full five months before the signing period opened was an enticement to his representative.
Comparison: From looking at the video, you may see a resemblance in hitting mechanics to a young Barry Bonds. Again, we're talking tools and profile, not overall projection, but given the position, height, and skill set, that isn't a bad parallel to draw.
Projected Team: The Rangers are obviously my prediction here, but it isn't a slam dunk. I've been told that the Rangers have been disciplined for similar actions in the past, and they're allegedly doing the same thing with another high-profile prospect this year, SS/RHP Jurickson Profar from Curacao, with a deal done at $750,000. The punishment in the past was a slap on the wrist-not being allowed to sign the player until July 9th. It's unclear when or if a formal investigation will occur or what the possible penalties might be, but there has been some speculation that the Rangers may be barred from signing Pimentel.
Projected Bonus: The number associated with all of this Rangers talk has been $2 million, which sounds about right for a discounted bonus five months ahead of the signing period. I'll stick with that, with the understanding that he's worth much more.

I've run long on this article, so here's a teaser on the contents of the next one, which will be coming shortly: I'll have a full rundown on two Cuban defectors that should sign somewhere around July 2nd, and who appear to be ticketed for the same big-market ballclub. I'll also have more reports and video on potential seven-figure bonus prospects, including a full scouting report on Dominican shortstop Jose Vinicio, who has allegedly struck a verbal deal with the Red Sox for $2 million.

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