With the offseason upon us, prospect hounds shift their attention to the winter leagues and primarily the Arizona Fall League. That's for good reason, as it is the best collection of prospects in an environment that major league clubs prefer, as they control the rosters and playing time. That said, leagues are playing throughout Latin America as well, with the Dominican, Mexican and Venezuelan leagues being the most prominent. While mostly seen as a chance to keep young players in shape to go with the opportunity for them to earn some extra money, the leagues can be challenging to use for developmental purposes. With no official affiliation to the majors and gigantic, fluid rosters (one Domincan team used 24 pitchers in their first 13 games), playing time has to be earned, and winning is priority one for some rabid fan bases. Still, that environment can be of value. “We have some players, who because of where they are from or their developmental path, are better suited for those leagues,” said one American League front-office official. “Plus, I love the environment, as they get big, loud crowds while Arizona has more of an instructional feel.” In addition, the style of play can be of developmental value. “We've sent player to Mexico in the past because they struggle against breaking balls,” said a National League counterpart. “With the altitude and they style of play there from the Mexican League veterans, that's all they will see there.” Here are ten players in those lesser-watched leagues that are worth paying attention to.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros
Altuve had an impressive 2010 campaign, but was still wasn't held in high regard, mostly on account of his diminutive stature. After flirting with .400 in the minors and impressing in the Futures Game, he was rushed to the big leagues, where his overly aggressive approach became exposed. Altuve's outstanding bat control works against him against top level pitching, as he can hit bad pitches, but that often leads to bad contact. He's in Venezuela to get more exposure to advanced arms and work on his plate discipline, and while it's not surprising to see him hitting .333/.382/.458 for Magallanes, he's already drawn four walks in his 12 games after taking just five in 57 contests for the Astros. He remains the favorite for the second base job in Houston next year, but it's not guaranteed.
Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, Giants
Belt's playing time this winter might be just to get him more playing time next season after getting jerked around during the season between Triple-A and the majors, a major factor in his disappointing .225/.306/.412 line for San Francisco. He's almost too advanced a prospect for Arizona, so the 23-year-old is spending his fall in the Domincan, playing for Escogido. He still doesn't have a position, splitting time between fist base and the outfield corners, but at least he's getting consistent at-bats, something he deserves to get in San Francisco next year as well.
Joe Benson, OF, Twins
A second-round pick in 2006, Benson has always been among the toolsiest players in the Twins system, but as an athlete from a cold-weather state who concentrated more on football in high school, he's always been a bit of a project as well. Back-to-back solid showings at Double-A earned him a big league chance in September, and with Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel potentially departing as free agents, the Twins want to get him as much playing time as possible to prepare for the most important spring training of his career. With above average power, speed, and arm strength, Benson can impact a game in a variety of ways, but the jury is still out on just how much he'll hit. His .238/.396/.429 line after 13 games for Aragua in Venezuela shows that even when the batting average isn't there, he has enough secondary skills to make up for it.
Alex Colome, RHP, Rays
Colome has one of the best pure arms in the Rays system, and he reached Double-A at the end of the 2011 season while allowing just 119 hits over 157.2 innings. That's a good workload for a 22-year-old minor league, so he's spending the off-season in a relief role for Escogido in his native Domincan Republic. His uncle Jesus was a reliever for the Rays, and Alex might follow in his footsteps, so this is a good opportunity to watch him in what might be his future role, as between his delivery and shallow arsenal, he might not be starting forever. With a low-to-mid 90s fastball and plus power breaking, he's struck out nine over six and one-third innings for the Leones, and picked up his first save on Saturday in what could be a preview of his future role.
Freddy Galvis, SS, Phillies
Jimmy Rollins has been the Phillies' starting shortstop for 11 years, but that run could come to an end now that he's a free agent. Should no external solution present itself, Galvis is their most obvious solution from the organization. A soon-to-be 22-year-old Venezuelan who entered the 2011 season with a career .233 batting average in the minors, Galvis had a relative breakout season while splitting time between two upper-level squads, hitting .278/.324/.392 in 137 games. A spectacular defender who is big-league ready with the glove, all Galvis needs to do is advance enough offensively to hit eighth in a National League lineup. He's hitting just .231 in nine games for Zulia, but this is all about more playing time to get ready for what could be far more at-bats next spring.
Bryan LaHair, 1B, Cubs
It's hard to talk about a player who turns 29 in November as a prospect, but after years of being classified as no more than a minor league slugger, LaHair had arguably the best offensive year in the minors in 2011, batting .331/.405/.664 with 38 home runs in 129 games for Triple-A Iowa and more than holding his own in his first big league stint since 2008. Scouts no longer see him as a 4-A type, and instead think he could be a solid big-league contributor with a .270 average and 20-25 home runs. At his age, that's obviously his upside as well, but he's proving that he could be an inexpensive option for the Cubs by hitting .314 with six home runs in his first 13 games for Magallanes in Venezuela.
Hector Noesi, RHP, Yankees
The biggest hole in the 2011 New York Yankees was the rotation, and Noesi is hoping that he can be next year's Ivan Nova, a young, internal replacement who while not a star, can compete in the big leagues. His average stuff plays up due to plus command and control, but he was used primarily as a trash-time reliever in the big leagues, save for a pair of fill-in starts at the end of the season as the club lined up for the playoffs. In the rotation for perennial Domincan power Licey, Noesi pitched six innings without allowing an earned run in his last start, and while he's not the ideal solution for the Yankees, he could be a nice backup plan.
Wilin Rosario, C, Rockies
Wilin Rosario has proven he can hit with a pair of impressive performance at Double-A in the last two years, and while he showed his power with three home runs in his first 54 big league at bats, his defense was a mixed bag. His arm is a rocket, but his receiving skills remained a bit flat, so after catching just 95 games during the regular season, he's getting more time behind the dish for Aguilas in the Domincan. Currently tied for second in the league with four home runs and slugging .622, the Rockies are paying far more attention to his defense, hoping that gradual improvements could lead to big things in the majors next year.
Tanner Scheppers, RHP, Rangers
The Rangers have made few mistakes in their development of one of the best systems in baseball, but Scheppers is one that produces some questions. A supplemental first-round pick in 2009, Scheppers was on the verge of being seen as a potential bullpen part late in 2010 when the Rangers decides to see if he can start, and he hasn't been the same pitcher since. His velocity has wavered, and his command has regressed. His combination of a fastball that gets into the upper 90s at times and two power breaking balls is late-inning worthy, but he just isn't the same dominating arm that began the 2010 season at Double-A by striking out 19 over 11 innings with just three hits before earning a promotion. His performances in Venezuela for Magallanes have been good (1.59 ERA, 8 strikeouts in 5.2 innings) and bad (nine walks), but he's not going to get back on track unless he keeps taking the bump.
Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs
One thing that is rare to find in the winter leagues is 30-year-old three time All-Star who is guaranteed $18 million in 2012. That said, Zambrano's situation is certainly unique, as he hasn't pitched since early August, when he bolted from the Cubs and was suspended. Trying to get back on track with a new administration, Zambrano is expected to make seven to nine starts for Los Caribes in Venezuela. There are plenty of players in the league looking for another shot (Dmitri Young) or just entertaining the troops as a former star (Richard Hidalgo), but Zambrano using the league as an extended rehab is nearly unprecedented for a player of this stature.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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