We interrupt our Arizona Fall League preview series to take a trip even further south, as the Venezuelan Winter League-or as it’s knows to the locals, Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional, begins play tonight. The political situation there, as well as fears of crime, has kept many teams from sending many American players there lately, but there are still a number of outstanding prospects who will get some more reps in when they go home for the winter.
Aguilas de Zulia
En Ingles: Zulia Eagles. Zulia is actually a state, and the team plays in Maricaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city. They play their home games in Luis Aparicio Stadium.
Prospects To Watch: The Aguilas roster is surprisingly young, as pitches like Wilfredo Boscan (Rangers) and Adys Portillo (Padres) are both still listed on the primary roster, as opposed to the secondary list for a parallel league that involves less-seasoned players. Boscan turns 20 in three weeks, and had a 3.59 ERA for Low-A Hickory this year. He has command and poise well beyond his years, but also needs to find an out pitch, as he struck out just 59 in 105
Bravos de Margarita
En Ingles: Margarita Braves. No bus trips here, as the Braves play on Margarita Island in the city of Porlamar, in New Sparta Stadium.
Prospects To Watch: Margarita is a veteran squad, and least by LVBP measurements, as the roster consists of several semi-established players like Macier Izturis, Wil Ledezma, and Felipe Paulino. Dodgers southpaw Alberto Bastardo has nearly a strikeout per frame in more than 500 minor league innings, but it’s more because he’s left-handed with a quality breaking ball as opposed to his being any kind of real prospect. Carlos Monasterios (Phillies) is a sinker/slider righty who scouts like much better since he moved to the bullpen in 2008.
Cardinales de Lara
En Ingles: Lara Cardinals. Again, Lara is a state, not a city, as the team plays its home games in Barquisimeto, a city of 1.5 million in the northwest part of the country, at Antonio Herrera Gutierrez Stadium.
Prospects To Watch: Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli spent a good amount of time in the big leagues this year, but he will get more consistent playing time this winter. If his bat comes around, he could be a second-division starter in the majors; if not, he has enough defensive ability to be a big-league backup for a decade or more. After spending the final month of the year starting in the big leagues, Brewers shortstop Alcides Escobar is still five at-bats away from losing his rookie eligibility, and should be a good candidate for Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 as a positively magical defender who can hit .280-but with few secondary skills at the plate. Escobar will be joined by fellow Brewers infielder Hernan Iribarren, a Barquisimeto native who is also an underrated prospect. He’s not a future star by any means, but with a career minor league batting average of .314, he deserves a look from someone as a utility type at the very least.
Caribes de Anzoategui
En Ingles: Anzoategui Caribbeans. If you thought it was cool that there’s a Luis Aparicio Stadium, the Caribes play in Chico Carrasquel Stadium in the city of Puerto La Cruz, one of the centers of the country’s rich oil reserves.
Prospects To Watch: The Caribes have one of the most interesting prospect duos in the game with Pirates farmhands Gorkys Hernandez and Jose Tabata patrolling their outfield. Both are prospects with significant positives and negatives. Tabata was born and raised in Anzoategui; he has a quick bat, as evidenced by a .293 batting average in the upper levels as a 20-year-old, but he’s stretched defensively in center field, and he has yet to show the kind of secondary skills necessary to profile well as a corner starter. Hernandez on the other hand is one of the better defensive center fielders in the minors with plus-plus speed and very good instincts, but his bat slowed down at Double-A this year, and like Tabata, his walks and power are lacking. Both have very high ceilings, but both still come with a lot of risk, and it’s difficult to figure out where they fit in out future Pirates lineups. Mets infielder Jose Coranado is a plus defender at either shortstop or second base, but his bat suggests a future as a utility player at best, while Angels second baseman Alex Amarista was one of the more interesting prospects in the Midwest League this year, generating a wide range of reviews from scouts. He hit .319/.390/.468 for Low-A Cedar Rapdis as a 20-year-old with 50 walks, 39 doubles, and 38 stolen bases, but he’s also about 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, and left-handers gave him fits.
Leones de Caracas
En Ingles: Caracas Lions. The Yankees of the league, the Leones have won 16 league titles, but have struggled to win them of late. The team is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, one of the world’s richest men, a media mogul who once owned both Univision and Venevision, two of the largest suppliers of television programming for the Latin American market. They have played in University Stadium since the early 1950s.
Prospects To Watch: The Leones are heavy in pitching prospects, but they do have one mildly interesting positional prospect in Rockies infielder Daniel Mayora, who can play second, third, and even shortstop in a pinch; he has a solid approach and gap power. On the mound, the team will feature one of the top pitching prospects in the league with Colorado right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, who went from a guy with plus command to a pitcher who couldn’t find the strike zone following a promotion to the big leagues and later a re-assignment to Triple-A. He doesn’t have one monster pitch, but his fastball, changeup, and two breaking balls all rate at least average. Rangers righty Guillermo Moscoso had his innings limited a bit due to some big-league work, but here he will also be in the rotation, and could compete for a back-end rotation spot with the big-league club next spring. Indians righty Carlos Carrasco will try to get back on track after disappointing scouts all year. One of the top prospects in the Indians system, righty Hector Rondon is a control artist who was almost a victim of too many strikes at Triple-A in the second half of the season, as he needs to improve his location. On the younger side of things, 20-year-old Seattle left-hander Mauricio Robles struck out 145 over 123
Navegantes de Magallanes
En Ingles: Magellan’s Navigators. The team actually plays in the city of Valencia, in Jose Bernardo Perez Stadium.
Prospects To Watch: The Navegantes are loaded with prospects, including one of the best young hitters in the game with Yankees catcher Jesus Montero. After missing the latter part of the season with a thumb injury, he was healthy and mashing in the instructional league, and should pick up where he left off. A breakout player in the Mariners system this year, outfielder Ezequiel Carrera hit .337/.441/.416 at Double-A West Tenn. He’s a slasher with plus speed and a good approach at the plate, but his defense is poor and might limit him to bench status in the big leagues. Blue Jays outfielder Johermyn Chavez is the opposite of Carrera, as he’s a massive presence at the plate with equally massive power, but that comes with an equally sizeable strikeout rate. Acquired from the Red Sox at midseason, Pirates shortstop Argenis Diaz is a plus-plus defender, but with a .297 on-base percentage, he needs to pick things up offensively. The club is almost equally filled with intriguing arms, led by Rangers teenage sensation Martin Perez, who will likely see his innings limited, if he ends up pitching at all. Mercurial Twins righty Deolis Guerra looks like an ace in one start and completely overmatched the next, and scouts aren’t sure what to make of him at this point, but the Navegatores also feature two interesting sleeper arms. Coming over from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir deal, southpaw Alex Torres is a Valencia native who has excellent stuff, and could brighten his blip on the radar significantly if he can overcome his control problems. White Sox reliever Clevelan Santeliz, also from Valencia, is a pure power righty out of the pen who had a 0.96 ERA in 40 appearances for Double-A Birmingham.
Tiburones de La Guaira
En Ingles: La Guaria Sharks. While La Guaira is the main port for Caracas and about 20 miles to the north, it’s a bit of a misnomer, as the team shares University Stadium with their bitter rivals, Caracas, who tends to get the better of them. They do not share locker rooms, however, as the Leones use the third-base side dugout, while the Tiburones take the one on the first-base side.
Prospects to Watch Indians righty Jeanmar Gomez is the top pitching prospect on the club after putting up a 3.43 ERA for Double-A Akron and showing a nice combination of solid stuff and command. Angels righty Anthony Ortega just needs innings after an injury-plagued regular season. If Alcides Escobar is permanently in the big leagues, Giants shortstop Ehire Adrianza has a chance to replace him as the best defensive shortstop in the minors, as his hands, range, and actions all top the charts, and he can hit a bit as well. The Rangers have sent a pair of catchers to the Tiburones, and both come with issues. An offense-first type, Max Ramirez just plain stopped hitting this year, and at 25, his career could be at a bit of a crossroads next year. Meanwhile, defensive stalwart Manny Pina flirted with .400 into mid-May, but hit just .228/.279/.360 after the all-star break.
Tigres de Aragua
En Ingles: Aragua Tigers. The current league powerhouse, the Tigres have won three consecutive league titles, five of the last six, and wrapped everything up nicely last year by also winning the Caribbean World Series. They play in the city of Maracay at Jose Perez Colmenares Stadium.
Prospects To Watch: The Tigres are a veteran-laden team with little room on the roster for unproven talent. Rangers right-hander Omar Poveda was once seen as one of the better pitching prospects in the system, but he’s been passed by while failing to miss bats at the upper levels, although youth is still on his side (he just turned 22). When he pitches, he’ll be throwing to Twins catcher Wilson Ramos; Ramos might not have a big future in Minnesota given the presence of Joe Mauer, but he’s an excellent hitter who has never hit less than .286 at any level, including a .317/.341/.454 line at Double-A this year that was shortened by injuries.