The Phillies in Latin America
A strong Latin American presence is a crucial element of building a strong major league franchise in 2007. In 2006 about 25% of major league baseball players were either foreign born or born in Puerto Rico. That percentage is sure to increase as more than 40% of all minor league baseball players under contract are foreign born. While the price to sign the top Latin American prospects has increased in recent years, the average price to sign a player with baseball tools is much less than in the U.S. player draft. Any team that fails to take advantage of Latin America as a source for players is a team likely to have a mediocre minor league system.
The Phillies were one of the early teams to be active in signing players from the Dominican Republic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Players signed by the Phillies included Juan Samuel, Julio Franco, and George Bell. After the Phillies’ two World Series appearances in the early 1980s, the team took a step back from Latin America as the price of signing top prospects went up. The Phillies most likely cut their player acquisition budgets (as they cut most of their budgets) in the 15 years prior to the opening of Citizen Bank Park. This shortsighted decision is most likely one of the larger reasons behind a series of mediocre Phillies teams from the late 1980s through the new millennium.
While many fans criticized Ed Wade’s tenure as General Manager of the team, he must be given proper credit for returning the Phillies to Latin America. During the later years the team opened new complexes in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and began signing a significant number of players again. In addition, Mike Arbuckle hired the well-regarded Sal Artiaga to run the team’s international program. While the team has not bid on the highest priced Latin American talent in recent years, they have begun to sign some prospects for bonuses in the $200,000 to $500,000 range. While the most expensive signing (Carlos Rodriguez at $700,000) has not worked out, some other mid-level signings such as Robinson Tejeda and Carlos Silva have panned out. The team’s current top prospect, Carlos Carrasco, signed for $300,000 out of Venezuela in late 2003.
The Phillies currently have two Latin American minor league teams.The Venezuelan Summer League team (VSL) won the league title in 2006. The VSL has only 10 teams in the league representing 13 major league organizations, so the fact that the Phillies have a strong team there is a significant plus. The league plays a schedule of around 72 games starting in mid-May. The league is open to players from all Latin American countries other than the Dominican Republic (where all major league teams have entries)
The Dominican Summer League (DSL) has at least 31 teams with a couple of major league teams fielding multiple teams. Players are typically from the Dominican Republic only, though teams without a VSL team will often send their Venezuelan prospects there. The league plays a 66 game schedule with the first games usually taking place on the first weekend in June.
Both Latin American leagues probably play at a level between high school and U.S. Rookie Leagues (GCL). There will usually be 4-5 players on each team that will eventually get promoted to the U.S. leagues, but the majority of players are not good enough. The Phillies tend to sign a large number of inexpensive prospects in the hope that some of those 16-year-olds develop tools in the future. It is possible that more DSL and VSL players will make it to the U.S. in the future as the national immigration visa rules have changed regarding minor league players. Previously teams were limited to 37 H1B visas for minor leaguers not on the 40-man major league roster. That rule has changed to incorporate minor leaguers under the more expansive and unlimited type of visa. Thus teams do not have to limit the number of players they bring over. In reality, however, the Phillies will probably not change their habits a great deal. There are probably not too many players on each squad that are good enough to bring over. At least the Phillies will not have to abide by an arbitrary limit when making decisions on mid-level prospects (such as the release of Australian prospect Tim Auty from 2 different major league teams because of the visa limits).
This article will take a quick look at some of the better VSL prospects from last year’s team with a later article taking a look at the DSL prospects. One note of caution when looking at VSL and DSL stats. The best players are often the youngest players without the best stats. If a player is 21 years old and still playing in these leagues he is not likely a prospect. Players are often signed as early as age 16, making projection of tools a huge unknown. Sometimes the better prospects are players like Elizardo Ramirez, a pitcher without any dominant tools who simply had great control and knew how to pitch. Finally, it should be noted that the best prospects (like Carlos Carrasco) often do not play in the VSL or DSL at all. They come straight to the United States where the facilities and instruction is better. New signee Freddy Galvis, a 16-year-old SS, made his U.S. debut in the instructional league and is likely to also make his Phillies debut with the GCL (Gulf Coast League Rookie Level) team. In addition, a player’s advancement if often dependent on their language skills, as cultural adaptation is a significant hurdle for even the best prospects.
Hitters (age as of April 1, 2007)
Redne Fuenmayor (age 20) – Fuenmayor led the team in hitting with a .325 average, playing mostly 3B (5 games also at 2B). He is a little old for a prospect as he turns 21 in May. At 5’10” and 190 pounds he is also not the type of player one would project for lots of power in the future. He showed limited doubles power with 14 2B but only 2 HR. He had decent control of the strike zone with 20 BB, leading to an OPS of .867.
Francisco Murillo (age 20) – Murillo is a catcher/corner infielder who was also the biggest power threat on the VSL team, hitting .299 with 10 HR and 56 RBI. Murillo also drew 37 BB to help compile a .402 OBP, second best on the team. His OPS was also a healthy .904 with his team-leading .502 slugging percentage. The team appears to have moved Murillo from catcher where he played mostly in 2005. In 2006 he only caught 3 games while playing 44 at 1B and another 14 at 3B.A right-handed bat with decent size (6’0”, 206), Murillo is likely to make his GCL debut in 2007.
Bruno Doy (age 19) – Doy is one of the 4 Brazilian prospects signed by the Phillies a year ago. He played the entire 2006 season at age 18 and held his own in the VSL. An outfielder with good size (6’1”, 206), Doy hit .262 with good power (17 extra base hits in only 149 AB) and patience (31 BB). Given the cultural adjustments of being one of the few Portuguese speakers on a Spanish-speaking team, Doy had a great 2006 debut.
Arlon Quiroz (age 20) – Quiroz is a speedy outfielder who played the entire 2006 season at age 19. Quiroz hit .288 but added 41 BBs for an OBP of .396. Quiroz also added 31 SB against only 9 CS to lead the team in that category. While he totaled 18 extra base hits, only 2 of them left the park. Quiroz has a chance to play in the U.S. in 2007, though the large number of toolsy outfielders drafted in 2006 will make playing time hard to find in the GCL outfield in this upcoming season.
Others worth noting – Jaime Morales hit .316 with 19 SB but is too old to be a prospect (age 23 in April). The same also goes for Ben Oviedo who hit .301 last year but turns 22 in April. Jorge Guerra (age 19) and Osmel Reyes (age 18) are two young catchers that did not hit much, but as catchers could always be valued more for their defense. Fabio Muracami is the other Brazilian OF. He did not hit much, but is still young (age 19 in March) and has good size (6’1”, 194). Finally, Harold Garcia (2B/3B, age 20) put up an .876 OPS last year in limited action.
Pitchers (age as of April 1)
Moises Melendez (age 20) – The number one starter for the DSL team, Melendez is a LHP who went 8-2 with a 2.18 ERA (90.2 IP, 72 H, 33 BB, 104 K). Melendez followed up that performance with an uneven season for Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, going 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA (39.2 IP, 36 H, 26 BB, 24 K). While his BB/K ratio took a severe hit in the winter league, he was one of the youngest players there. Melendez is probably the most likely VSL player to merit a promotion to the GCL. While he does not have great size (5’10”, 203) for a pitcher, the fact that he is left handed will get him additional opportunities in the bullpen as well (lefties only hit .095 against him last year in the VSL).
Mauricio Romero (age 20) – Romero was the second best starter on the team, going 5-2 with a 2.48 ERA (83.1 IP, 83 H, 22 BB, 75 K). While Romero has good size (6’3”, 225), his stats show he is more of a control pitcher than Melendez. He only pitched 1 IP of winter ball this year for Zulia, showing he is not as highly regarded as Melendez.
Others worth noting – Victor Diaz (age 17) is young and tall (6’6”, 229), though he has yet to make his debut.Carlos Medrano (age 19) is also tall, projectible (6’8”, 202) and left-handed. He pitched decently in 2006 in limited action (2.41 ERA in 33.2 IP), though his peripherals do not suggest he is a power pitcher. He will get lots of chances to see if he fills out in the future.
Darwin Medina (age 20) led the team in ERA at 2.10 in only 30 IP, though he did notch 40 Ks against only 10 BBs.Sergio Escalona (age 22) is another LHP who was one of the team’s top starters (3-4, 2.17 ERA in 70.2 IP, though is probably too old to be a prospect.Williams Jaspe (age 20) is another huge physical athlete (6’5”, 241) who has pitched in the U.S. instructional league. He needs to start showing results (5.60 ERA) to be considered a prospect.Berman Espinoza (age 19) is a young Nicaraguan RHP with good projectible size (6’3”, 170) and decent results in 2006 (4-4, 2.66 ERA, 40.2 IP, 35 H, 11 BB, 34 K).
Next – The DSL prospects