Gregory Polanco is off to a hot start in the Dominican Winter League.
Where one offseason league ends, another begins—or something like that.
While the Arizona Fall League came to end this past Saturday, the offseason Caribbean Winter Leagues are roughly a month into the regular season and only beginning to heat up.
Many of baseball’s top prospects once again are represented in the Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan Winter Leagues this year, as they look to get a head start on the 2014 season and improve their chances of cracking a big league Opening Day roster. But, as it is usually the case given the time of year, the prospect pool between the four leagues is comprised of primarily hitters.
So, as we shift our focus from the AFL to the aforementioned offseason leagues, I thought I’d offer a look at four winter league standouts who will make an impact in the major leagues, possibly as early as the 2014 season.
2013 Venezuelan Winter League Stats: .250/.305/.352, 4 XBH (2 HR), 9 RBI, 4 SB, 11/6 K/BB (29 G)
Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in early 2011, Rougned Odor flashed huge upside the following year when he batted .259/.313/.400 with 37 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases in 109 games at Low-A Hickory.
This past season, however, Odor emerged as the Texas Rangers’ top prospect and arguably the top second base prospect in the game. Opening the year at High-A Myrtle Beach, the 19-year-old batted .305/.369/.454 with 42 extra-base hits and 27 stolen bases in 100 games before a late-season promotion to Double-A Frisco.
Despite moving up to the more advanced level, the left-handed hitter held his own by posting a .306/.354/.530 batting line with 30 runs scored, eight doubles and six home runs in 30 games.
Overall, he posted an .839 OPS with 41 doubles, 11 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a 91-35 strikeout-to-walk rate in 130 games.
Odor possesses much more physical strength than his 5’11”, 170-pound frame suggests. He has continually thrived as a younger player in advanced leagues and boasts a high-end combination of hit-tool potential and plus speed. The left-handed hitter also has above-average power for his position with impressive power frequency. In general, he’s an extra-base machine and drives the ball with authority to all fields.
Odor’s above-average range at second base, soft hands and strong arm are a clean fit at the position, and he could probably even cut it at shortstop in a pinch. He’s an intense, hard-nosed ballplayer with excellent instincts who makes things happen on both sides of the ball.
2013 Dominican Winter League Stats: .318/.437/.529, 18 R, 10 XBH (4 HR), 21 RBI, 2 SB, 19/18 K/BB (23 G)
Moved up to High-A Bradenton after a remarkable full-season debut in 2012, Gregory Polanco was even better this past season across three levels.
Overall, the 22-year-old (in his age-21 season) batted .285/.356/.434 with 44 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 71 RBI, 38 stolen bases and 73-52 a strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 games between Bradenton and Double-A Altoona, including two games at Triple-A Indianapolis to finish the regular season.
A left-handed hitter, Polanco has a mature approach at the plate with a present feel for the strike zone and mature pitch recognition. Due to his lanky build and long arms, he gets excellent coverage at the plate and utilizes the whole field.
Polanco’s bat path is short and quick, and he trusts his hands enough to let the ball get deep in the zone. He’ll get long on occasion which impedes his ability to handle velocity on the hands and up in the zone, but that’s really only a minor gripe. Overall, Polanco projects as an above-average hitter in the major leagues capable of annually batting average of .280-plus.
Although he has a wiry frame with plenty of room left to add strength, Polanco’s quick wrists and impressive bat speed give him more power than one might expect. He generates outstanding extension after contact, while his high follow-through creates considerable backspin carry to all fields.
He won’t be regarded as a power hitter at the next level, per se, but Polanco will continue to surprise with his pop as he moves up the ladder. When all is said and done, he should be capable of hitting 12-20 home runs annually.
Polanco showcases plus speed on both sides of the ball. He’s an aggressive baserunner who looks to swipe a bag and take an extra base whenever he reaches, though he’s still rather raw when it comes to reading pitchers and picking spots to run. Even if he never becomes a prolific base stealer, Polanco should be good for 20-plus steals in a given season.
Polanco’s speed and long strides are ideal for center field, where he showcases natural defensive actions and exceptional range in all directions. More importantly, he made significant strides in improving both his reads and routes this past season and, in turn, solidified his future as a center fielder at the highest level. Additionally, Polanco’s above-average arm strength is a clean fit at the position.
Polanco’s tools and feel for the game are both highly impressive for a player of his age and experience. This past season, the outfielder’s defense has caught up to his bat, which helps explain why he’s emerged as one of baseball’s more intriguing prospects. He’s still rough around the edges with room to improve in all facets of the game, but the potential is there for a first-division regular at maturity.
Miguel Sano opened the season by batting .330/.424/.655 with 16 home runs for High-A Fort Myers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League and was rewarded with a promotion to Double-A New Britain in early June. Although the 20-year-old’s batting average dropped off at the more advanced level, his power has translated as hoped, with a .915 OPS and 19 home runs through 67 games.
In 2011, Sano put himself on the map as one of the game’s best young sluggers when he hit 20 home runs in 66 games as an 18-year-old in the rookie-level Appalachian League. He’s since improved in every subsequent season.
In 2012, in his full-season debut, Sano led the Low-A Midwest League with 28 home runs in 129 games. He’s shown even more thump against better pitching this past season, with 35 home runs in 123 games between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain.
There was legitimate concern about Sano’s hit tool heading into the 2013 season, as he’s always been a player more likely to jump the yard or strike out than make consistent contact. In his full-season debut in 2012, the then-19-year-old batted only .258 with 144 strikeouts in 129 games (a 26 percent strikeout rate). However, Sano also demonstrated the foundation of a solid overall approach through his ability to coax walks at a 14.5 percent rate.
Even if his strikeout rate results in subpar batting averages, Sano’s combination of on-base skills and power gives him the ceiling of a frequent All-Star. In his prime, 35-plus home runs in a season could easily be the norm.
And if he only reaches his floor, we’re still talking about multiple 25-plus home run seasons in the major leagues.
After appearing in only two games in the Dominican Winter League, Sano was shut down for the season due to a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. While it’s a setback, the injury shouldn’t affect the 20-year-old’s 2014 season, and he’s expected to be ready by spring training.
2013 DWL Stats: .200/.234/.289, 2 XBH, 2 SB, 10/2 K/BB (14 G)
Arismendy Alcantara put himself on the map by posting a .655 OPS during his full-season debut at Low-A Peoria in 2011, followed by a .786 OPS with 27 extra-base hits and 25 stolen bases in 85 games at High-A Daytona.
This past season, the 22-year-old emerged as one of the more intriguing infield prospects in the game with a breakout performance at Double-A Tennessee. Playing in 133 games—the first time in his career in which he’s played in more than 100 games in a season—the switch-hitting infielder batted .271/.352/.451 with 55 extra-base hits (15 home runs) and 31 stolen bases.
Alcantara is undersized at 5’10”, 160 pounds but has a compact build loaded with strength and natural athleticism. More specifically, he’s an aggressive hitter who attacks the ball and makes consistent hard contact from both sides of the plate. While he does have some swing-and-miss to his game, Alcantara has demonstrated the ability to draw more walks this season against advanced pitching.
He boasts above-average raw power that only started to emerge last year during his age-21 season. He has a more leveraged swing from the left side that suggests double-digit home run totals, while he’s less consistent from the right side but demonstrates a solid approach.
He’s an easy plus runner whose speed plays on both sides of the ball. Additionally, he’s a smart base stealer with an 80 percent (91-of-114) career success rate over five seasons.
Alcantara is a quick, aggressive shortstop with plus range, though he also has the tools, including plus arm strength, and athleticism for either middle infield position. The one knock of him is that he has a tendency to wait back on balls and show off the arm strength, though his high number of errors is relatively normal for a young shortstop at an advanced level.
While he’s always shown explosive tools on both sides of the ball, Alcantara’s inability to stay healthy delayed the development of his secondary skills. But after the strides he made this season in his first taste of the Double-A level, the 22-year-old could find himself on the Chicago Cubs infield by mid-2014.