Once again, many of baseball’s top prospects 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 an Opening Day roster.
As it is usually the case given the time of year, the prospect pool between the four leagues is primarily comprised of hitters. And with each league now in the final month of its respective regular season, it’s likely that more top-ranked hitters will join the action in the near future in anticipation of spring training.
Here’s a look at 10 position prospects tearing it up in the offseason winter leagues.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
2013 Dominican Winter League (DWL) Stats: .320/.424/.500, 13 XBH (4 HR), 24 RBI, 27/22 K/BB (33 G)
Gregory Polanco is a baller.
Last season, 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 High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona, and he even played two games at Triple-A Indianapolis to finish the regular season.
Unsurprisingly, Polanco is putting up huge numbers this offseason in the Dominican Winter League, and it won’t be long until he takes over as Pittsburgh’s everyday right fielder.
It’s been exciting to follow the evolution of Polanco’s approach and secondary skills since he reached full-season ball in 2012. However, it’ll be even more exciting when he makes an earlier-than-expected debut with the Pirates next season.
Jorge Polanco, 2B, Minnesota Twins
2013 DWL Stats: .333/.386/.447, 10 XBH, 18/13 K/BB (35 G)
Jorge Polanco impressed this year in his full-season debut at Low-A Cedar Rapids, batting .308/.362/.452 with 47 extra-base hits (32 doubles), 78 RBI and a 59-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 115 games.
The 20-year-old is a solid defender at second base, but the real value lies in his bat. A switch-hitter, Polanco has excellent bat-to-ball skills and a knack for making hard contact. While he’s unlikely to offer much over-the-fence pop at maturity, his ability to use the entire field—and specifically pound the gaps—should make him a doubles machine.
Playing in the Dominican Winter League, Polanco has been on fire over his last 10 games with a .528/.553/.667 batting line and seven multi-hit performances.
Don’t be surprised if Polanco has surpassed Eddie Rosario on the depth chart for second base at this time next season.
C.J. Cron, 1B, Los Angeles Angels
2013 DWL Stats: 2-for-7, 2 2B, 3 RBI (2 G)
After hitting 27 home runs during his full-season debut at High-A in 2012, C.J. Cron took a step back last season in his first taste of Double-A.
Playing in 134 games, the 23-year-old held his own with a .274 bating average but saw his home run total drop to 14 while striking out a career-high 83 times.
At 6’4”, 235 pounds, Cron’s raw power is as big as his size suggests. However, he struggles to get on top of fastballs at average velocity and those on the inner half of the plate. On the other hand, the right-handed hitter punished pitches down in the zone, especially fastballs. But as a first base-only prospect, let alone a right-handed one, Cron’s usable (or in-game) power will determine whether he reaches the major leagues.
After winning the Arizona Fall League batting title with a .413 average, Cron is now playing for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. In his second game with the team, he was 2-for-4 with two doubles and three RBI.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Houston Astros
2013 Puerto Rican Winter League (PRWL) Stats: .284/.404/.581, 10 XBH (6 HR), 20/15 K/BB (21 G)
After opening the 2013 season by serving a 50-game suspension, Jonathan Singleton struggled to find his power stroke as he worked his way back up the organizational ladder.
The 22-year-old first baseman made brief stops at Low-A Quad Cities and Double-A Corpus Christi before a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Playing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Singleton posted a pedestrian .687 OPS with six home runs and 89 strikeouts in 73 games.
But there's good news: Singleton's power has seemingly returned. The left-handed hitter has six home runs through his first 21 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and he’s currently riding a power surge that includes three bombs in his last five games.
Jordan Lennerton, 1B, Detroit Tigers
2013 PRWL Stats: .342/.386/.570, 10 XBH (4 HR), 14/7 K/BB (21 G)
Although it took Jordan Lennerton four seasons to graduate from A-ball, the 27-year-old may find himself in the major leagues at some point next year.
This past season, the left-handed-hitting first baseman batted .278/.382/.430 with 17 home runs and a 133-84 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 607 plate appearances at Triple-A Toledo. In 2012, he hit a career-high 21 home runs with Double-A Erie.
Lennerton has average power potential with enough bat speed to handle good velocity, but he struggles against quality secondary pitches. Depending on how the Tigers address their first baseman situation this offseason, he could be in the mix for some at-bats as a reserve next year.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
2013 PRWL Stats: .227/.284/.293, 4 XBH, 11 SB, 12/6 K/BB (17 G)
Everyone knows about Billy Hamilton’s record-breaking, game-changing, once-in-a-lifetime speed. However, in order to make an impact in the major leagues, he needs to be more than a player who’s just insanely fast.
Hamilton had some nice swings with the Reds as a September call-up, but the 23-year-old switch-hitter struggled at Triple-A Louisville for most of the year after a breakout offensive campaign in 2012, recording a .256/.308/.343 batting line and a 102-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 games.
After getting off to a slow start in the Puerto Rican Winter League, Hamilton’s production has picked up as of late, with a .444 batting average (8-for-18) and five stolen bases over his last four games.
Michael Taylor, OF, Washington Nationals
2013 PRWL Stats: .371/.411/.517, 8 XBH (2 HR), 26/4 K/BB (22 G)
In my opinion, Michael Taylor is one of the more impressive athletes in the minor leagues.
At 6’4”, 205 pounds, the outfielder has finally grown into his once-wiry frame and is showing some of the power that was projected when the Nationals made him a fifth-round draft pick out of high school in 2009.
In his second consecutive season at High-A Potomac in 2013, Taylor, 22, batted .263/.340/.426 with 57 extra-base hits (41 doubles), 87 RBI, 51 stolen bases (in 58 attempts) and a 131-55 strikeout-to-walk rate in 133 games.
While Taylor’s propensity to swing and miss remains a concern, it’s hard not to be intrigued by his power-speed potential should the baseball skills continue to develop favorably. This offseason, the Nationals added Taylor to the 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in December’s Rule 5 draft.
Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Cleveland Indians
2013 Venezuelan Winter League (VWL) Stats: .312/.370/.567, 16 XBH (12 HR), 35 RBI, 29/15 K/BB (39 G)
Like C.J. Cron, Jonathan Singleton and Jonathan Lennerton, Jesus Aguilar is first base-only prospect whose future in the major leagues is entirely dependent on power.
The 23-year-old held his own at Double-A Akron over parts of the 2012 and 2013 season, combining to bat .277/.356/.436 with 19 home runs, 118 RBI and a 131-69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 654 plate appearances (150 games).
The Indians decided not to add Aguilar to their 40-man roster following the 2012 season, and he luckily went unselected in the Rule 5 draft. However, the organization wasn’t willing to take the same risk this year, adding him to the 40-man roster next month.
Playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, Augilar has already launched 12 home runs in 39 games and has four in his last 10 games.
Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
2013 VWL Stats: .255/.439/.473, 13 XBH (5 HR), 42/36 K/BB (34 G)
Coming off an impressive full-season debut at the High-A level in 2012, Joc Pederson improved his stock as much as any position prospect this past season by batting .278/.381/.497 with 22 home runs, 31 stolen bases and a 114-70 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 games as a 21-year-old in the Double-A Southern League.
Just a year ago, there was some doubt regarding Pederson’s projection as an everyday outfielder in the major leagues, largely due to the belief that the left-handed hitter’s approach and power might not survive an ascent up the organizational ladder. Well, suffice it to say he changed his own outlook by amassing 49 extra-base hits in an advanced league.
Expect Pederson to reach the major leagues during the second half of the 2014 season, likely as a fourth or fifth outfielder. However, his estimated arrival in The Show could be affected dramatically should the organization trade Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and/or Carl Crawford this winter.
Luis Sardinas, SS, Texas Rangers
2013 VWL Stats: .354/.418/.441, 10 XBH, 6 SB, 18/13 K/BB (31 G)
Signed by the Rangers at the same time as Jurickson Profar in July of 2009, Luis Sardinas’ promising career has been slowed by injuries in the minor leagues, including shoulder surgery that limited him to only 14 games in 2011.
After a promising full-season debut at Low-A Hickory in 2012, the 20-year-old turned in a breakout performance this past season at advanced levels. Overall, Sardinas batted .288/.340/.347 with 81 runs scored and 32 stolen bases in 126 games between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco.
The switch-hitter has the chance for at least an above-average hit tool and already possesses plate discipline that’s mature for his age. Defensively, he has the speed, glove and instincts to handle either middle infield position at the highest level.
With the Rangers set to employ a middle-infield configuration of Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Profar at the keystone in 2014, Sardinas could serve as a solid reserve infielder during the second half of the season.