Many of baseball’s top prospects are playing in the Australian, Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan winter leagues this offseason 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 five leagues is primarily comprised of hitters. But compared to previous years, there are more top-ranked prospects participating in the winter leagues this year than I can remember. And it’s likely that more players will join the action with each league’s regular season winding down and spring training on the horizon.
Here’s a look at seven top prospects tearing it up in the winter leagues.
Alexander Guerrero, 2B-SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
2013 Dominican Winter League (DWL) Stats: .289/.325/.447, 4 XBH, 7/2 K/BB (12 G)
The Dodgers signed Cuban middle infielder Alexander Guerrero to a four-year, $28 million contract in October, viewing the 27-year-old as a long-term solution at second base.
Guerrero last played in Cuba’s Serie Nacional in 2012 as a 25-year-old, batting .290/.402/.576 with 21 home runs in 328 plate appearances.
Playing in the Dominican Winter League this offseason in preparation for major league camp in the spring, Guerrero missed over two weeks after suffering a hamstring injury in his fourth game for Gigantes del Cibao.
Though Guerrero is batting only .208 since returning to the lineup on Dec. 2, expect his production to pick up in the coming weeks as he regains rhythm at the plate. And once the winter season ends, Guerrero could work out at the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Arizona in advance of spring training, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.
Jorge Polanco, 2B, Minnesota Twins
2013 DWL Stats: .324/.388/.426, 11 XBH, 17 RBI, 21/18 K/BB (41 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.
While the 20-year-old is a solid defender at second base, 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 pound the gaps should make him a doubles machine at the highest level.
Playing in the Dominican Winter League, Polanco has been on fire lately after a slow start, with 11 hits in his last nine contests.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
2013 DWL Stats: .331/.440/.504, 14 XBH (4 HR), 25 RBI, 6 SB, 28/26 K/BB (36 G)
Last season Gregory Polanco amazingly surpassed the lofty expectations he set with an eye-opening full-season debut in 2012. Overall, the 22-year-old batted .285/.356/.434 with 44 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 71 RBI, 38 stolen bases and a 73-52 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.
Polanco has continued to put up huge numbers this offseason in the Dominican Winter League, and he’s batting .500 (11-for-22) during his current six-game hitting streak.
Lewis Thorpe, LHP, Minnesota Twins
2013 Australian Baseball League Stats: 22.1 IP, 1.61 ERA, .209 BAA, 18/4 K/BB (4 GS)
Signed by the Minnesota Twins out of Australia as a 16-year-old in July 2012, left-hander Lewis Thorpe opened eyes during his stateside debut this past season.
Assigned to the team’s affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Thorpe, 17 at the time, posted a 2.05 ERA and .203 opponents' batting average, with a stellar 64-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings.
At 6’1” and 160 pounds, Thorpe’s fastball will sit in the 89-93 mph range with arm-side life, and he can even run it as high as 94-95 mph. His curveball is a second potential plus offering, thrown with depth and tight spin, for which he already demonstrates advanced command. The left-hander’s changeup should give him yet another plus pitch at maturity.
Thorpe showed signs of rust during his first two ABL starts this winter, allowing three earned runs on 13 hits in 8.2 innings. Since then, however, the southpaw has shown his huge upside with back-to-back dominating starts. Specifically, Thorpe has allowed just one earned run on five hits with a 13-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13.2 innings.
While he’s still three to four years away from the major leagues, the 18-year-old’s pitchability and plus command profile give him a chance to be something special.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Houston Astros
2013 Puerto Rican Winter League (PWL) Stats: .291/.411/.573, 13 XBH (8 HR), 31/21 K/BB (29 G)
After opening the 2013 season by serving a 50-game suspension, Jonathan Singleton struggled to find his power stroke upon his return while working his way back up the minor league 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.
However, Singleton’s 2013 power outage is finally over, as the left-handed hitter has now hit eight home runs through 29 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League, including four in his last 10 games.
Wilmer Flores, 2B-3B, New York Mets
2013 Venezuelan Winter League (VWL) Stats: .391/.463/.478, 4 2B, 6 RBI, 4/6 K/BB (13 G)
After four mediocre seasons in the low minors, Wilmer Flores finally put things together in 2012 when he posted an .827 OPS with a career-high 18 home runs in 130 games between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
Flores’ breakout performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas to open the 2013 season, where the 22-year-old thrived in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, posting a career-best .887 OPS with 55 extra-base hits (15 home runs) in only 107 games.
The Mets promoted Flores to the major leagues in early August, where he was overmatched by top-notch sequencing and velocity and posted an ugly .542 OPS with 23 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances.
Flores has been on fire since starting in the Venezuelan Winter League in late November, with a .391 batting average through 13 games, and he’s now hit a double in three consecutive contests.
Michael Taylor, OF, Washington Nationals
2013 PWL Stats: .373/.408/.500, 16 R, 10 XBH, 33/5 K/BB (29 G)
The Nationals have been patient with Michael Taylor’s development in the minor leagues, making the outfielder prove himself at a given level before offering him a promotion.
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 ratio in 133 games.
At 6’4”, 205 pounds, the outfielder passes the eye test with flying colors; he 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.
While Taylor’s propensity to swing and miss is a concern and will continue to be moving forward, it’s hard not to be intrigued by his power-speed potential—especially if you believe his baseball skills will improve.
Taylor has been arguably the top hitter in the Puerto Rican Winter League so far, as he currently leads all qualified hitters with a .373 batting average and 44 hits. In his last five games, Taylor is batting .476 (10-for-21) with seven runs scored and two doubles.
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