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. However, compared to previous years, there are more top-ranked prospects participating in the winter leagues this year than I can remember—and I’m not even including high-profile second-year players such as Jurickson Profar and Marcell Ozuna.
Here’s a look at seven top prospects tearing it up in the winter leagues.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
2013 Dominican Winter League Stats: .329/.427/.500, 16 XBH (5 HR), 28 RBI, 6 SB, 33/27 K/BB (42 G)
After a breakout full-season debut in 2012, Gregory Polanco set the bar even higher this past season with an outstanding follow-up campaign across three minor league levels.
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 is making a strong case for a long look in right field during spring training. It’s also worth nothing that the left-handed hitter is batting .370 in 54 at-bats against same-sided pitching this winter.
Lewis Thorpe, LHP, Minnesota Twins
2013 Australian Baseball League Stats: 27.1 IP, 1.32 ERA, .212 BAA, 22/7 K/BB (5 GS)
Signed by the Minnesota Twins out of Australia as a 16-year-old in July 2012, left-hander Lewis Thorpe put himself on the map in a big way in 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 64-6 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 won his last three starts in dominating fashion.
Specifically, Thorpe has allowed just one earned run on nine hits with a 17-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18.2 innings.
Thorpe is still three to four years away from the major leagues, but the 18-year-old’s pitchability and plus command profile give him a chance to be something special.
Michael Taylor, OF, Washington Nationals
2013 Puerto Rican Winter League Stats: .373/.432/.522, 20 R, 12 XBH, 37/12 K/BB (35 G)
The Nationals have been patient with Michael Taylor’s development in the minor leagues, making the outfielder prove himself at a 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. Taylor 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.
Taylor arguably has been the top hitter in the Puerto Rican Winter League so far—possibly even the top hitter across all offseason leagues—as he currently leads all qualified hitters with a .373 batting average, 50 hits and 70 total bases.
Though the 22-year-old now has played in 165 games between the minor leagues and PWL this year, he hasn’t shown signs of wearing down and is batting .419 with nine runs scored, three extra-base hits and a 9-8 strikeout-to-walk rate in his last 10 games.
Wilmer Flores, 3B, New York Mets
2013 VWL Stats: .397/.464/.575, 7 XBH (3 HR), 17 RBI, 8/9 K/BB (19 G)
After four mediocre seasons in the low minors, Wilmer Flores finally put things together in 2012 when he posted an .827 OPS and 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 for the 2013 season, where the 22-year-old thrived in the hitter-friendly environments of the Pacific Coast League. Overall, he posted a career-best .887 OPS with 55 extra-base hits (15 home runs) in only 107 games.
The Mets called Flores up 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.
However, Flores has been on fire since starting in the Venezuelan Winter League in late November. The right-handed hitter boasts a .397 batting average through 19 games.
To say that Flores has been swinging a hot bat over his last 10 games is a gross understatement. During that span, he’s batting .450/.500/.750 with three doubles, three home runs and 13 RBI.
Flores also has collected multiple hits in four consecutive games during which he’s 10-for-19 with two home runs and nine RBI.
Now if he only had a true defensive home…
Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Houston Astros
2013 PWL Stats: .267/.393/.542, 15 XBH (9 HR), 37/25 K/BB (34 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 long-ball drought seems to be behind him, as the left-handed hitter has launched nine home runs through 34 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
After the hot start, Singleton has cooled off considerably over his last 10 games, with a .171 batting average and only three extra-base hits. However, he’s maintained a consistent approach despite the recent struggles, as evidenced by his 15-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio during that span.
While it’s doubtful Singleton will open the 2014 season as Houston’s everyday first baseman, the left-handed hitter won’t be in the minors for long and should be ready to contribute at the highest level by midseason.
Jorge Polanco, 2B, Minnesota Twins
2013 DWL Stats: .297/.362/.384, 11 XBH, 17 RBI, 28/20 K/BB (47 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.
After playing in 115 games at Cedar Rapids followed by another 47 this offseason in the DWL, Polanco has pushed his season total to 162 games. He got off to a sizzling start in winter ball but is clearly feeling the effects of the heavy workload, as he’s batting just .163 with one extra-base hit and eight strikeouts in his last 10 contests.
Marcos Mateo, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
2013 DWL Stats: 9 SV, 21 IP, 1.71 ERA, .195 BAA, 24/9 K/BB (19 G)
Selected by the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft earlier in the month, right-hander Marcos Mateo was the most experienced arm on the board.
After six years in the minor leagues, Mateo spent parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons pitching in the majors with the Cubs, registering a 5.04 ERA and 10.9 K/9 while appearing in 44 games.
However, an elbow injury sidelined the right-hander for the entire 2012 season and then limited him to only 31 total innings in the minors this past season.
Now 29 years old, Mateo still boasts an electric arm with a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, and he complements it with a power slider in upper 80s that has swing-and-miss, wipeout break.
Mateo has dominated in the DWL this offseason while serving as the closer for Estrellas de Oriente. If we discard the stats from his ugly outing on Dec. 12 (0.2 IP, 2 H, 2 ER), Mateo owns a 1.00 ERA and 14-3 strikeout-to-walk with five saves over his last 10 appearances.