The DSL Pirates had a tough season in 2016, finishing with a 27-42 record. Their team ERA of 3.93 ranked them near the bottom of the pitcher-friendly league, while their .661 OPS ranked them right in the middle of the league. They saw lackluster results from some of their top signings from the 2015-16 international class. The Pirates used 36 players total during the 2016 season, which is a low total compared to previous years. Four of those players were released by the end of the season, while three others finished the year in the Gulf Coast League.
Part of the problem with the team was pitching injuries. Yerry De Los Santos, Luis Diaz, Angel Vasquez and Saul de la Cruz all missed the entire season. Those first two pitchers had shoulder related injuries and spent the entire year at Pirate City in Bradenton on rehab, while Vasquez and de la Cruz were out due to Tommy John surgery. De Los Santos was a six-figure signing during the 2014-15 signing period and was scheduled to be one of the starters, while Vasquez had pitched well in relief in 2014-15, and was supposed to provide them with a strong innings-eater out of the bullpen.
The injuries didn’t stop there on the pitching side. Hard throwing Joel Cesar made two starts before being shutdown. He didn’t start pitching again until the Fall Instructional League (FIL) in Bradenton last month. Cesar has reportedly hit 100 MPH, but he sits 96-97 MPH and is very raw. He has some control issues and his secondary stuff needs work.
Lefty Reymundo Pena was a July 2nd signing back in 2015 and his season lasted two innings back on June 4th. He’s on the small side and sits 86-88 MPH. Pena was in the FIL for rehab and has yet to resume throwing. So the Pirates got a combined 8.2 innings out of six pitchers who were expected to contribute this season.
Despite the losses on the pitching side, there were some highlights. Leandro Pina had a terrific season that included him starting the DSL All-Star game and getting invited to the FIL in September. He did that as one of the youngest players on the team, turning 18 two weeks ago. Pina is a 6′ 3″ righty, who has excellent command of a fastball that sits 86-88 MPH, while mixing it with a plus changeup, and a curveball that needs work. He has a frame that should allow him to add some velocity in the future. He posted a 1.46 ERA in 61.2 innings, with a 34:9 K/BB ratio, an 0.96 WHIP and a 1.11 GO/AO ratio. Pina didn’t allow a home run all season.
Lefty Roger Santana had a strong season with a 1.98 ERA in 68.1 innings, while allowing just 12 walks. His stats were a little misleading because he did give up more unearned runs than earned runs, having trouble getting out of jams made by his defense. Santana was a second-year player who improved a lot over his rookie season, earning him an FIL invite. He throws high-80s with movement on his fastball, sitting a tick slower than last year when he was 89-90 MPH. He doesn’t have a huge frame, so he might not be able to shake that “finesse lefty” mold that works well in the low minors, but usually gets sorted out by Double-A.
Yeudry Manzanillo received a $150,000 bonus during the 2015-16 signing period, the highest bonus given to a pitcher by the Pirates. He is 17 years old, and stands 6′ 3″, 175 pounds. Manzanillo didn’t have great stats and he’s more about projection than current results. He throws high-80s, mixing his fastball with a curveball and changeup. He was invited to the FIL and should see plenty of innings in the GCL next year.
The prospect who might look like the best pitcher from this group for a while is Sergio Cubilete, who sits low-90s as a starter, hitting 95 MPH. He’s a 21-year-old, 6′ 4″ right-hander, who mixes his fastball with a change that has good separation, as well as a curve that sits 79-82 MPH. As an older pitcher, he will likely start next year at a level higher than the GCL. He was invited to the FIL.
Adonis Pichardo was a six-figure signing during the 2014-15 July 2nd signing period. In his second year in the league, the 20-year-old, 6′ 3″ righty, showed a nice improvement in his stats, but that didn’t result in an FIL invite. Pichardo had a low strikeout rate, though he threw more strikes, didn’t allow a single homer, and recorded more ground ball outs than last year. The best part was that he was injury free after suffering a couple minor injuries during his rookie season. Pichardo has hit 96 MPH in the past, and sits low-90s with his fastball.
Armando Bustamante had a strong finish to the season with nine straight shutout appearances, and he was used often to put out fires in one-sided games, so those weren’t your average relief appearances. Unfortunately, the third-year player didn’t get an FIL invite as a reward for his terrific work, which isn’t a good sign for his future. He has a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that sits 90 MPH, and a slider he uses as an out pitch.
In 2015, Julio Gonzalez was a catcher, who was moved to third base. He struggled badly on offense and defense. His one tool was a plus arm and that led to him being moved to the mound this season. Gonzalez didn’t pitch often, but he had a 2.61 ERA and threw strikes. With more experience, he could be an interesting pitcher.
The Pirates used Eumir Sepulveda often in relief, but the results didn’t match the stuff for the third-year player from Mexico. He sits low-90s and has a nice curve/change combo. That led to a high ERA, WHIP and BAA, plus a low strikeout rate and a poor GO/AO ratio. With no FIL invite, he will return next year as a fourth-year player and that rarely ends well.
Lefty Randy Jimenez was described as very raw, with a lot of upside. I predicted a rough season for him in the DSL season preview and he certainly had his issues. He has a nice 6′ 3″ frame, which could help him add some MPH to his high-80s fastball. Jimenez has a strong curve, but lacks control. The 18-year-old signed for $100,000 last June.
Wilmer Contreras signed for $85,000 last June and made his debut shortly afterwards. He is an 18-year-old, 6′ 3″ righty, who throws high 80s, with solid command and weak secondary stuff. The Pirates liked his potential though and he had a nice strikeout rate in 2016, plus he held batters to a .197 average this season. His biggest issue is that he’s an extreme flyball pitcher.
Angel Martinez is a 6′ 3″ lefty, who is 19 years old. He throws 87-88 MPH, with a strong changeup. He also has a curveball that has potential. Despite nine walks in 11.2 innings, his control isn’t that bad.
Kleiner Machado is a 5′ 11″ righty, who signed for $90,000 last July 2nd. He was the youngest pitcher on the Pirates and the inexperience showed. His fastball sits 89-90 MPH, and he mixes it with a good curveball and an average changeup. His control needs some work, and he will get a chance to improve on that next season in the DSL.
Oliver Garcia is an 18-year-old righty, who stands 6′ 3″, 167 pounds. He had strong results with a 2.61 ERA in 41.1 innings, though he did that without a strikeout pitch and while allowing more flyballs than grounders. He has a fastball that sits 88-90 MPH.
Jose Delgado throws 92-93 MPH, which gives him one of the better fastballs on the team. The problem is that he turns 22 in December and he has poor control. He has a slider with nice movement, but his changeup is very poor. Delgado has a nice frame, but he’s an older project and that’s a tough spot to be in while in the DSL.
The Pirates released three pitchers during the season. Edgardo Leon and Raymond Rodriguez both battled control issues during their three seasons, while Ramon Garcia was an FIL invite in 2015, but ended up returning to the DSL and struggling in the closer role.
The Offense Had Very Few Highlights
For two seasons, Jeremias Portorreal didn’t perform well in the DSL, striking out a lot and not producing much when he did put the ball in play. The Pirates invited him to the FIL last year, then sent him back to the DSL, which doesn’t happen often. Portorreal even started off this season slow, until an adjustment he made at the plate with his hand positioning began to pay off. Once the calendar hit July, he caught fire. He quickly turned into the best hitter on the team, getting on base in 28 of 29 games. That led to him being promoted to the GCL so he could get some extra at-bats. His success carried over to the FIL this year and pushed him to the top prospect spot for this team. While he spent three years in the DSL, he will be 19 for most of the 2017 season.
The only real challenge to Portorreal for the top prospect spot was 17-year-old center fielder Kevin Sanchez and it was a tough decision. Sanchez received a $450,000 bonus last July, and at times, gave glimpses of what made him special. He got an FIL invite after hitting .235/.359/.275 in 45 games. He had 24 walks, compared to 18 strikeouts. Sanchez missed the start of the season with a minor leg injury. He went just 4-for-12 in stolen bases, but that is very misleading because he has plus speed. Sanchez will be a player to watch in the GCL next season. With plus speed and his ability to get on base, along with his defense in center field, he has a chance to be a legit prospect at this time next season.
Shortstop Rodolfo Castro was the youngest player on the team this season, turning 17 just days before the season started. He started off very strong, and had a nice month of August as well, finishing with a .271/.360/.411 slash line in 56 games. Castro was better known for his defense when he signed for six figures last August. He struggled in the field with 34 errors, but he should have the ability to stick at shortstop in the future. His biggest issue on offense this season was struggling from the right side of the plate. The young switch-hitter had huge splits with a .541 OPS against lefties, compared to .862 when batting left-handed. Castro was a DSL All-Star and an FIL invite.
Catcher Gabriel Brito had a nice season on offense in 2015 as a 17-year-old, but his defense still needed work. He returned to the DSL in 2016 and showed some improvements behind the plate, while also putting up decent offensive numbers. Brito signed for $200,000 during the 2014-15 signing period. He was promoted to the GCL late in the season and saw a little bit of action. He is small for a catcher, listed at 5′ 9″, 170 pounds. That will likely limit his offensive potential, but he does a good job of hitting line drives and getting on base, plus he could be a strong defensive catcher in time, so he has some upside.
Those four were the top prospects on the team and they all did a good job of getting on base. Larry Alcime and Sherten Apostel both had tough rookie seasons at the plate, but you can’t write off either player. Talking to Alcime, who signed for a $350,000 bonus, he noted the huge difference in competition between the DSL and what he saw in the Bahamas. Apostel was signed for $200,000 out of Curacao, which is much like the Bahamas as far as competition level. Both players were 17 this season and the inexperience showed. Both players also have athletic builds with raw tools that could lead to upside for a patient team.
Alcime showed an incredible improvement in his strikeout rate in August, going from a high strikeout player to someone who barely struck out. He made an adjustment at the plate and it took awhile to get used to the better pitching he was seeing. The same adjustment period happened with Apostel, and that led to a .306/.358/.429 slash line during the last month of the season. Both players will return to the DSL in 2017. They will both still be young for the level, and we could see that upside start to come through for them if they continue their late season progress.
Samuel Inoa signed for $240,000 last July and had a tough rookie season. He put up a .593 OPS and struggled defensively. He showed a nice line drive stroke to the opposite field before signing, but that didn’t lead to the desired results at the plate. Inoa has below average speed on the bases. He will likely see regular playing time next season in the DSL, and the Pirates obviously like the potential upside. Yair Babilonia was the third string catcher. The 19-year-old was signed out of Colombia last year and did a respectable job behind the plate. He was highly regarded as a player while growing up, but the late signing and his role would suggest he has limited upside.
Infielders Cristopher Perez and Francisco Mepris were both invited to the FIL this year. Perez signed back in 2014 for six figures and started off very slow in 2015. By the end of the season, he showed some strong improvements and that carried over into 2016. He went from shortstop his first season to third base this year, occasionally playing shortstop and second base. Part of his success came from filling out his frame. He was very skinny was he signed, then he added muscle and that has led to hitting the ball with more authority. Mepris turns 19 today. He bounced around the infield as a rookie in 2016 and didn’t do much of note, though his .702 OPS is above average for the league. Mepris actually had two huge games late in the year, which boosted his OPS by 77 points, skewing his season total.
Kyle Simmons signed out of the Bahamas last July. He was a rare July signing, who made his debut the same year he signed. He did not put up good stats in 2016, except for a high walk total. Simmons played for Great Britain during the WBC last month and looked a lot better than his stats would indicate. He normally plays middle infield, but he was used at third base for the first time and performed well on defense during the entire tournament. He also had a nice approach at the plate and came up with some big hits, so there could be more potential than his stats would suggest.
Eddy Vizcaino put up nice stats and showed the ability the draw some walks and not strike out. On the other hand, his playing time was cut and he didn’t get an FIL invite, so it’s tough to see much upside at 20 years old, and in his second season. He does get some good scouting reports and has tools, making the lack of an invite a little perplexing. Outfielder Carlos Garcia saw limited playing time as a 17-year-old rookie. He struck out 45 times in 97 at-bats, so that could explain the limited use, despite getting a six-figure bonus last year. Garcia doesn’t have many tools, and his bat is supposed to carry him, so this really wasn’t the debut you’d like to see.
Under normal circumstances, Rudy Guzman would have been mentioned much higher. Technically, he wouldn’t even be in the DSL. He would have probably spent 2016 in Low-A ball. Guzman’s family house had a fire many years ago and he doesn’t have the proper identification to get a visa to the U.S. He is a legit five-tool player, but he may never leave the Dominican. Williams Calderon went from a light-hitting middle infielder last year, to a lighter-hitting first baseman this season. Being a year older and showing no progress on offense, he has very little upside.
Johan De Jesus was promoted to the GCL when Luis Perez needed shoulder surgery. This was going to be the fourth season in the DSL, though his third season was lost when he spent the entire year serving out a 72-game suspension. While he was a highly regarded shortstop when he signed, De Jesus has never showed the potential that got him a $200,000 bonus on his 16th birthday back in 2012. He also hasn’t played shortstop regularly since 2013.
Ramy Perez saw regular action as a fourth-year player this season, but once the season ended, his time with the Pirates ended. Players who spend four seasons in the DSL rarely make the jump to the States, so most of them are released (just like Perez) right after the final game of the season.
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 70 at-bats, 20 innings pitched, or 10 relief appearances. The only prospect who didn’t reach those marks was Joel Cesar, who would have made the bottom half of the list. Most of the list is based on upside and scouting reports, rather than the results this year. These players are so far away that even their upside is hard to peg.
1. Jeremias Portorreal
2. Kevin Sanchez
3. Rodolfo Castro
4. Gabriel Brito
5. Sergio Cubilete
6. Leandro Pina
7. Yeudry Manzanillo
8. Roger Santana
9. Larry Alcime
10. Sherten Apostel
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.