First Pitch: Off-Season Leagues Include Some Interesting Rule 5 Possibilities

Over the off-season, we are going to use the Sunday night/Monday morning First Pitch article to recap the week that was in fall/winter ball. I started off today with a recap of the first two weeks in the Arizona Fall League, as well as a look at some interesting players in winter ball who are Rule 5 eligible. Within the next two weeks, we will see winter leagues begin play in Puerto Rico, Australia and Colombia, so there is a chance for the list of interesting players to get bigger. Alen Hanson and Elias Diaz are both scheduled to start winter ball next month, which would make them the top two prospects to follow this off-season.

The Arizona Fall League wrapped up the first two weeks of action on Saturday. They are now just over 1/3 of the season complete, playing 11 of the 32 scheduled games. On the offensive side, the Pittsburgh Pirates are seeing strong hitting from two of the players they sent there, while the pitching side has mostly been inconsistent.

Starting with Eric Wood, who is not only adding versatility to his resume, he is off to a nice start. Wood has only played third base since turning pro in 2012. He had a strong season at Altoona this year, with improved offense and defense, including more home runs than he hit in his first four seasons combined. In the AFL, he has played left field and first base, to go along with third base. Wood will be at Indianapolis next year, and if he can continue his improvements at a higher level, the versatility will help open up a spot for him in Pittsburgh. He is hitting .370/.452/.481 so far in the AFL. He is Rule 5 eligible this year, so the Pirates will need to make a decision on adding him to the 40-man roster soon.

Jin-De Jhang has played just five games so far, two of them as a DH, and three behind the plate. The low game total is not unusual because teams carry four catchers. The catchers in the AFL actually get a lot of side work because of the amount of pitchers there and the number of pitching changes during every game. Jhang is hitting .412/.450/.471 and hasn’t struck out yet in 19 plate appearances. He is also Rule 5 eligible this off-season.

Connor Joe has been in left field and at third base this fall. He has also played just five games, reaching base at least once in each game. Joe has a .235/.381/.412 slash line, which isn’t bad once you look past the average. He has struck out seven time in 17 at-bats, so that’s a little more than you want to see. The upside is that he played in High-A ball this year and most AFL players were either in Double-A or Triple-A in 2016. The downside is that he is slightly older than both Wood and Jhang, and was at a level lower this season.

On the pitching side, you could lump Alex McRae and Tanner Anderson in the same group. That both had a bad outing and looked good the other times. McRae is pitching in relief and has allowed three runs on six hits and a walk in six innings. Anderson has started twice, and just like McRae, he has allowed three runs on six hits. He has done that over 6.1 innings, with two walks and five strikeouts. Both of them are showing nice velocity, with Anderson getting a lot of ground balls from his fastball that sits 92-94 MPH. McRae is effective with his 92-93 MPH fastball, while mixing in more off-speed pitches than Anderson.

Edgar Santana and Montana DuRapau are having opposite results in relief. Santana has been extremely effective with his fastball/slider combo, putting up 4.2 scoreless innings over three appearances, with no walks and eight strikeouts. He’s been sitting 94-97 with the fastball. DuRapau has been hit in all three appearances, posting a 12.00 ERA and 2.33 WHIP in three outings. Judging by the Game Day strike zone, he is having the same issues he had during the season, leaving everything up in the zone.

That brings us to winter league baseball, which is currently going on in Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. As with Jin-De Jhang and Eric Wood, there are some Pirates in winter ball right now who have Rule 5 decisions to be made.

I’ll start with Jose Osuna, who doesn’t exactly fit the bill because he will be a minor league free agent soon if the Pirates don’t re-sign him or add him to the 40-man roster. I think it’s doubtful that he will be Rule 5 eligible because it would mean that he decided right away to sign as a minor league free agent and got no offers that included a 40-man roster spot. If he does do that, then you could almost guarantee he won’t get picked up in the Rule 5 draft. If a team didn’t want him with no 25-man roster guarantee and three options, it’s highly unlikely that they would want to pay an extra $50,000 (cost of a Rule 5 selection) to keep him on the active 25-man roster all season. It has happened before, but the only examples I know of off-hand included players with previous Major League experience.

There are two other players who would be considered dark horse candidates to either be added to the 40-man roster or selected if they aren’t added. Elvis Escobar is hitting .347/.360/.531 through 15 games in Venezuela. I talked about him briefly in the Sunday Winter Leagues article. Escobar just turned 22 last month and he already has Double-A experience, getting called up to Altoona this season after a great month of July in Bradenton.

He’s a small player, listed at 5’8″, 169 pounds, though he is strong for his size and is probably a little heavier than that listed weight. Escobar would still be considered raw as a player. He has above average speed, though he hasn’t been able to put it to good use on the bases. He can play center field in a pinch, but he doesn’t take the best routes, which is an area where the speed comes in handy. He also doesn’t have the best plate patience, so there are flaws which are both experience related and approach related. Besides the speed, he has a strong arm, and a solid line drive stroke that gives him excellent gap power.

Escobar is definitely an interesting decision for the team. He has the tools to be a solid fourth outfielder, but the flaws will likely keep him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. If he keeps up the hot start in Venezuela, then he will get attention from the scouts. If those experience related mistakes start going away, then he’s a type of player who can spend the entire season on a roster, bringing value with his speed and ability to play three outfield positions. The fact that he showed some nice improvements at the plate this season and he’s still young, might give teams more confidence that he could reach his upside and be worthy of a pick.

Just below Escobar would be Edwin Espinal, who I think won’t be added or be an option to be taken in the draft, but I do think he has Major League potential. I’ll start by saying that first basemen rarely get picked in the Rule 5 draft, so that helps (or hurts from his perspective) his case. He can play third base in a pinch, though I wouldn’t say it’s a possible future spot for him. He’s a big guy, who doesn’t have much range. His ability to play third base is mostly the fact he can catch balls hit to him and he has a plus arm.

Espinal’s value comes from his bat, and he’s someone who I think could break out at some point. The Pirates really liked his bat when they signed him for $150,000 back in 2011. The scouting report said the ball made a different sound coming off his bat, and they believed he could hit for power in the future. He has advanced a level each season, which could temporarily come to a halt next season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to Altoona to start the season. Espinal is big and strong, which hasn’t really led to power yet, but it’s there in his bat. He hit .289 this season and had 25 doubles and seven homers. He also makes consistent contact, striking out 67 times in 423 plate appearances.

He will be 23 years old next season, so this could be the year that he puts the average and power together finally for a strong season. Espinal is a player to keep an eye on in the Dominican this winter. We have seen players breakout in recent winters, and it’s usually the same season they reach Double-A.

As for other Rule 5 eligible players in winter ball, we have Miguel Rosario in the Dominican, John Kuchno in Venezuela, and Luis Heredia and Carlos Munoz in Mexico. Rosario would be the highlight of this group, though there is a reason I separated these players from the others. I don’t think any of them have a chance to be added or picked. Heredia looked like he was headed that way early this season, then he really hit a wall in the second half. He had a 7.40 ERA after June 27th and wasn’t used in either round of the FSL playoffs. Munoz had an average season in Low-A this year, and he’s really struggling with a .176 average early in winter ball. Kuchno is a strong ground ball pitcher, who didn’t have good results in his time at Indianapolis, and his low strikeout total holds him back. He’s getting innings as a starting pitcher in Venezuela.

Rosario looked strong for Altoona this season, as I noted in early August after watching him a few times. He has a deceptive sidearm delivery, with the ability to work low-90s. He relies more on his breaking balls though, which have a ton of late movement, and he’s able to throw them for strikes. In 33.2 innings for Altoona, he had a 1.87 ERA, 29 strikeouts, and a .167 BAA. He used to get more grounders, but his delivery has changed and he relies more on that deception and off-speed pitches, rather than the pitcher who would regular sit 92-94 MPH a couple years ago. That has turned him into a pitcher who gets a few more fly balls than grounders, but I like him better as a prospect now.

So you have two Rule 5 possibilities in the AFL, and another two in winter ball who are a little less likely to be picked or added. You also have the decision with Jose Osuna to watch, as well as some other players of note in winter ball, with more to come soon.

**Mitch Keller Was Obviously the Top Prospect in West Virginia This Year Recap for the West Virginia Power, along with the top ten prospects and some other notable players. No surprise, Mitch Keller was ranked first on their list.

**2016 Second Base Recap: Josh Harrison Gives the Pirates Exactly What They Need A recap of the second base situation for the 2016 Pirates, as well as a look into the future.

**Pirates Fire Rick Sofield and Reassign Nick Leyva There will be new base coaches for the Pirates next year, as well as some other areas covered by these two men. Sofield was the outfield and base running coach, while Leyva handled the infield defense.

**2016 Shortstop Recap: Jordy Mercer’s Days as a Pirates Starter Look Numbered Just like with the second base recap, a look at shortstop for the 2016 Pirates, and then a look into the future.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    October 25, 2016 6:44 pm

    Other than to try to save face with the dumb draft selection, the Pirates should not waste a roster spot protecting Joe. He isn’t likely to be selected anyway, given he’s going in 26 and still in A ball…and can’t field a position.

  • Espinal does hit the ball hard. Line drive gap power is what I saw. I felt he was a decent defensive 1st baseman though I don’t think Tim agrees (?)

  • Serious question for Tim and John…
    How does defense factor into you prospect evaluations?
    As of today Josh Bell has no position he can play well enough to warrant a roster spot – and you rank him in the top tier…

  • The Pirates usually have about 21 position players on the 40-man roster so … Outside of the 13-MLB hitters, they should have about 8 more position player spots for:
    – Diaz, Moroff, Wood, and Weiss would make it 17
    – Diaz/Stewart’s health may force them to hold onto either Fryer or Stallings through spring training (18)
    – I think they still need Ngoepe or a free agent signee like Florimon as a SS injury-back up (19)
    – Then pick two from Garcia, Barnes, Osuna, Jhang, and Escobar. I would let Garcia go and take my chances on Osuna and Escobar. Leaving Barnes and Jhang. (Losing Jhang would be a bit of a PR nightmare since they playing him up after trading McGuire.)

    • Outside the 12-MLB pitchers, they should have about 7 remaining pitching spots:
      – Assuming Hutchison and Glasnow are in the rotation, Kingham, Brault, Holmes, and Williams would make it 16
      – Some combination of Neverauskas and bullpen projects should make up the remaining 3

      Hopefully, they sign a SP or two and push Hutchison and/or Glasnow to the minors. If not, the options look weak enough to consider going with another position player
      I could see a team taking a flyer on Rosario – after all who couldn’t use a change of pace side-armer in the pen. However, I’m not convinced the Pirates should add him.

    • From that list, I would pick Jhang and Barnes, with Escobar a close 3rd.
      Osuna and Garcia do nothing for me. If only Barnes had Garcia’s arm and defensive ability.

    • Drop the back up SS and Weiss and keep Barnes and Jhang.

  • John: Jose Osuna should be a no brainer, and Eric Wood just completed a repeat year in AA, but he seems to have it going in the right direction.

    Did you indicate that Edgar Santana is Rule 5 eligible? If so, we should protect him.

    I know he is not mentioned, but Jordan Luplow was very impressive at Hi A Bradenton down the stretch and in the Playoffs, and will play all of 2017 as a 23 year old. Had Bradenton not been in the playoffs, I think he would have seen some time at AA in Aug and Sep. Exc power numbers for Hi A, W/K is close to 1/1 (60 Walks and a .363 OBP), .784 OPS. Is it possible to get him some time at 3B again?

    • Osuna is the type of player where no one listens to anything we (or others) say about him. He does have some strong qualities, but what exactly is his upside that people are so infatuated with? He’s a good hitter, with his flaw being he isn’t selective enough, which has led to 199 walks in seven seasons. He has always made our top 50, and got rated fairly high when the system wasn’t as deep, but he was also a better prospect following the 2012 season. He had 16 homers and 36 doubles that year. He was more athletic then, but it’s been a slow climb since then.

      He’s a good first baseman, a little below average in the outfield, though his arm plays up. He doesn’t add speed and the power and on base skills aren’t plus tools. He has also played a lot of baseball to get to this point with 2,944 minor league plate appearances, and all the other countless PA’s during winter, Spring Training, Extended ST, Instructional League, even minor league ball during the winter in Venezuela. We are talking about someone with over 4,000 plate appearances by his 24th birthday. That’s a lot of experience.

      Four seasons to get three levels and it was only a 1/2 season at that third level. Maybe if he had some injuries during that time to explain the slow progress, but he’s been healthy as a horse the entire time.

      I think he is appealing because he came through the system and can make some contributions at the majors, but if the Pirates signed someone similar to him during the off-season as a minor league free agent, no one would care. I also think it’s because of the power numbers, which don’t really standout in a different system, but do with the Pirates.

      I think he could have a decent career as a bench player, maybe even start somewhere for a couple years, but I don’t think he provides enough all around to be someone who is a no-brainer because it’s fairly easy to add someone as a free agent who can already do, or has done, what Osuna could end up doing in the majors.

      The Pirates might see Escobar who has the defensive/speed advantage and a bat with gap power and think he makes Osuna expendable. Or Espinal, who has the same defense at first base, can play another spot, and could have the same value at the plate as Osuna. If you have those two with no 40-man guarantee this year, then maybe you don’t worry about someone who doesn’t have a Major League spot in the near future.

      Just for the record, I personally think they should add him and drop Willy Garcia. I wouldn’t be shocked though if he wasn’t re-signed

      • Dreker for President!!!

      • I think some of us (or maybe just me?) look at Osuna and Bell and have a very hard time understanding why one is a top 10 prospect and the other is not considered to be worthy of a 40 man roster spot and Willie Garcia and Jason Rogers are.
        This is perplexing because
        1. Osuna seems capable of playing first base pretty well and corner OF spots at an acceptable level and thus far what I have seen of Bell makes me think his best position is DH.
        2. Osuna is a year younger.
        3. They both seem to have similar power potential – 1 HR every 30 ABs.
        4. Not a huge difference in OPS at Indy.

        • only scouts know apparently bruce……i’m with you man. Nonoe ever thought Garrett Jones would be worth a shit either.

        • Osuna isnt as selective as Bell, but I’ve always felt he might have a place in MLB

          • The walk, SO and HR rates for both of them were eerily similar at Indy last year…

            I guess I am an idiot – but really have a hard time seeing why one is ranked so much higher than he other…

            And why John dismisses the one player when the “prospect” has no position he can be trusted with playing on an everyday basis.

      • well using that qualification- very few players selected in the rule 5 really have a chance to be or have become more than a bench player or start for a few years. I can count on one hand the amount of players that have done more than that in this century.

      • If you are willing to overlook his first year in Bradenton his minor league record looks much better. Maybe he had girlfriend issues at the time, who knows. These guys aren’t robots.

      • John: Your statement that “I think he is appealing because he came through the system and can make some contributions at the majors” says more than enough about putting Jose Osuna on the 40 man roster.

        “what exactly is the upside that people are so infatuated with”? I think he can hit. .291/.333/.482/.815 OPS and 27 EBH incl 7 HR in 220 AB’s at AAA. In AA and AAA combined, 37 doubles, 4 triples, 13 HR in 473 AB’s at age 23 – next year will be his age 24 season. Espinal has shown promise, but his power has never arrived.

        Bell and Osuna at 1B/OF for the 2017 Pirates. Find any AL team that will take John Jaso. Maybe Billy Beane can see the second coming of Scott Hatteberg. No Jaso, no SRod, no Freese at 1B.

  • Wily Garcia nowhere to be seen. Are his Pirate days numbered?

    Lots to read and a nice feature to look at during the boring days of off season.

    • Bobby: Not sure, but I think Garcia is already on the 40 man Roster.

    • I mentioned Garcia in the Dominican preview, talked about him being traded in his winter ball league. He was also mentioned a few days later during the game recap, for his one appearance so far. He’s not Rule 5 eligible, so I didn’t mention him above. He’s also not a top prospect like Diaz or Hanson