Winter League baseball has begun in Venezuela, where seven players from the Pirates are currently on the rosters. We will have a preview of the league in Mexico once action begins there on Tuesday night. For now, we take a look at the players in the Venezuelan league, which started play on Thursday night. Just as a reminder for winter coverage, any player who played in the Pirates system during the 2016 season will be covered until they sign elsewhere. If someone signs with the Pirates during the off-season and they are playing winter ball, they will be added to the coverage.
Jose Osuna is one of those players who we might be covering until he signs elsewhere. He reached minor league free agency this off-season and recently told a local paper that he doesn’t know what the Pirates will do with him. They could possibly add him to the 40-man roster, or re-sign him as a minor league free agent. If they choose to go the latter route, the Pirates will lose their right to negotiate exclusively with Osuna shortly after the MLB postseason is over and the free agency period begins. The way the Pirates are set up now, he might be able to find a better opportunity elsewhere, but in that recent article mentioned above, he expressed a desire to make the majors with the team that originally signed him.
Osuna was one of three Pirates to see action during the first two days and he started off with a bang. On Thursday night, he went 2-for-4 with two doubles, a walk and drove in two runs. He also picked up an outfield assist. On Friday, he had an 0-for-4 night in his team’s 5-1 loss. Osuna was the Rookie of the Year last year in Venezuela, and he finished third in the MVP voting after hitting .330/.395/.519 in 59 games.
Elvis Escobar went 0-for-2 in his opening game before leaving for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. Last night, he came into the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh and singled in his only at-bat. He remained in the game on defense in right field. Escobar played 25 games in Venezuela last winter, though he only received 21 plate appearances. He should get a lot more time this winter due to experience during the regular season. After finishing the season with 29 games (plus playoffs) in Altoona, the young outfielder (turned 22 in September) will be one of the more interesting players to follow this winter. He had a strong finish in his time with Bradenton, posting an .868 OPS in July. That led to the Pirates giving him a chance to play regularly in Double-A, batting lead-off and playing center field.
Julio Vivas pitched an inning last night and gave up one run on one hit and two walks, while striking out three batters. He threw 33 pitches, 17 for strikes. Vivas got the win in the 12-11 game. This is his third season playing winter ball in the Venezuelan league, which is impressive considering that he spent the majority of this season with the West Virginia Power. Usually players don’t see regular action in this league until they reach Double-A, yet he was used often during his first two seasons in Venezuela.
The Opening Day rosters also include John Kuchno, Jhondaniel Medina, Tomas Morales and Elias Diaz. I mentioned a couple weeks back that Elias Diaz was placed on the Extreme Fatigue list, which would have kept him out of action until mid-December. I also mentioned that his winter team wasn’t happy with that decision and apparently they came to an agreement with the Pirates. Diaz will be allowed to start winter ball in November according to recent reports. He played just 35 games this year, though he spent a lot of rehab time in Pirate City. Diaz was shutdown in September due to a leg infection.
Medina will become a minor league free agent if he doesn’t re-sign with the Pirates. While he has a chance to make the majors someday, he isn’t an option to be added to the 40-man roster. Morales and Kuchno are playing winter ball for the first time. Both were teammates with Altoona and Indianapolis this year, as they shuffled back and forth all season, including a couple trips to Bradenton for Morales.
Once the action in Mexico gets going, the winter articles will be posted about 5-6 times a week depending on how many Pirates played each day. The league in the Dominican begins play on October 20th, which usually adds a decent group of players to the coverage. Puerto Rico starts on the 27th, and Australia begins play in November. There are also leagues in Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and a smaller league in Mexico. If Pirates are in those league, we will update them.
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.