First Pitch: Pirates See Struggles from Top Winter League Prospects

The Pittsburgh Pirates have some interesting prospects on offense playing winter ball this year. The pitching side is a little light this year with Luis Heredia being the biggest name and Miguel Rosario being the best prospect. Alen Hanson just started his winter season on Thursday, while Willy Garcia, Jose Osuna, Edwin Espinal, Pablo Reyes, Elvis Escobar and Carlos Munoz have all been with their winter teams since the start of the season. Elias Diaz should start playing soon according to reports a couple weeks ago, so he will add to the group. While that group should give us something to talk about this winter, we haven’t been posting many articles yet.

When the season in Venezuela began, both Jose Osuna and Elvis Escobar got off to strong starts. That was a repeat of last year for Osuna, who parlayed a breakout season in winter ball, into him getting added to the 40-man roster after a strong showing with Altoona and Indianapolis this season.

Escobar is two years younger than Osuna and one level lower, so that would have been very impressive if he had success in winter ball last year. Most players in winter ball have breakout seasons after they spend time in Double-A. Escobar put in a month with Altoona this year, so we probably shouldn’t have huge expectations for him yet against mostly Triple-A quality players in Venezuela. His hot start this year made it hard to temper expectations though.

Since those first couple weeks, both players have really fallen off. Escobar was among the league leaders in multiple hitting categories, but after Sunday’s game, he has a .268/.283/.392 slash line in 30 games. In his last ten games, he is 4-for-37 with no walks and ten strikeouts.

Osuna has been just as bad, going 5-for-41 in his last ten games with 15 strikeouts. Perhaps the thing that stands out the most for Osuna is that he has hit just one home run in his last 222 plate appearances over 54 games (30 winter, 24 regular season). While these two are both struggling badly recently, at least they are still getting playing time…for now.

Edwin Espinal was named the starting first baseman on Opening Day for his winter team in the Dominican. The 22-year-old has played just ten games now, hitting .147/.256/.382, with that slugging number driven by two home runs. Espinal hasn’t played in over a week, and he has just two starts this month.

Willy Garcia is getting even less playing time than Espinal, starting just three times and picking up just 14 plate appearances so far this winter. That’s not what you want to see from someone who has split the last three seasons between Double-A and Triple-A (getting promoted mid-2015). Garcia is at the point where you expect him to put up strong stats in winter ball, but this isn’t something new. Last year, he hit .160/.189/.180 in 18 games before his team stopped using him. He’s 24 now and coming off a disappointing regular season, so you would like to see him use the winter to get back on track.

Last season at Bristol, Carlos Munoz had somewhat of a breakout season in that he added power to his game, though as we kept pointing out, he was a fifth year player in rookie ball. That last part took some luster off his big season, but then he went to winter ball in Mexico and put up decent stats. That was more impressive than his regular season stats, because the league in Mexico is much tougher competition than the Appalachian League. In Bristol, Munoz was older than league average and had much more pro experience than the average player in the league. In Mexico, he was about seven years younger than the average player, and some of them had Major League experience.

Munoz went to Low-A this year and had a disappointing season, which has carried over to winter ball so far. He is hitting .133/.235/.150 and has recently been benched.

While none of these five players are considered top prospects, they all have potential. Osuna is obviously the closest now, and has a chance to be a strong bench piece who can play solid defense at first base and won’t hurt you too bad in the outfield. Escobar will play all of next season at 22 years old, and he has a lot of tools to his game. Espinal has shown signs of being a solid hitter with power and average. This year was his best season and he was young for Double-A. Garcia has tools, but his approach has never improved at the plate, other than short spurts where he gets on base better. Those spurts come with a loss of power though, so he hasn’t been able to make any progress in Triple-A. Munoz has excellent patience at the plate and has a great approach along with the ability to make consistent contact. There is also some raw power to go along with those tools.

It’s too early to take anything from Hanson’s winter, but there is one more player left. Pablo Reyes has just started seeing regular playing time and after collecting three hits on Sunday, he has a .478 average through his first seven games. He has collected at least one hit in each game. It’s still too early to get excited about that performance, but the fact that he played High-A ball in 2016, and he is doing well in the Dominican league, makes it hard not to think ahead.

The Dominican league is the best league for winter ball. I said up top that players usually need to look good in Double-A before they do well in winter ball. If you have a player with no Double-A experience, who is age appropriate for the level like Reyes was this season in High-A, then it’s rare that he even sees regular playing time in the Dominican. It’s not the best comparison due to the age/level, but after Gregory Polanco had his breakout season in 2012 at West Virginia, he put up a .400 OPS in winter ball in the Dominican. When Polanco reached Double-A the following season (he actually finished the last week in Triple-A), he then had his breakout winter, winning the league MVP award.

Reyes has never ranked high on the prospect lists for us, but we have always mentioned his tools. The first reports we got for him mentioned his great hand-eye coordination, his speed, and a chance to be a solid defensive player. This winter he has already played third base, second base and shortstop. He is a smaller player, but he still has some pop in his bat. Reyes posted a .783 OPS during the second half of the season, a number that was 106 points over the Florida State League average.

While I don’t expect him to keep up a strong pace this winter due to his experience in pro ball, it would be nice to see him get plenty of playing time. The leagues are short in the Dominican and some of the better players show up later in the season, with Alen Hanson being a good example of that this week. That makes it hard for players like Reyes to continue playing once they have any type of slump. While we look at it as winter ball, this is their Major League season, so there is no sticking with struggling players, unless they have a long track record of success. If Reyes continues to get at-bats, it either means he is playing well, or his team has a lot of injuries.

So far the winter articles have been slow this off-season. We will post them more often once the AFL season ends this week, just so there is some type of article going up each day throughout the winter. The hope is that the players listed above who are slumping, along with Hanson and Elias Diaz beginning their off-season, gives you positive news to read in each article. There is a lot of potential for an interesting winter, we are just waiting for the players to do their part.

**This Week’s Pirates Off-Season Transactions: The Remaining Rule 5 Draft Decisions Tim Williams takes a look at the top choices to be added to the 40-man roster by Friday ahead of the Rule 5 draft.

**Jin-De Jhang Getting More Opportunities Behind the Plate With Reese McGuire Gone Feature on Jin-De Jhang as part of our live coverage from the Arizona Fall League.

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