Going Deep: The Puerto Rican League’s Best Performers
This is part two of Pitcher List’s series on the best performers in the Winter Ball leagues. Check out part one of the series, our best of the Dominican League, for a primer on Winter Ball and an introduction on who is being covered and why.
Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente
The Liga de Béisbol Profesional Robert Clemente – formerly known as the Puerto Rican League – began its season on November 15th. The league consists of only four teams who play a brief 36 game season that ends on December 30th. The league is much more hitter-friendly than the Dominican Winter League and the overall quality of the pitching appears to be a bit less. Due to the fact that there are fewer games played in the Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, I’ve lowered the threshold that was used in the Dominican Winter League article. It’s important then to keep in mind that this League features an incredibly small sample size. However, I don’t feel that means all numbers should be thrown out. Those featured have all qualified on the Leagues leaderboards.
Due to a delay in the updating of statistics on Baseball-Reference, the stats presented below will differ from those featured in the Dominican League article. Unfortunately the most up-to-date website, MLB.com, does not feature PA or SF, which precludes me from using K%, BB% and BABIP. However, I will use them in league averages below. Baseball-Reference has data on about 95% of the games, so I figure best to include slightly imperfect league averages as opposed to none at all.
Batting League Averages
Pitching League Averages
Yariel Gonzalez (1B – St. Louis Cardinals) Age: 24, Bats: S
The youngest of the prospects we’ll be covering in this piece, Yariel Gonzalez is a 24-year-old prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization that I don’t think is getting enough attention. Nowhere to be found on MLB’s top 30 prospects in the St. Louis Cardinals list, Gonzalez was drafted in 2016 and immediately made an impact in the rookie ball. Gonzalez went on to slash .305/ .357/ .390 in 238 PA in 2017 at low A before slashing .311 / .357 / .458 in 434 at A in 2018. Aside from a 90 PA stint in low A at the end of 2016, Gonzalez is yet to post a wRC+ under 124 and a K% rate over 14% while his BB% seems to always hover slightly over 7%. Even more impressive: he was a .300 hitter for all but nine days in 2018. While the .294 AVG may not be as impressive as what the other prospects are doing in Winter Ball, Gonzalez is continuing to make contact with and drive the ball. There are flaws however, Gonzalez isn’t the fastest prospect in the world but then again he’s also a 1B so it isn’t negatively impacting his defense. Gonzalez’s success at A ball in 2018 paired with his numbers in the Liga De Béisbol should be enough to earn him a promotion to AA to start the year. There we can start to see if he’s a bit more deserving of being placed on some top 30 lists.
Jay Gonzalez (OF – Arizona Diamondbacks) Age: 27, Bats: L
After bouncing back and forth between A+ and AA ball in the Orioles organization, Jay Gonzalez was taken in the 3A Phase of the Rule 5 Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks (for a more in-depth understanding of that phase, see here). In his first full year at AA with the D-Backs, Gonzalez slashed a respectable .287/ .360/ .343 with 7 steals over 204 PA. What’s encouraging about Gonzalez’s Winter Ball performance is that he’s 3rd in AVG and 2nd in OBP. Pair that with the fact that his AVG has gone from .253 in 2016 to .265 in 2017 and .287 in 2018 and you may have an interesting trend. Even if you adjust for the weakness of the pitching in the Liga de Béisbol, Gonzalez’s AVG is heading in the right direction. While he’s always been known more for his speed, the fact that he’s putting up what would be a far-and-away career high in SLG leads me to believe he may have made some change. I’d expect Gonzalez to begin the year in AA again but considering the depletion of the D-Backs OF in the off-season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gonzalez taking the place of a AAA outfielder who is getting a big league look.
Vimael Machin (2B, 3B, 1B – Chicago Cubs) Age: 25, Bats: L
Things seem to be going well for Vimael Machin in Winter Ball which is good because the Cubs prospect appears to be at a bit of a crossroads. Since being drafted in 2015, the utility infielder has bounced around between almost every level of the minors. Aside from one 305 PA stint in A where he slashed .320 / .371/ .500, the numbers have been pretty lackluster. Especially his most recent season where he slashed .220/ .330/ .328 over 296 PA in AA. The one consistency that sticks out however, is the metric that made me put Machin in this piece to begin with: his OBP. While Machin’s AVG was lackluster in AA last year, his OBP was 110 points higher. Before that promotion to AA, Machin hit .209 in 141 PA yet did so with a .369 OBP. Machin’s .413 OBP is currently 3rd in the Liga De Béisbol. While this league doesn’t often feature the pitchers with the best command, Machin is one of four qualified players in the league with more walks than strikeouts. Machin’s ability to take a walk has to be one reason why the Cubs are continuing to give him PA. The exciting news is that he’s maintained that above-average ability to take a walk but paired it with his highest AVG since that career best in 2017. If Machin can find that ability to make contact again, he could continue to work his way up the Cubs organizational ladder.
Dairon Blanco (OF – Oakland Athletics) Age: 25, Bats: R
Defecting from Cuba in 2015, Dairon Blanco played in the Dominican Republic before signing with the Oakland Athletics at the end of 2017. Blanco debuted at high A this past year where he slashed .291 / .342/ .406 in 346 PA with just 1 HR but 22 SB, 10 3B and a 102 wRC+. Blanco’s 2018 Winter Ball season doesn’t really feature a ton of surprise. He’s still showcasing his speed with his 3B and six SB’s and maintaining an above average AVG that may be a bit inflated due to the poor pitching he’s facing. This isn’t to undermine Blanco, after all, his speed and athleticism are what led the A’s to sign him in the first place (assistant GM Dan Feinstein gave Blanco an 80 grade on his speed.) The fact that his AVG and OBP have not gone by the wayside while he’s maintained his speed are certainly encouraging and could lead to Blanco taking that next step to AA in the 2019 season.
Free Agents / Other Leagues:
Ivan De Jesus Jr. (2B, SS – FA) Age: 31, Bats: R
Ivan De Jesus Jr. may be a familiar name to some as he’s been in a quite a few organizations in his 12 year career in Major League Baseball. Originally drafted by the Dodgers, De Jesus Jr. has also spent time in the Red Sox organization as well as the Pirates, Orioles and Reds where he had 465 PA over the 2015 and 2016 seasons. De Jesus Jr.’s last season at the big league level two years ago saw him slashing .253/ .311/ .312 with a .277 wOBA and a 66 wRC+. He then signed a minor league deal with the Brewers where he dominated, slashing .345/ .407/ .488 with a 136 wRC+, but never received a call back up to the bigs. He once again elected free agency, this time signing with the Red Sox where he had a mediocre 2018 before electing free agency again at the end of 2018. If De Jesus Jr.’s Winter Ball numbers are any indication, he shouldn’t have any problem signing yet another minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The utility infielder is 4th in AVG, and 5th in OBP. The strikeouts are inline with what he’s done in the minors and the OPS is where it needs to be for the level of baseball he’s playing in. While De Jesus may end up being a quad-A kind of player, I’d be surprised if he remained without a team in 2019.
Kennys Vargas (3B/SS/2B – Japanese League) Age: 28, Bats: S
If you’re a Twins fan, you certainly know about Kennys Vargas. The free-swinging slugger had spent his entire baseball career with the organization before they released him due to a lackluster minor league campaign in 2018. While Vargas has already signed a one year deal with the Chiba Lotte Marines for $1.5 million, there’s still some information to unpack from his Winter Ball performances. Before we get in to what are league leading Liga de Béisbol numbers, it’s important to know that Vargas played in the Dominican Winter League for a few weeks before playing in Puerto Rico. The results were almost night and day. In the Dominican League – which tends to be more pitcher friendly – Vargas slashed .273/ .364/ . 338 over 88 PA with 0 HR and 26 K putting him closer to a league average Dominican League player than an impact player. His Liga de Béisbol numbers would have you think the Twins made a mistake in not retaining him. Vargas leads the league in AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, TB and BB. Yes. Kennys Vargas. Leads the league. In walks. Is this a result of Vargas being in a more hitter friendly league? His results in the Dominican League make me think so. However, I think it’s made me more intrigued to check in on what he’s doing in Japan in the 2019 season.
Jack Lopez (SS, 2B, 3B – FA) Age: 26, Throws: R
Like Kennys Vargas, Jack Lopez has also spent his entire professional playing career with one organization: the Kansas City Royals. Originally drafted in 2012, Lopez worked his way from rookie ball all the way up to AAA in 2018 where he slashed .251/ .279/ .352 with a 62 wRC+. While the numbers would leave you to believe the Royals released him, Lopez actually elected free agency at the end of the year (he may have felt his path was blocked by Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi). Either the Liga de Béisbol is not as good as I think or Lopez has made some sort of change because the numbers he’s putting up have been fantastic. To be honest, I’m more prone to think it’s the latter than the former considering just how much better his numbers have been. The highest AVG Lopez put up in minors was .281 over 398 PA in 2017. His highest OBP was .332 and highest SLG was .366. Lopez is currently demolishing those with a slash that would lead the league if not for Vargas. Much like Ivan De Jesus Jr., I would be surprised if these numbers didn’t lead to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training in 2019.
Fernando Cabrera (SP – Mexican League) Age: 37, Throws: L
We did it. We finally have a pitcher to talk about. Sort of. I’ve spent much of the article preaching that this is a hitter friendly league, the pitching is poor and offensive numbers should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. The opposite then must be true. If a pitcher is pitching well, maybe we should take notice and that’s exactly what Fernando Cabrera is doing. Yes. That Fernando Cabrera. Drafted by the Indians in 2004, Cabrera spent time with many different organizations: the Orioles, the Red Sox, Athletics, Mets and most recently, in 2013, with the Angels. So what happened to Cabrera after 2013? Mexican League? Independent Ball? Nope. He only plays in the Liga de Béisbol. Sometimes he throws 9 IP like he did in 2017 (1.00 ERA), sometimes 17 IP like in 2014 (1.06 ERA) or sometimes he leads the league with his 2.09 ERA over 43 IP. Clearly, Cabrera isn’t really interested in a comeback unless of course the season starts in November, ends in December and he can dominate when it happens.
Fernando Cruz (RP/3B/C – FA) Age: 31, Throws: L
A converted 3B/C, Cruz has predominantly pitched in the Liga de Béisbol but has often been put in as a defensive replacement at 3B to end games. Formerly in the Royals and Cubs organization, Cruz has spent the last couple of years bouncing between the Mexican and Independent leagues. Cruz is similar to Josh Lowey (a player featured in the Dominican League article) in that, to be blunt, he hasn’t had much success. He never threw more than 36 IP at any level in the minor leagues and his lowest ERA was 3.78 at high A in 2015 (it bloated to 5.46 when he was promoted to AA that year). I imagine it would take a little bit more for a 31-year-old to get another look at the Major League level but Cruz’s performance deserved to be mentioned.
Henry Ramos (OF – FA) Age: 26, Throws: S
Similar to Jack Lopez and Ivan De Jesus Jr., Henry Ramos spent a lot of time in the minors before electing free agency in 2018. Drafted by the Red Sox in 2010, Ramos also spent time with the Dodgers in 2017 and 2018. His most recent season was in the Dodgers AAA affiliate where he slashed an above average .297/ .352/ .465 with a .358 wOBA and a 112 wRC+. So why would an above average OF select free agency over a chance to finally make his MLB debut with the Dodgers? Alex Verdugo, DJ Peters, Jeren Kendall, Starling Heredia, and not to mention all of the actual starting OF in the Dodgers organization. Considering Ramos’s success at the AAA level and his above average performance in Winter Ball – including 4 HR which doesn’t sound like much but is actually 3rd in the league – I think he’ll be signing a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite come 2019.