Going Deep: The Venezuela League’s Best Performers
For the final section of our four part series on the best performers in the Winter Ball leagues, we’ll be focusing on the Venezuela Winter League. While this league isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other four leagues, it may be most pertinent to the zeitgeist thanks to the tater-admiring ways of one Willians Astudillo. The league is much more than the contact-heavy Twins prospect however; there are actually more MLB prospects performing well in this league than in any of the previous three mentioned. 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. Check out part two of the series to see who the best performers in the Puerto Rican League are or part three for the best Mexican Pacific League performers.
The Venezuela Winter League League
The Venezuela Winter League began on Oct 12th, the same day as the Mexican Pacific League, and concluded it’s regular season on December 30th. The postseason is currently happening – and delivering a lot of action packed taters and walk-off’s in the process – but this article will be primarily focused on who performed over the regular season. That means that certain high end prospects like Fernando Tatis Jr. will not be covered in this piece as they didn’t receive enough at bats during the VWL regular season. Instead we’ll be looking at those who qualified for the leaderboards where the minimum seemed to be around 160 AB; certainly enough of a sample size to draw some conclusions.
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.
Some important notes for context: of the four leagues, the VWL has the highest AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, BABIP, ERA, and WHIP. I think it fair to say it’s a hitter friendly league.
Batting League Averages
Pitching League Averages
Willians Astudillo (C/UTIL – Minnesota Twins) Age: 27, Bats: R
If you follow my Twitter account, you know I have a healthy obsession with Willians Astudillo. To be fair, how can you not? The man goes all out on the base-paths, can throw runners out without looking, and breaks the unspoken rules of baseball. While some may perceive my admiration as flippant or tongue-and-cheek (the Big Willians Style tweet may have been a bit much), I can assure you, it is not. I didn’t have my wife get me an Astudillo jersey so I can walk around feeling as if I’m the keeper of some inside joke that only the deepest of baseball nerds get. I truly, legitimately love Willians Astudillo. While the entire baseball world zigs, Astudillo zags. He’s the antithesis of the three true outcome player. At least when it comes to strikeouts and walks. The VWL shows that the power may actually be coming.
For those unfamiliar with Astudillo, the first thing that likely pops out from his regular season VWL performance are his 4 strikeouts over 234 at bats. As you will learn about Astudillo though, metrics aren’t always what they seem. Though his near-2% K rate is wildly impressive, it’s in line with the sub 4% K rates he frequently puts up in the minors. His 5% BB rate may seem low, but once again it’s similar to his minor league 3% BB rate. Even Astudillo’s .325 AVG in the VWL is made less impressive when you consider the .355 he hit over 93 PA at the Major League level in 2018. We know that Astudillo can make contact. Would it have qualified, his 91.7% Contact rate would’ve led the league and as Jeff Sullivan aptly points out in one of his recent pieces, Astudillo is projected to have a 94.2% AB/PA rate in 2019. What’s exciting to me about Astudillo’s VWL performance is the fact that he’s hit for much more power. Astudillo has hit over 10 HR once in his near 10 year career so it’s encouraging to see that he has the 2nd most HR in the VWL. While there’s some speculation as to whether Astudillo will make the 25-man out of spring training, I – along with Roster Resource – think that he will. His ability to play anywhere on the infield (and outfield…and mound) paired with his elite contact skills make him the kind of utility player I think front offices want on their team.
Franklin Barreto (2B/SS – Oakland Athletics) Age: 22, Bats: R
Athletics fans are sure to be familiar with Franklin Barreto. The A’s former top 5 prospect has a lot of power, a lot of speed and a heck of an arm. Unfortunately, the short, sub-100 PA stints Barreto has seen in an A’s uniform in 2017 and 2018 have been incredibly lackluster. His first call up saw him hit .197 over 71 AB’s with a shocking 43.4% K rate. While his 2018 appearance saw that K rate go to down to a still lofty 38.7%, his BB rate went from 6.6% to 1.3%. Even with the K rate however, Barreto still managed a 100 wRC+ thanks to his 5 HR in 73 AB. While many fans seemed to think that the acquisition of Jurickson Profar may have signaled the end of Barreto’s tenure with the A’s, general manager David Frost told reporters the organization, “still has really high expectations for Franklin”, noting they’re likely to convert him to an outfield option as opposed to a middle-infielder.
Organizational utilization aside, Barreto’s VWL performance is more of the same for the 22-year-old. His power is on display – his 7 HR are tied for the 3rd most in the league while his OPS and SLG are 2nd – and he’s showcasing his speed with his 7 SB and 1 CS. The strikeout’s are still there however, which gives cause for concern. His near 18% K rate isn’t a lot in a vacuum but when you take into consideration that the league average is 14.7% and a 5.70 K/9 for pitchers, that number becomes a lot less appealing. I didn’t expect Barreto to all of a sudden be posting sub-10% BB rates in Venezuela but I find his 18% akin to what he’s done so far in the minors. At the end of the day, Barreto is still very young and has time to grow. Considering the positional depth the Athletics have in both the infield and outfield, I’d expect the Athletics to keep Barreto in the minors to begin the season, unless he proves to them he can cut down on the K’s in spring training.
Harold Ramirez (OF – Miami Marlins) Age: 24, Bats: R
In 2017, Eno Sarris wrote a brief piece about Harold Ramirez. The article posited that the once top 100 prospect has a decent hit tool but doesn’t have the speed to support his GB rate, though a change to his approach could lead him to success. In 2018, Ramirez brought his GB rate down 8%, put up his best SB/CS ratio at 16/2, hit .320 with a 132 wRC+ and set a new career high for HR at 11. Ramirez decided to part ways with the Blue Jays organization in November but his brief free agency concluded a few weeks later as the Miami Marlins acquired him on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. This very well could’ve been the best move for Ramirez considering he has a better path to playing time at the big league level with the Marlins as opposed to the Blue Jays. If his VWL numbers are any indication, he may well have a shot at catching on as a 4th OF out of spring training, too.
Batted ball data isn’t widely available for the VWL so I can’t speak to Ramirez’s GB rate but his stellar slash line proves that his hit tool has not taken any steps back. Ramirez leads the league in AVG, OBP and OPS and is second in SLG. His near 12.5% K rate is right in line with what his minor league numbers would suggest while his 12% BB rate is a nice step forward. The 10 SB attempts show that he’s continuing to work on his speed while the 5 CS are definitely a bit worrisome. As of right now, the Marlins have one top 10 OF prospect in Monte Harrison (I think Victor Mesa will be a 2020 guy) and his numbers were much worse than Ramirez’s. If Ramirez’s VWL success can translate to spring training and his 2018 strides prove sustainable, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him break camp as the Marlins 4th OF over Garrett Cooper.
Harold Castro (2B/SS – Detroit Tigers) Age: 25, Bats: L
In one of her many fantastic articles about Detroit Tigers prospects, Emily Walden wrote in mid-November that Harold Castro has, “proven he can fill a defensive need” but his “bat-to-ball rate struggled”. Walden later points out that he’s flipped a switch in the VWL and since the articles publication, Castro has continued to prove her correct. Castro wrapped up the VWL regular season 3rd in AVG, 3rd in TB, 4th in 2B (13) and 8th in XBH (18). I was curious as to whether Castro’s successes were due to a fundamental change or the talent level of the VWL. Luckily, a few days ago, a game winning at bat from Harold Castro was put on YouTube. I showed this video alongside one of the 10 MLB AB’s Castro had to our dynasty manager Adam Garland who had the following to say.
[Castro’s swing] is similar for sure and I don’t think he’s changed drastically but his front foot lands in a better position in the VWL. It’s a little more open (3/4 position) and that should allow him to rotate and clear his hips better. In theory, the result should be an ability to transfer more of his weight forward and hit the ball with more authority…[In the VWL] his hips are in a better position when he makes contact. Overall though, I see some better footwork.
Castro is putting up far better numbers in the VWL than he has in the minors as his best slash line was .290/ .325/ .355 over 449 PA in AA in 2017. While I don’t see Castro breaking spring training with the Tigers if the change in footwork that he made lead is legitimate and can lead to similar results I’d expect him to get a longer look some time in ’19.
Williams Perez (P – St. Louis Cardinals) Age: 24, Bats: R
While Williams Perez may appear under the ‘prospects’ section of this article, he isn’t a prospect in the usual sense of the word in that he’s not cracking any top 30 lists. Originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2009, Perez has hopped between Atlanta, the Cubs, and Mariners before being signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with St. Louis. Perez has had two MLB stints: 116.2 IP in 2015 where he had a 4.78 ERA and 53.2 IP in 2016 with a 6.04 ERA. The righty had success at both the AA and AAA level in 2018 with the Mariners – low 3 ERA and mid 7 K/9 – and opted for free agency at the end of the season. Perez’s arsenal consists of four offerings: a low 90’s sinker that gets an above average amount of sink, a low 80’s change up that can get a good amount of whiffs, a below average curveball and a low-to-mid 90’s four-seam. Having finished 4th in the VWL in ERA, Perez has maintained his sub 3 ERA in his minimal playoff appearances as well. While the sub 2 BB/9 is encouraging, the lack of K’s is cause for concern. The VWL is equivalent to AA or high AAA where Perez has been able to consistently put up mid 7 K/9’s so a mid 5 K/9 is surprising. It seems that VWL hitters are frequently getting on top of Perez’s sinker and driving it into the ground, something MLB hitters may not do nearly as much. The Cardinals organization is loaded with pitchers so I don’t anticipate him breaking with the team out of spring training.
Free Agents / Other Leagues:
Ezequiel Carrera (OF – FA) Age: 31, Bats: R
Ezequiel Carrera may be 31 years old, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped swiping bags. The former MLB journeyman – who finished with 40 or more SB three times over his 12 year Major League career – ended his VWL regular season campaign with the second most SB’s. While Carrera struggled mightily in his last AAA stint with the Braves (.146/ .228/ .220 over 93 PA), the outfielder is only 2 years removed from a 2017 season where he put up a 108 wRC+ over 325 PA with the Blue Jays. Even Jeff Zimmerman was writing about how he was, “showing small improvements across his entire profile”. 2018 aside, Carrera has not had a bad Major League career: he has a .262/ .324/ .365 slash with a 90 wRC+ and a .304 wOBA. If Carrera’s VWL numbers are any indication, he may not be done being able to contribute at the Major League level. Yes, Carrera has only hit 2 HR and his SLG is nowhere near the top 10, but he’s never been a player who shows a lot of pop. Instead, he’s been the kind of guy we’ve seen in the VWL. One that focuses on speed and the ability to make contact. While Carrera may not be making a 25-man roster in March, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team offer him a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
Pedro Rodriguez (RP – Mexican League) Age: 31, Throws: R
Much like Elian Leyva from the Mexican Pacific League article, Pedro Rodriguez has a few missing gaps in his baseball career. Rodriguez made his first appearance in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2005, played rookie ball for the Red Sox in 2006 and then didn’t pitch for three years. He returned briefly to the VWL in 2009 before not pitching again until 2012 where, after a successful two seasons, he played with the Giants in 2015 and 2016. After his release from the San Francisco organization, Rodriguez joined the Mexican League where he still pitches (when he can stay healthy). While his 2016 campaign saw him collect 18 saves with a 2.12 ERA over 29.2 IP, his 2017 was mostly lost to injury while his 2018 campaign was nowhere near as dominant: 11 saves, 4.26 ERA. It’s tough to say whether his ’18 campaign was plagued by injury but it does appear that Rodriguez is recovered as he’s doing quite well in the VWL. Not only is he leading the league in saves with 17, but his 5.3 K/BB ratio is also leading all relievers with a min. 20 IP. His success has carried him to the playoffs where he’s picked up 2 more saves over 4 IP with only 1 hit allowed (0.25 WHIP), 3 K’s and 0 BB. While the low K/9 and lack of consistent track record may be too big of a red flag for front offices, Rodriguez and his fantastic command are still trending in the right direction.
Delmon Young (OF – Mexican League) Age: 33, Bats: R
It was going to take a lot for me to include Delmon Young in this article. 19 homers is a lot. Especially when the 2nd highest HR total – belonging to Willians Astudillo – is 10. Since being released by the Baltimore Orioles organization in 2015, Young has spent the past two years getting into trouble off the field and having some success on the field in the Mexican League. For an in-depth piece on the emotional battles Young has gone through in the past couple of years, I’d highly recommend this Bleacher Report article, but for purposes of this piece, I’m going to stick to his numbers. In 2018, Young slashed .322/ .360/ .524 with 13 HR and a 22% K rate over 314 at bats. The numbers however were not good enough for a Major League team to come calling. While Young’s power surge in the VWL is certainly impressive, his sub .300 AVG and 20% K rate (6% higher than league average) paired with his past may be too much of a deterrent for front offices to consider giving him a minor league contract.
Alejandro De Aza (OF – FA) Age: 34, Throws: L
While Alejandro De Aza may be the oldest person featured in this article, he’s also the most recent person to hit above .300 in the minor leagues. In 2018, De Aza was a minor leaguer in the Washington Nationals organization. Over 131 PA he slashed .302/ .420/ .387 with a 15.3% BB rate, a .367 wOBA and a 133 on wRC+. Despite those numbers, De Aza was released in the middle of season on August 8th. The reason seems to be because De Aza had hit a slump. In his final 10 games with the organization he had 35 at bats but hit .200 bringing his AVG down from .356 to .302. While the notion that one 10 game stretch led the Nationals to release him is cruel enough, the reality seems to be even worse. His final 10 games weren’t bad minus one game where he went 0-7. At the end of the day, it seems the Nationals weren’t willing to be too patient with the 34-year-old. His VWL results however prove that their impatience may have been unwarranted. De Aza is 4th in AVG, 6th in OBP and OPS, and 8th in SLG. While the 5 HR aren’t near the top of the standings, the figure is impressive considering De Aza hasn’t slugged over 4 HR in 200+ AB since 2016. De Aza’s age may preclude an organization from offering him a minor league deal but it seems the OF does still have something left in the tank.
Jorge Martinez (RP – Independant League) Age: 33, Throws: R
Jorge Martinez was arguably the best pitcher during the VWL regular season. While he was 2nd in ERA to Omar Bencomo (who was left off this list due to poor K numbers and an elevated FIP which negates his league leading ERA), he did lead the league in WHIP by a hefty margin. If you’ve read this brief series, first and foremost thank you, and secondly you know by now that I’m enamored by guys who won’t quit. The baseball players who refuse to hang up the cleats until they’re sure they’ve left it all on the field. Martinez is that guy for this final installment. Martinez’s career began in 2003 in Cuba where he pitched for six years before he simply boarded a plane to Miami and, thanks to the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, got a Public Interest Visa. Since then, Martinez pitched in Indy ball, had success, and found himself playing in Mexico for the 2016 and 2017 season. The past few seasons have seen Jorge Martinez adapt to the learning curve and approve his arsenal. While he still sits in the high 80’s with most of his stuff, he offers up a pretty nice curveball and improving command. While his stuff doesn’t get a ton of whiffs, his command is above average. Between his 97 combined IP in 2016 and 2017, Martinez put up a 1.57 BB/9 and his current 0.91 BB/9 is far below the 3+ league average. The 33-year-old is just one of many aged ballplayers looking for their shot to make it with a big league club. While I don’t believe Martinez will be offered a minor league contract, his is surely a story worth knowing about.