Today is July 2nd, the opening of the 2013-2014 window for major league organizations to sign international players. The market for international players has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years and 2013 is no exception.
Scouting young players is tough enough, but getting a handle on talent in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela is even more challenging for scouts than assessing players from North American high schools and colleges. The big money international prospects don't always turn into Miguel Cabrera; many of them fizzle out in the low minors. Conversely, players who might not attract huge piles of money at age 16 or 17 can blossom once they get into pro ball.
An example of the latter concept is New York Yankees rookie outfielder Zoilo Almonte, off to a hot start (.303/.351/.485 in his first 11 games) since his recent promotion to the major leagues.
Almonte was signed by the Yankees as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2005, not a high-profile signing but a raw kid with a chance to develop. He started his pro career with a .219/.320/.375 line in the '06 Dominican Summer League, drawing 28 walks but fanning 52 times in 222 plate appearances. Moved up to North America for 2007, he hit .268/.307/.395 with nine walks and 35 strikeouts in 205 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, showing power potential but some serious issues with plate discipline. He returned to the GCL for 2008 and put up similar numbers: .239/.291/.372.
Entering 2009, Almonte was not much of a prospect but was too young to give up on. He improved dramatically that year, hitting .273/.355/.440 with seven homers and 15 steals for Staten Island in the New York-Penn League, almost doubling his previous walk rate. The improved patience helped him get to his power more readily.
He maintained progress in Low-A in 2010 (.278/.341/.485 in 58 games) but found the going more difficult after moving up to High-A, hitting .261 with a .322 OBP and seeing his SLG drop off to .366 in the bigger Florida State League parks. He repeated this pattern in 2011, hitting well after making some adjustments in High-A (.293/.368/.514 in 70 games) but slumping in the power department after moving up to Double-A (.251/.309/.377 in 46 games).
Almonte spent all of 2012 with Double-A Trenton and hit .277/.322/.487 with 21 homers and 15 steals. His BB/K ratio was poor however at 25/103 in 451 plate appearances. The Yankees had a trio of promising young outfield prospects entering 2013: Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, and Tyler Austin. Almonte ranked well behind them, although he did earn a spot on the 40-man roster.
In my book this year, I wrote that Almonte "offers an interesting power/speed combination, but his hitting approach is very aggressive and limits his upside, at least if you're looking for on-base percentage. However, even small improvements in his plate discipline could take him a long way."
My expectation was that Almonte would probably struggle in his initial Triple-A exposure, but could make adjustments and appear in the majors late in 2013 or more probably in 2014. However, he's exceeded that timetable, hitting .297/.369/.421 with 30 walks and 47 strikeouts in 293 plate appearances in Triple-A before moving up to the majors. Despite facing the best pitching of his life, Almonte has improved his walk rate this year while cutting back on his strikeouts. His whiff rate of 16% in Triple-A was by far the lowest of his career.
This was not an accident. The Yankees have worked intently with Almonte to refine both his swing mechanics and his philosophical approach. Shane Hennigan at Scout.com recently quoted both Almonte himself and Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar to this effect, Wynegar pointing out that Almonte has taken well to the idea of "aggressive patience."
Physically, Almonte is a 6-0, 205 pound switch-hitter, born June 10, 1989. Although none of his physical tools are outstanding, none of them are particularly weak either. He's strong enough to hit for good power when he stays within himself. Although he won't be a huge batting average guy, if he maintains his improved pitch recognition his OBP should be high enough to be of value. He runs and throws well enough that the Yankees have given him time at all three outfield spots in the minors. Left is his best position; he throws well enough for right field but is more error-prone there. You can spot him in center without killing yourself, but he fits best in the corners.
The Williams/Heathcott/Austin trio has been disappointing this year, and the unheralded Almonte got to the majors ahead of them. He projected as a fourth outfielder pre-season and in the long run that's probably still how he winds up. Time will tell if he stays ahead of the curve, but at a minimum Almonte is an example of how talent should not be confused with hype. A switch-hitting fourth outfielder with some power, ability to swipe a bag, OBP ability, and flexible defense can help anyone.