By César Augusto Márquez
At La Vida Baseball, we celebrate our legends, as well as who’s now and who’s next — which means tracking the rising generation of new stars. We started with the Dominican Republic, and today we continue with Venezuela.
When it comes to superstars, Venezuela easily rivals its Caribbean neighbors. From Miguel “Miggy” Cabrera and “King” Félix Hernández to prodigious youngsters such as José Altuve and Salvador Pérez, Venezuela is a veritable gold mine of talent.
And despite the country’s acute economic and political problems, baseball is booming — as evidenced by the 77 Venezuelan players on Major League Baseball rosters on Opening Day, the largest number in history. Here are five more young and promising Venezuelans to watch.
SS/2B Franklin Barreto, Oakland Athletics
Born February 27, 1996 in Caracas, Venezuela
Of these five prospects, Barreto might be the closest to playing regularly in the majors. Another teenager who hit the jackpot, he got $1.45 million from Toronto in 2012. However, the Blue Jays won’t reap a return on its investment after trading him to Oakland in 2014 for 3B Josh Donaldson.
And what did the Athletics get? A 5-foot-10 line-drive hitter with a short, quick swing and a lot of speed. Barreto stole 30 bases in 119 games in Double-A last season and was then called up to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds for their PCL playoff push, where he went 6-for-17 with a triple and a home run in four games.
Barreto continued spraying the ball to all fields this spring, averaging .481/.500/1.167 in 27 at-bats. And in his first three games with Nashville this season, he banged out eight hits, including a triple and two home runs.
While Barreto prefers playing shortstop, scouts feel that he’s better suited for second base, or even the outfield. Wherever he ends up, he’ll hit.
“There’s not much this guy can’t do,” says A’s manager Bob Melvin. “Really, the only question is when, not if, he will be called up.”
SS Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees
Born December 13, 1996 in Caracas, Venezuela
Torres is barely 20, but due to the strained right shoulder that Didi Gregorius suffered during the World Baseball Classic, there were fans clamoring for Torres to open the 2017 season in the Bronx. Instead, fellow Venezuelan Ronald Torreyes got the job. Originally signed by the Chicago Cubs in 2013 for $1.7 million, the largest bonus granted to a Venezuelan amateur that year, Torres has nonetheless impressed at every level.
How good is he? Despite his lack of experience beyond high Single-A, Baseball America currently considers him the fifth-best prospect in the minors.
In fact, Torres was the centerpiece of the trade last summer that sent the flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs. Coveted for his arm and defensive skills, at 6-foot-1 he’s also showing pop with the bat.
Before the Yankees sent him down to the Double-A Trenton Thunder in March, Torres was voted the outstanding rookie of the spring, hitting .448 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 29 at-bats. And on Opening Day for the Thunder, he collected a single and a double. Don’t be surprised if he, too, is called up in 2017.
RHP Anderson Espinoza, San Diego Padres
Born March 9, 1998 in Caracas, Venezuela
Will Espinoza be the next Pedro Martínez? Those are certainly big shoes to fill, but after the Boston Red Sox secured the youngster’s services for $1.8 million in 2014 — a Venezuelan signing bonus record — they made the Dominican Hall of Famer his tutor.
A skinny 6-footer, Espinoza throws fast and hard, hitting 97 mph with late movement on the fastball. While his curve and changeup need polishing, his control is very good for his age. He closed the 2016 season with 100 strikeouts and 35 walks in 108.1 innings.
Espinoza, however, will have to continue developing without Martínez. The Red Sox traded him to San Diego for lefty Drew Pomeranz during last year’s All-Star break and assigned him this spring to the Single-A Lake Elsinore Storm.
Though Espinoza started the season on the 7-day disabled list with forearm tightness, he’s considered to be on the fast track to the majors. Espinoza is currently the Padres’ No. 2 prospect, according to MLB.
OF Ronald Acuña, Atlanta Braves
Born December 18, 1997 in La Guaira, Venezuela
Acuña may not yet be well-known in Atlanta, but in his brief time with the Braves organization, he is already being compared to one of the all-time greats in franchise history, centerfielder Andruw Jones, a five-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glover.
The son of a former minor-league player, Acuña is a five-tool player. When he broke his thumb last summer, missing three months, he made up the lost time by ripping up the Australian Baseball League, hitting .375 with 15 runs, 13 RBIs and 13 steals in 20 games.
Acuña started the 2017 season with the Single-A Florida Fire Dogs. Once he fills out and gains experience and maturity, he has a chance to become a game-changer. Jones 2.0, so to speak.
LHP Yohander Méndez, Texas Rangers
Born January 17, 1995 in Valencia, Venezuela
Tall and lanky, the 6-foot-5 Méndez leaped from high Single-A ball to Triple-A to the major leagues in 2016, pitching three innings over two games for the Rangers in September.
It was his reward after a stellar summer of work in the minors. Using a killer slider that fades, sinks and deceives, Méndez struck out 113 batters in 111.0 innings while limiting lefties to a .167 average and righties to .213.
However, a disappointing spring has delayed his progression, and Méndez opened this season with the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders. Chances are his time in the minors will be brief. Méndez has become the Rangers’ No. 1 prospect, a future starter-in-waiting.
Featured Image: Christian Petersen / Getty Images Sport