Part of good scouting has always been to maintain your connections to the regions and people that have helped your team out before, and the Mariners have been doing just that in the Venezuela.
The Venezuelan Summer League has been in operation since 1997, when six teams were spread two each between three different cities. The league itself has changed sizes a number of times, currently supporting nine teams, but the rules for the rosters remain the same; the league is open to all players from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries except Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. There are 35 players on an active roster. No player may have more than four years of service. Only 12 players may be over 20 and no more than four over 21. And there must be at least 10 pitchers on July 1st.
The Mariners have been investors in the Venezuelan Summer League since 1999, the league’s third year, when they shared a team in San Felipe with the Cleveland Indians. It was slow going at first, the initial team only producing former Mariners farmhand LHP Oscar Delgado, but in the second year, two of the alumni were current Inland Empire Sixty-Sixers OF Carlos Arroyo and 2B Ismael Castro.
In 2001, the facilities were moved to Aguirre, where the Mariners shared a team with the Colorado Rockies. Castro and Delgado returned to the team, and due to a series of smart signings, Aguirre acquired a number of players that are making an impact on U.S. shores right now: Inland Empire’s LHP Cesar Jimenez and 3B Jesus Guzman; Wisconsin’s RHPs Nibaldo Acosta and Kenly Chang and OF Wladimir Balentien, Everett’s RHPs Cibney Bello and Ivan Blanco, and C Cesar Quintero, who is currently rehabbing in Peoria. By the time 2002 rolled around, the team had added current Aquasox IF Oswaldo Navarro and former farmhand LHP Victor Ramirez. Jimenez and Balentien were named team MVPs and they lead Aguirre to a 47-17-1 record, anchored primarily by the pitching staff, which posted a 1.93 team ERA.
The following year, all but Guzman and Blanco were playing stateside, mostly split between Wisconsin and Peoria. This year, both Guzman and Blanco have finally made it to U.S. shores, and joining them are fellow 2003 Aguirre alumni Everett IF Asdrubal Cabrera and Peoria’s LHP Julio Santiago. That’s roughly half of the entire 2002 roster having some impact on the Mariners low minors affiliates. At the rate these teams are going, the Venezuelan Summer League will be a strong asset to the Mariners farm system for years to come.
The Next Wave
Due to all the promotions in recent years, the Aguirre roster for 2004 has been restocked with a number of younger players, lowering the average age to right around 18. This less-experienced team may take another year to mature, as the 2001 team did. Still, there are players who could make an impact as soon as next year, and beyond that, this team could prove to be one of the most successful league history. Here are some names to watch:
1. 2B Luis Valbuena, L/R, 5-11, 195 lbs, DOB: 11/30/85, Venezuela
In any given day, Valbuena is likely to get at least two hits barring natural disaster, and probably even then. Valbuena has played in every one of the games thus far in the season, starting in all but one, and has hit .377/.419/.604, leading the team in doubles (15) and triples (3). Earlier in the season, he rode an 11-game hitting streak and nearly half of his games have had some sort of multi-hit performance.
He manages to do all this while playing slick defense, with only two errors on the year.
U.S. ETA: 2005
2. SS Terry Serrano, S/R, 5-11, 165 lbs, DOB: 2/06/87, Venezuela
Serrano provides an interesting contrast, a bat with unusual pop for his size, but less than stellar defense. He has played in 24 games thus far, but started in only 15 of them, sometimes because of his team-leading 16 errors, four of which he made in a single game. While his defense should improve with practice, his bat may be close to ready, as he’s been hitting .333/.362/.515. The Mariners have showed a willingness to promote switch-hitting shortstops from Venezuela straight to Everett in the past two seasons, but they may want to hold off for a little while with this one.
U.S. ETA: 2006
3. OF Jose Graterol, R/R, 6-1, 198 lbs, DOB: 2/27/84, Venezuela
At 20, Graterol is one of the older players on the team, and may not have the upside that the other players do. But over the past three years, he has steadily improved with his bat and plate skills, currently hitting .326/.425/.629 with five home runs, which tie him for the league lead. He also appears to be quite capable on the field, playing in both center and right field regularly.
U.S. ETA: 2005
1. LHP Jose Escalona, L/L, 5-11, 187 lbs, DOB: 1/7/86, Venezuela
One of the many rookies used in the rotation this year, Escalona has been able to hold his own against opposing batters, striking out 25 in 22 innings and holding them to a .187 average. His eleven walks are a bit of a concern, but he’s only allowed four extra-base hits all year and has yet to give up a home run. He struck out six batters in a game early in the season when he pitched only three innings, so the potential is definitely there.
U.S. ETA: 2005/2006
2. RHP Alfredo Venaga, R/R, 6-1, 195 lbs, DOB: 5/11/86, Ecuador
Another rookie rotation member, the team has been especially careful with Venaga’s arm, as they’ve yet to allow him to pitch beyond the fourth inning in a start. Still, he has managed to pitch the most innings of any pitcher at 23.2 innings, and has the lowest ERA of any starter at 2.28. His peripherals have been fairly impressive as well, as he has a 3:1 K/BB ratio and has held batters to a .227 average.
U.S. ETA: 2006
3. RHP Jorge Acosta, R/R, 5-11, 198 lbs, DOB: 8/8/83, Venezuela
Like Graterol, Acosta is a little older than his peers, but it’s hard to deny what he’s been able to do in and out of the pen. He’s pitched 19 innings thus far and opponents are still batting only .138 off of him, lowest on the team. Again, his control may be a bit of a concern, as he’s walked about as many as he’s struck out, but Acosta has shown that he’s an intelligent enough pitcher to know how to get his defense to help him out.
U.S. ETA: 2005