I recently spoke with Cardinals Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez about which players impressed the organization, whether they appeared to be stars on the stat sheet or not.
We began our discussion with shortstop Cesar Valera. The left-handed hitter, first signed in November 2008, led the team with four home runs and 29 RBI. He was second in average (.279), slugging (.385) and stolen bases (10). His OPS of .746 was third-highest on the club.
"Offensively, Valera was the leader," Rodriguez said. "He keeps learning and developing every day. He is only a 17-year-old kid… He showed a lot more plate discipline than he did in the Gulf Coast League, which is natural and good to see."
Valera drew 17 walks in 179 at-bats in the Liga Paralela after taking just 10 free passes in 186 GCL at-bats during the summer. His strikeouts dropped from 55 to 40.
Defensively, Valera made 24 errors in 46 Liga Paralela contests, more than twice as many errors as any other teammate, but he also collected 140 assists, also more than double any other Cardinal.
"He made errors, but something that is not too uncommon for kids that are his age and only a year or two into pro ball," Moises said. "He was definitely the highlight of Paralela.
"Being the youngest guy on our roster and one of the youngest guys in the system, it is encouraging. He is a guy who we expect to see good things from but it is always nice to see it in person and as they progress," Rodriguez concluded.
Moving to the pitching side, I asked Rodriguez about Javier Avendano. In his second professional season, the Venezuelan had earlier celebrated his 20th birthday during a late-season promotion to the Gulf Coast League.
"We kind of scaled back Avendano, the number of innings he pitched, so he didn't throw a lot," Moises said. "It was ok. We wanted him to rest and come to extended spring training 100 percent ready."
The right-hander fanned 24 in 29 Liga Paralela innings but also walked 18. His ERA was 4.03 and he yielded three home runs.
"If you look at the numbers, it looks like he got roughed up a little bit, but the reality is that he was working on stuff. Avendano is probably one of our best young Latin arms," he said.
When I asked for the name of an up-and-comer based on Liga Paralela play, Rodriguez did not hesitate.
"The guy who really played well who we were all encouraged by was Jhonatan Escudero," Rodriguez replied. "He is a Colombian pitcher that we signed at the end of August. He played really well. He is a 16-year-old kid, very loose, very athletic."
Primarily pitching in relief, Escudero led the team with a 1.93 ERA. He struck out 13 in 14 innings, but also issued eight free passes. I asked what stood out about the young right-hander.
"His velocity is not quite there yet, but he has shown close to an average major league change up," Rodriguez said. "His curveball is still under development, but he's got a great feel for it."
The ages and experience levels of the players made a big difference in the assessment. Some of the competition in the Liga Paralela have already reached the New York-Penn League.
"Escudero was getting a lot of outs against a lot of 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids. He was definitely one of the bright spots on the pitching side," Rodriguez explained.
Escudero is expected to be in the rotation in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2010.
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