The Foreign Rookie Summer Leagues in Venezuela and the Dominican are places where some of the most promising international prospects get their professional baseball careers started. It is also home to baseball in its rawest form. Teenagers as young as 16 compete in these leagues, often playing their very first organized ball here. Even though a majority of the players that play in these leagues will never even make it to the upper minor leagues stateside, the 39 teams that compete in these two leagues have seen some of the more familiar young MLB talent over the past several seasons: players like Starlin Castro, Alexi Ogando, Jose Altuve and former Mariners pitcher Michael Pineda just to name a few.
The Venezuelan Summer League has shrunk to just four teams this season, and offense has certainly seen an uptick, but there is still some quality competition playing daily. 21-year-old Jesus Ugueto has started every game in center field and in the leadoff spot in the order this season for the Mariners' affiliate and is doing his best to show that he deserves consideration for a challenge at a higher level soon. Signed on July 3rd as part of the 2008 international class, Ugueto -- who bats and throws right-handed -- got started in the VSL in 2009 and hit just .189 with only one extra base hit in 18 games in his debut season. He followed that up by hitting .291/.344/.418 in 55 games in 2010 while seeing a big increase in his power, totalling 17 extra base hits in just under 200 at bats. 2011 the power stayed about the same but Ugueto started to show more patience, drawing 36 walks in 62 games -- more than double the number he had the previous season and good for 5th in the league. This year the 6-foot-2, 180 pounder has seemingly put all of the tools together.
Ugueto has hits in 39 of 41 games and is hitting .411/.492/.607 -- leading the league in all three categories as well as OPS (1.100), obviously -- in 197 plate appearances overall on the year. He has 20 extra base hits (13 doubles, two triples and five home runs), leads the league in total bases by a wide margin, has a league-high 26 walks and only 21 strikeouts. He has also stolen 13 bases in 19 tries and has grounded into only two double plays on the year. Ugueto started hot and has stayed hot, his OPS never dropping under 1.100 so far on the year. He's hitting very well against left-handers (.324/.425/.471) and right-handers (.434/.510/.643), at home (.372/.435/.487) and on the road (.447/.543/.718).
Yes, this is his 4th year in the league. And yes, at 21-years and 1-month he is significantly older than the league average age of just under 18 and a half, but the numbers suggest that this season is a culmination of four years of learning and advancing as a ballplayer for Ugueto. He's tied for 3rd in the league in doubles and in homers and ranks 2nd in steals. He also has more than twice as many outfield assists (nine) as any other player in the league and has started six double plays from the outfield. He's had three or more hits in a game seven times and has three such games in the past week. And, again, he is doing all of this damage out of the leadoff role.
While most players that move on from these leagues to future success do so as teenagers, Ugueto may be proving to be the rare case of a player that grows from a toolsy project into a legit prospect while still playing in his homeland. The best way for the fans and the Mariners to find out what his true talent is would be to move him out of the league and into U.S. competition mid-year, like they did with Felipe Burin last season.
Over in the 35-team Dominican Summer League, Gabriel Guerrero is putting up some numbers that may be even more impressive than Ugueto's march toward a .400 season. Guerrero is much younger than his Venezuelan counterpart Ugueto, at just 18-years-old. And although he did get a taste of action in the Dominican League last summer after signing and didn't do much to impress (.236/.288/.298 in 57 games), he has something else on his side that makes him intriguing: bloodlines. Guerrero -- who also bats and throws right-handed (as do a large majority of latin prospects) -- is the nephew of future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, who has torched the Mariners to the tune of a .340 average, 30 HR and a 1.014 OPS in his career.
After finishing up play on Saturday, Guerrero is now hitting .356/.393/.693 through the first 25 games of his season, with a league-best eight home runs (2nd place has 5) and an insane 34 RBI for the 20-5 DSL M's. He's had five homers, 21 RBI and four 3-plus hit performances in his last 10 games, and it is starting to look like the $400k that the M's put down to sign him in January of 2011 may end up being a steal. As a point of reference for how good he's been, the league as a whole is hitting .246/.343/.343.
Guerrero is thin now and isn't a quick-twitch athlete, but has a very similar build and appearance to a young Vladimir Guerrero with long limbs and what could quickly become a thick trunk. He has a strong outfield throwing arm and has primary played right field in the DSL -- heck, he even hits without batting gloves like his accomplished uncle.
Will Ugueto and Guerrero be able to succeed in the higher levels of baseball competition once leaving their home countries? I don't have that answer. But I do believe that both players are worth tracking as their seasons and careers progress.
In just over 1/2 the plate appearance in 2012, Guerrero has already surpassed most of his offensive totals from 2011 while hitting in the middle of the lineup for the runaway top team in the league thus far.