When the Oakland A’s signed Michael Ynoa to a then-recording breaking bonus in July 2008, it signaled a re-commitment to an international scouting and development program that had fallen somewhat by the wayside in the early 2000s. Since that time, the A’s have signed numerous prospects to six- or seven-figure signing bonuses, and some of those prospects are starting to make an impact on the A’s system.
While injuries have stalled Ynoa’s development, the tall right-hander is on the A’s 40-man roster and at times last season was the system’s most dominating pitcher. It isn’t hard to imagine that he could reach the big leagues this year as a reliever if he can find some consistency from outing to outing.
Third baseman Renato Nunez, signed by the A’s in 2010, is one of the A’s top prospects. He finished his 2014 season with High-A Stockton having hit 29 homers as a 20-year-old. Right-hander Arnold Leon is a member of the A’s 40-man roster and is expected to compete for a spot on the A’s Opening Day roster this spring.
Right-hander Ronald Herrera made the leap to full-season ball this year and caught the eye of the San Diego Padres, who acquired him in the deal that brought the A’s 40-man roster member Kyle Blanks. Left-hander Jose Torres pitched for short-season Vermont this year and is currently pitching in the highly competitive Venezuelan Winter League.
There are several more promising prospects who have graduated from the A’s Dominican Academy, but none opened more eyes this season than shortstop Yairo Muñoz and first baseman Sandber Pimentel.
Muñoz and Pimentel have many similarities: both are position players who signed with the Oakland A’s as amateur international free agents in November 2011; both have an older brother playing for another American League team; both are natives of the Dominican Republic; and both made a strong impression during this past Instructional League.
Muñoz signed as a shortstop, two months before his 17th birthday, for $280,000. The native of Cabrera, Dominican Republic, spent his first professional season in the Dominican Summer League in 2012. That year, he appeared in 32 games and batted .229 with 24 hits, 23 strike-outs and 22 walks. In 2013 Muñoz debuted with the Arizona League Athletics. It was his least productive year, to date, lower numbers across the board, but for an 18-year-old facing tougher competition, a slight decline was expected. Muñoz stayed for the Fall Instructional League, and returned to Phoenix in April for Extended Spring Training before starting the 2014 season with short-season Vermont.
The lean, agile 19-year-old came into the 2014 season with the reputation of a player whose defense was ahead of his bat. While his defense still continued to impress, it was Munoz’s work with the bat for the Lake Monsters that opened a lot of eyes this year. He earned his way onto the starting line-up of the New York-Penn League All Star game in Brooklyn, New York on August 19, where he was the lead-off hitter.
Muñoz was named the recipient of the Tom Racine MVP Award – Vermont’s MVP as voted on by the Burlington Free Press – for his consistent production, including a 17-game hitting streak, along with the following line: .298/.319 OBP/.448 in a league that is extremely difficult on hitters.
Sandber Pimentel signed with the A’s as a left-fielder in 2011, just two months after his 17th birthday, for $160,000. Scouting reports indicated he would most likely move in to play first base, a position that fit his prototypical first-baseman-type build. In his rookie season in 2012, Pimentel played in 37 games in the Dominican Summer League and posted an average of .261 with 30 hits, 28 walks (2 IBB) and 30 strike-outs.
Though his sophomore season was also spent in the Dominican, the 6’3”, 216 lb left-hander experienced the same slump that Muñoz did. But, as with Muñoz, Pimentel also rebounded for his third year in 2014 to have his most productive season to date: 61 games in the DSL with a .311/.432 OBP/.458 slashline.
Baseball America named Muñoz the 6th best prospect in the New York-Penn League – sandwiched between the Indians’ Bradley Zimmer at #5 and the Mets Michael Conforto at #7. When Grady Fuson, Oakland A’s Special Assistant to the General Manager, learned of the ranking, he was truthfully surprised Muñoz wasn’t among the top 5. If you know anything about the Oakland Athletics, they are not an organization that boasts or pounds their chests. They prefer to be under the radar and allow the production and the results of their prospects to do the “talking” for them.
Translation: Yairo Muñoz is good. Really good. Grady Fuson knows it. Keith Lieppman, Oakland’s Director of Player Development, agrees.
When asked where he projects Muñoz ’s ceiling to be, Lieppman answers, without hesitation, “it is as an every day shortstop in the big leagues.” Some day; not in the near future; no rushing; only when he’s ready. A comparison to Hanley Ramirez is often made with Muñoz, “but with a much stronger arm.” According to Fuson and Lieppman, Munoz, Edwin Diaz and Matt Chapman are the top three infield arms in the A’s system, in terms of arm strength.
With respect to the young shortstop’s offensive strengths, Lieppman offers that Muñoz is developing as they believed he would. Lieppman said that Muñoz is very “toolsy and… raw, but with continuing plate discipline, the sky is the limit.” As a side note: just a few minutes after Lieppman shared his thoughts on Muñoz’s plate discipline, the right-handed shortstop led off an Instructional League game by sending the first pitch of the game over the wall in left center field.
Plate discipline. Patience. Got it.
The praise is equally high for Pimentel. According to Fuson, “Pimentel is the best, most complete player “ he has seen in a very long time. The 20-year-old has impressed every A’s staff member, especially everyone who saw him for the first time in the Instructional League. His listed size –6’3” and weighing 216 lbs – seems like an underestimate when you see him in person. His physical presence, as he approaches the plate for an at-bat, or heads to first base with is glove, is intimidating. His power and confidence arrive five minutes before he does.
This is a 20-year-old (as of September) who had not played outside of the Dominican Republic until mid-September when he traveled to Papago for Instructs. Ask Fuson, Lieppman or any other staff member in the organization, and the answer about Pimentel’s ceiling and the answers all lead to the same place: playing first base in the major leagues. Pimentel’s patience at the plate, pitch recognition, and hitting “IQ”, combined with his defensive development and overall maturity are all part of the reason why this transition from the DSL straight through to dominating the Instructional League.
As Instructs came to an end, I caught up with both Muñoz and Pimentel. I asked them about their thoughts on Instructs, the level of competition, and working with the great pool of instructors and field staff. Both of the young men said they enjoyed every day, every experience, and are incredibly thankful for the instruction and encouragement of everyone in the organization. Basically, these two are happy and having fun playing the game they love.
With smiles as big and bright as those belonging to Muñoz and Pimentel, even a non-Spanish speaker would understand what they were saying.