Here's how prospects are doing in winter ball

November 29th, 2021

Never mind coming. Winter has arrived. At least in a baseball sense.

With the Arizona Fall League coming to a close, prospect followers’ attention can now move to the international winter leagues. Circuits in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela each got their starts in October, while the one in Puerto Rico opened earlier this month. (Notably, all LIDOM games can be streamed on MLB.TV.)

In some cases, young talents head back to their native countries to represent their hometown clubs in the offseason. In others, players move internationally to make up lost at-bats or innings from the 2021 season.

No matter the individual situation, winter ball offers more opportunities to check in on prospects' progress and evaluate who they could eventually be as Major Leaguers. These are nine Top 30 prospects standing out through the early weeks of the winter season (all stats are through Sunday):

Ronny Mauricio, SS, Tigres Del Licey (Dominican Republic)
NYM No. 3/MLB No. 53

The 20-year-old switch-hitting shortstop got off to a fast start in the D.R. by homering in his first at-bat back on Oct. 27. He's shown flashes of his promising offensive gifts -- like in a two-double game back on Nov. 18 -- but he's still showing a swing-happy approach similar to the one that resulted in a .296 OBP across two levels during the regular season. Mauricio is hitting .253/.278/.379 with two homers, two walks and 19 strikeouts through 24 games with Licey. Notably, he has still only played shortstop this winter but has already committed 11 errors there.

Ryan Rolison, LHP, Tigres Del Licey (D.R.)
COL No. 3/MLB No. 95

The 24-year-old southpaw was limited to only 71 2/3 innings during the summer due to an appendectomy and a broken left hand, and the Rockies wanted him to get more frames in a competitive environment in LIDOM. He's handling himself well in the early going. Rolison hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of his five starts with Licey and has posted a 3.15 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 20 frames. His 24 strikeouts rank third in the league. The two ahead of him in the category are 36-year-old Cesar Valdez and 44-year-old Raul Valdes.

Elehuris Montero, 3B/1B, Estrellas Orientales (D.R.)
COL No. 4

Sticking in the Rockies system, Montero is holding his own as a regular contributor in his second career winter league campaign. His 35 total bases over 26 games rank third in LIDOM, while his 25 hits put him in a three-way tie for fourth. He is hitting .266/.352/.372 with two homers in 108 plate appearances (third-most in the league). Montero showed plenty of pop with 20 homers and a .529 slugging percentage at Double-A and Triple-A over the summer, so there could be more to come in that department, if fatigue doesn't set in.

Ethan Small, LHP, Leones Del Escogido (D.R.)
MIL No. 5

Small had a 1.98 ERA in 77 1/3 innings (mostly at Double-A and Triple-A) over the summer. He is somehow beating that mark (in a smaller sample) during his time in the Dominican Republic. The 24-year-old southpaw owns a 1.80 ERA during his time with Escogido, giving him the fourth-lowest LIDOM ERA among pitchers with at least 20 innings (his exact total). Three of his four earned runs came in a single Nov. 9 start; otherwise, he has been nearly spotless. He has fanned 17 and walked six in his 20 frames. Small has earned praise from Milwaukee brass for the effectiveness of his fastball and changeup, both of which thrive on deception, and it's possible he could have seen the Majors if not for a strained tendon in his pitching hand that knocked him out for much of July and August.

Brayan Rocchio, SS/2B, Tiburones De La Guaira (Venezuela)
CLE No. 7

We won't go so far as to say Rocchio's play down in his native Venezuela fueled his addition to the Guardians' 40-man roster, but it certainly didn't hurt. The 20-year-old switch-hitter produced a .391/.440/.594 line with nine extra-base hits in 17 games for La Guaira. He struck out and walked at an even pace (five times each) in his 76 plate appearances, while seeing time at both short and second. His final game with the Tiburones came on Nov. 17, two days before Cleveland added him to the 40-man and asked him to be taken out of winter league play. His 1.034 OPS remains seventh-best among Venezuelan Winter Leaguers with at least 75 plate appearances.

Oliver Ortega, RHP, Tigres Del Licey (D.R.)
LAA No. 14

Ortega pitched his way to the Majors in September, when he made eight relief appearances for the Halos, and he has carried that momentum with him down to the Caribbean. The 25-year-old right-hander has given up only one earned run while fanning 15 and walking only three in 12 appearances (12 innings). He enters Monday with a streak of six straight scoreless outings, dating back to Nov. 12. Ortega is up to 64 innings between the Minors, Majors and winter ball in 2021, his first year pitching out of the bullpen full-time.

Steven Wilson, RHP, Leones Del Escogido (D.R.)
SD No. 21

For the second straight year, Wilson is getting comfortable in the Dominican Republic. The 27-year-old right-hander had a 1.88 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings with Escogido during the 2020-21 season and has been even more untouchable this time around. He has yet to surrender an earned run and has fanned 14 over 10 frames in the last month. Opposing batters are only 2-for-32 (.063) against him to this point, and his 0.30 WHIP is lowest among LIDOM pitchers with double-digit innings.

Kutter Crawford, RHP, Estrellas Orientales (D.R.)
BOS No. 23

If there's an early favorite for LIDOM's top pitcher of the winter, that status belongs to Crawford. His 0.42 ERA is easily tops among the circuit's qualifiers -- Wendolyn Bautista is second at 1.71 -- and his 23 K's in 21 1/3 innings are tied for third. He was especially dominant on Nov. 10 when he fanned seven over five no-hit innings against Licey. The 25-year-old right-hander climbed from Double-A to make one start for the Major League club in 2021, and this run should offer him a deeper look at cracking the back end of Boston's rotation going into next season.

Tirso Ornelas, OF, Mayos De Navojoa (Mexico)
SD No. 29

There were reasons to be down on Ornelas heading into the offseason, including his .248/.344/.389 line at High-A and the Padres' decision to leave him off the 40-man ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. He's changing some of that narrative right now in the Mexican Winter League. His .386 average and 14 doubles both lead the circuit through 41 games, while his .939 OPS places third among qualifiers. The 21-year-old was especially hot during a 15-game hitting streak from Oct. 13-30, going 27-for-61 (.443) with only six strikeouts in that span. It likely won't be enough to get Ornelas a Rule 5 spot, but this should certainly boost his profile among San Diego prospects.