6 impressive debuts from the 2023 international class

January 2nd, 2024

As we approach the beginning of the 2024 international signing period, let's take a look back at some of the standout performers from the last year's class.  The top 10 international prospects from 2023 fared quite well, starting with No. 1 Ethan Salas, who skipped over the complex levels entirely to open his age-17 season at Single-A Lake Elsinore, hitting .267/.350/.487 with nine homers in 48 games. He received later bumps to High-A Fort Wayne and Double-A San Antonio while showing plus defensive skills behind the dish.

With that in mind, Jim Callis and Sam Dykstra answered a question on the latest episode of the MLB Pipeline Podcast about which 2023 international prospects put together the most impressive professional debuts.

Joendry Vargas (No. 3/LAD No. 12) 
Callis: Shortstop from the Dominican Republic who signed with the Dodgers for a little over $2 million. He went to DSL and hit .328, had an OPS slightly over .950, seven homers and 19 steals in 48 games. You could see tools, you could see instincts. Former switch-hitter, he now hits only right-handed. Good swing, good approach, focuses on hitting line drives to all fields. He’s 6-foot-4, he’s going to get stronger. He’s got plenty of bat speed so I think we’re talking 25-home run power once he’s physically mature. And although he’s bigger than most shortstops, he does have good actions. He moves well to both sides. He’s got a strong arm, I think there’s a pretty good chance he can stay at short. And if for some reason he can’t, I think when you project him physically and you look at the bat then he would profile really well at third base too. He gets overlooked maybe a little bit in the Dodgers system because it’s one of the deeper systems out there and I think it’s a little harder for a guy making his debut fresh out of the international class to rise up the list. He’s No. 12 on that list which I think is a pretty strong ranking in a very deep system.

Alfredo Duno (No. 4/CIN No. 13) 
Dykstra: A catching prospect last year who actually didn’t catch, he DH’d in the DSL while he was rehabbing an arm injury. They just didn’t want to push things. He was only 17 years old, he actually turns 18 on January 7, so an early Happy Birthday to him. But, if he’s not going to play defense he is going to have to hit to catch our eye and he certainly did that, hitting .303 with a .451 .OBP, .493 slugging. I agree with Jim, you can’t always trust walk numbers in the DSL because sometimes guys just don’t know where the ball is going, but he did walk 38 times and struck out 41 times in those 45 games. He’s going to be power over hit it seems like, and the power started to be there – six homers in those 45 games. All the pieces are there and even though we haven’t seen him defensively quite yet, he’s considered a plus defender with a really strong arm. So we could see him take off to a new level in 2024 once he comes stateside to the Arizona Complex League. Once he’s fully healthy again. All the pieces are there for him to be a lot more interesting as he starts to add defensive work to his game as well.

Luis Morales (No. 5/OAK No. 5) 
Dykstra: He was the top pitcher on the international market last year. Signed with the A’s for $3 million. Most of the time when we’re talking about international signees for pitchers, they’re extremely raw. It’s going to take them a while to move. Morales isn’t really that. He’s already 21 years old, he turned 21 last September. Coming out of Cuba, he is most polished than most of these guys and the A’s pushed him accordingly. He started out in the DSL, finished the year at High-A Lansing, across those 4 levels had a 2.86 ERA, 53 strikeouts, only 15 walks, 1.09 WHIP, .202 batting average against. The control is clearly there, he knows where the ball is going unlike many other international signees. He’s got a fastball that he can throw up to 99 mph if he’s really rearing back, an above-average slider, all four pitches right now great at having at least average potential. So the pieces are there for him to be at least a decent starter. Now is when he starts to build on that – 44 innings, like I said, last year. You hope he can maybe get to 100 this year after starting out again in the Midwest League. That’s going to be an interesting experience. The Midwest League is going to be cold in April when he starts there, how is he going to be able to handle that? We’ll see, but for everything you could have hoped for Luis Morales’ first professional season, stateside, he certainly checked all the boxes and becomes an interesting arm for an A’s system that needs as many interesting arms as they can get.

Sebastian Walcott (No. 8/TEX No. 3, MLB No. 62) 
Callis: He tore up the Arizona Complex League. Had an .849 OPS when he was there. And it wasn’t just even the stats, he hit seven homers, he had nine steals in 35 games at that level at age 17. That’s him making his US debut after nine games in the Dominican Summer League. He came over almost immediately. And it wasn’t just the numbers, it was the way in which he did it. He’s producing exit velocities in excess of 110 mph on a regular basis, which is crazy for a guy that young. His arm from shortstop, you know, you can put a plus-pus grade on it if you wanted. He’s a solid runner who’s faster in terms of straight line speed. Again, small sample size but he struck out 64 times in 48 games, so we’re going to have to watch that. But in terms of dynamic tools and then being able to perform at age 17 in the United States, and even have enough to where you can hold your own for a few games at High-A at the end of the year, I was really really impressed with his debut in a summer when we had a lot of strong international debuts.

Rayner Arias (No. 15/SF No. 6)
Callis: One of the more physical players in the 2023 international class. He’s got some comparisons to a young Eloy Jiménez. Signed for a little under $2.7 million, which was the second highest bonus in franchise history for an international player. He only played 16 games at the DSL, he sprained his wrist diving for a ball, so he didn’t get to play a whole lot. So there’s only 58 at-bats, so, OK, small sample size and Dominican Summer League, but if you’re going to have a small sample size at the Dominican Summer League it’s pretty impressive when you hit .414 with a .539 on-base percentage, .793 slugging percentage, more walks than strikeouts, four homers and four steals in 16 games. I actually moved him pretty significantly up the Giants prospect list. I have him at No. 6 on their list at the end of the 2023 season. And the Giants are very excited about what this guy brings to the table offensively. He is going to be a corner guy in the long run – could be a right fielder, he has enough instincts and arm strength to handle right field. But, this is a guy who, in a couple of years, could be one of the better hitting prospects in the Minor Leagues. They’re very excited about the way he started his career.

Jeremy Rodriguez (No. 47/NYM No. 30) 
Dykstra: We just put him onto the Mets list at No. 30. He will be moving up when we do our update here in a few months. But, Jeremy Rodriguez was one of the younger players in the DSL this year, only turned 17 on the fourth of July. He was moved from the D-backs to the Mets pretty quickly after that in the Tommy Pham deal. What I like about Jeremy Rodriguez is he doesn’t swing and miss very much, at least, for that level and especially for his age. That especially came through after the trade, you know, it was a very small sample, he only played 13 games for the Mets’ DSL affiliate. But in those 13 games he walked 11 times and struck out only four. Showed some good speed too with seven steals. He’s got mostly gap power right now. All the reports we got on him when he first signed with the D-backs for $1.25 million, which was their biggest signing last year, was that power could come for him eventually, it’s mostly to the gaps right now. It’s going to take a while for that to develop, I think. But that fact that he’s making some really interesting swing decisions, he is putting bat on ball – especially relative to his age – it’s a strong start. Could play short, could play second base, we’ll see how he ends up defensively. But, this could end up being, you know, for just a few months of Tommy Pham, a pretty strong pickup for the Mets if he continues on this developmental path.