Thanks to team scouts Rolando Fernandez and Francisco Cartaya, the Rockies have become major players in Venezuela. Currently, there are seven Venezuelan natives on Colorado’s 40-Man; Fernandez and Cartaya signed four of them — Jhoulys Chacin, Franklin Morales, Edgmer Escalona, and Jonathan Herrera. The pipeline doesn’t end there. The Rockies’ minor leagues are stocked with talent brought to the organization by Venezuelan scouts. Colorado’s latest Venezuelan prize is a promising 19 year-old outfielder, Rafael Ortega.
Players like Ortega are why the Rockies scout Venezuela so thoroughly. They signed Rafael at the age of 16 for $65K; that’s probably how much Tyler Matzek paid for his first car. Prior to last season, Ortega was not a well known prospect. His signing didn’t catch much attention in Venezuela and went completely unnoticed in the States. After spending 2008 and 2009 playing in the Dominican Summer League, Ortega debuted last year with Casper. Hitting lead-off and playing center field for the Ghosts, Rafael lit up the Pioneer League and caught the attention of many. Earlier this month, Baseball Prospectus rated Ortega as the 11th best Rockies prospect. Not bad, for a guy the Rockies signed for the price of a Denver home in short sale.
At 5’11″, 160 lbs, Rafael certainly isn’t a big guy; nevertheless, his game is large. In 2009, he was named a Dominican Summer League All-Star. Last year, in 288 at-bats, Ortega posted a superb slash-line of .358/.416/.510. He belted 17 doubles, 3 triples and 7 homeruns, while adding 23 stolen bases and earning a spot on the Pioneer League All-Star team. Defensively, Ortega has the potential to be a very good centerfielder. He has good speed and an above average throwing arm, but needs to improve on his reads.
Rafael has the makings of an excellent lead-off hitter. He is fast, makes consistent contact and can draw a walk. Because of his size, many question whether his power is legit. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain his high OPS as he ascends through the minors. Casper is known as a hitter-friendly place. Many minor leaguers post gaudy numbers with the Ghosts, but fail to maintain their success after promotion.
Perhaps it’s cliché to write about the energy level of a slightly built Latin player, but, by all accounts, Ortega’s motor is off the charts. His manager in Casper, Tony Diaz, raves about Rafael’s passion. Diaz thinks that Ortega’s intensity and desire to improve will serve him quite well as he tries to make it to the big leagues.
Next year, with Ortega in center and Kyle Parker in right, Asheville will probably have the best outfield in the South Atlantic League. The Tourists play in an extremely hitter-friendly park; some serious offensive fireworks are a safe bet. While the Rockies will try to fast-track Parker, they will take their time with Ortega. At his age, there is no need to rush Rafael. Plus, as I’ve said probably a thousand times, the system is flush with quality outfielders. Of course, if he continues to hit .358, his path to the Majors will be much shorter.