As a 15 year old in Mazatlan, Mexico, Luis Heredia was considered the top pitching prospect in the 2010 international market by many scouts. No wonder - the teen was already 6'5" and throwing 92 MPH fastballs. The Pirates, Yankees, and Blue Jays were on him seriously and the Dodgers, Giants, Rangers and Mariners were also poking around.
The Bucs were considered the front runner. Scout Jesus "Chino" Valdez was almost a family member, and Rene Gayo had steered the youngster to the Vera Cruz Red Eagles, a team he and Valdez had connections with. That was key, because Latino players signed to a team are somewhat like Japanese players in free agency in that the team gets the major share of the bonus, like a guaranted posting fee, while the player keeps the rest and gets to go to El Norte. But with the Miguel Sano debacle a year before fresh in everyone's memory, it was finger-crossing time until the deal was sealed.
This time, it worked out just fine. Mamá Maria was a big fan of the Pirate scouts, and Heredia joined the organization in August, a week after he turned 16. He received a $2.6M bonus (his cut was $650K; the rest went to Vera Cruz), far and away the biggest honeypot that the Pirates had ever given an international amateur. Before that, Venezuelan OF Exicardo Cayones held the record, signing for $400K in 2008.
The Bucs didn't assign him anywhere that year, but brought him to Pirate City in early 2011 to evaluate him thoroughly. He displayed enough raw stuff, maturity and an eagerness to dive into American baseball culture, so instead of weaning him at the Academy or in a Latin league, they pretty aggressively sent him to the GCL.
It was risky; the FO was having him compete against kids that were a couple of years older and been through high school. But they thought he had the physical tools, and he had faced older players while stashed with the VC Reds. The cultural differences were another issue. The team had only brought one other 16 year old to the GCL before him, Dominican IF Andury Acevedo in 2007, and he was sent back home a couple of seasons later after failing to adjust, not to return stateside again until he was 20.
But Heredia embraced the culture, learning English from TV and his teammates and buying his mom a house near Bradenton. He already had some family close at hand in Florida, so that helped in the transition, too.
It would be nice to say that he blazed his way through the league, but that's not what happened. The Pirates were very careful to limit his workload, and he ended up tossing just 30-1/3 frames. Heredia's line was 1-2/4.75, with 23 strikeouts against 19 walks. His velocity remained in the low nineties, and though he was inconsistent with his control, Heredia had streaks of excellent ball. Baseball America ranked him as the 3rd best prospect in the GCL that season.
Pittsburgh wasn't sure whether to keep him there in 2012, but after extended spring training decided to bump him up a notch to State College in the short season New York-Penn League. Again, it was an aggressive move; he was 17 years old and pitching in a league of primarily college players. In fact, Heredia was the youngest player in the NYPL last year and the youngest to ever play for the Spikes.
It was a good move; he improved in every stat other than whiffs. His slash was 4-2/2.71. Heredia cut his hits from 8 to 7 per nine, walks from 5.6 to 2.7 per game, and though he doubled his innings to 66-1/3, he actually gave up fewer home runs (two; he surrendered three in 2011) than he did in the GCL. His heater touched 96, and sat in the low nineties, plenty impressive enough for a teen. Baseball America tabbed his as the #2 prospect in the NYPL.
The improvement came even while the Bucs kept him on a short leash. He was generally limited to 60-65 pitches per outing, and 90% of his pitches were gas, in keeping with the Pirate protocol of fastball command for its young pitchers.
When he was signed, it was said that he had a six-pitch repertoire. The Pirates have cut that to three - fastball, change up, and curve.
A point of emphasis was keeping his fastball down, and Heredia made considerable strides in that regard. The heater will be his bread-and-butter pitch, and his velocity should improve as he matures physically. He still has work to do, though. His four seamer has some run, but he has yet to master cutting and sinking the two-seamer, and he still has problems moving the ball in and out.
Heredia's circle change is on track to become a plus pitch. It comes in about 8-10 miles slower than his fast ball, which is an excellent spread, and has good fade, but he doesn't have command of it yet. It's probably the pitch he uses the most after the fastball, and one that the Pirate staff like to have in their pitchers' toolkit. Once he has his heater command in hand, he'll get to throw it more often and should grow into it.
The curve should become his chase pitch. It already shows nice movement, but it's a little bit loopy. When he gets the spin a little tighter, it will become his swing-and-miss offering. Again, he should get more comfortable with it after the coaches allow him more leeway in his pitch selection at the higher levels.
So right now, he's busy assembling his pitching package. His command isn't consistent yet, but for a big guy, he has an easy, over-the-top delivery that he mostly repeats. His stuff is delivered a nice downhill plane, and Heredia is keeping it at the knees more often than not. So everything looks to be right on schedule for a kid who's still three summers away from legally ordering a Corona from the neighborhood cantina.
The main concern we've seen in various scouting reports is his body. He weighed 185 pounds when he was signed, and it was said he couldn't do a push-up. He's bulking up now (we've seen his weight listed between 205-220 lbs.; his height between 6'6"-7", so he's still a growing boy), and strength and conditioning will be an important part of his routine. It could be the difference between an inning-eater or a guy who's prone to physical breakdowns. So far, so good in that regard, but it may bear watching as he makes his way through the minors.
Heredia is considered to be part of the Pirate minor league trinity of aces, along with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, and John Sickels rates him as baseball's #66 prospect. Cole is 22 and just about ready to join the parade; Taillon is 21 and is more likely to show up sometime in 2014 than next season. Heredia is 18 and will likely start at West Virginia next year, and 2016 is projected to be the earliest he'll make his MLB debut. After all, he's just a high school senior in age, and the Sally League is a pretty fair prep division.
A lot can happen between now and then; pitchers travel a particularly rocky career road. But right now, Luis Heredia and his two amigos are the bright lights shining at the end of the tunnel for long suffering Bucco fans.