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Indians prospects off to strong start in Venezuelan Winter League

Carlos Moncrief and Giovanny Urshela are both hitting very well at the start of the VWL season.

Stateside there is the Arizona Fall League, in which MLB prospects get a chance to further hone their skills in formal competition. There are other offseason leagues too though, among the most significant of which is the Venezuelan Winter League, which kicked off last week. There are eight teams in the league, each of which plays a 63-game regular season schedule that lasts until mid December. After taking a break over the holidays, postseason play picks up in January, culminating with a best-of-7 championship series that is among the highlights of the Venezuelan sports calendar.

Venezuela is the only country in South America in which baseball is the most popular sport, and numerous MLB stars have come from there, including Omar Vizquel, Victor Martinez, and Asdrubal Cabrera. The VWL is open to players from all nations though, and this offseason the Tribe have four players participating: 20-year-old right-handed pitcher Ramon Rodriguez and 22-year-old catcher Alex Monsalve are both there, but the more notable names for Tribe fans are Giovanny Urshela and Carlos Moncrief.

Urshela (who turned 23 on Saturday) was maybe the most impressive Indians minor league player of 2014, playing the strong defense at third base he's been known for, while also going far beyond his previous career highs offensively, posting a line of .280/.334/.491, while spending most of the season with Triple-A Columbus. In the first four games of the VWL season, Urshela has six hits, including a home run.

Moncrief, a right fielder with a very strong arm, spent all of 2014 with Columbus, hitting .271/.328/.431. He turns 26 next month, making him old as prospects go, but he was originally drafted as a pitcher, which cost him a couple years developmentally. He's spent each of the last four years at a different level, and has maintained his power each step of the way, with 40-50 extra-base hits each season. He's off to a blistering start in the VWL, hitting .692/.733/.769, with 9 hits already.

Obviously it's a very small sample, but along with Francisco Lindor (playing in Arizona), Urshela and Moncrief are guys for us to keep an eye on during the next few weeks.