HOUSTON—Twenty years after Andres Reiner blazed a scouting trail into the untapped baseball gold mine of Venezuela and wound up signing future stars Johan Santana, Bob Abreu and Freddy Garcia, the Astros are closing shop in the South American country.
The Astros, who were the first team to open a baseball academy in Venezuela, will close their facility on the grounds of Venoco Oil Company at the end of spring training, opting instead to add a Rookie-level team to the Gulf Coast League in Florida.
For the Astros, they hope the closure of the academy, which opened in 1989, will help them get players into the United States at an earlier age and to the major leagues sooner. And they hope to sign fewer, but better players from Venezuela by giving bigger bonuses.
“We were pioneers 20 years ago when Andres built our program over there, but the industry has change in terms of how you scout,” Astros assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. “We were the first ones to sign players for 20, 30, 40, $50,000, but you can’t do that nowadays because all 30 clubs are scouting over there. To sign the same type of player now, it’s going to close you half-a-million, three-quarters-of-a-million.
“So we’re going to try to put more resources into signing betters players and bring them to the States right away and send them to the Gulf Coast League and speed up the process. One reason we didn’t have a Gulf Coast League team is we are affiliated with the Dominican Summer League and Venezuela.”
Reiner, who left the Astros in August of 2005, is the architect of the Astros’ Venezuelan academy. Among the players signed by Reiner to reach the majors are Santana, Abreu, Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Melvin Mora and Richard Hidalgo.
“It is a sad thing,” said Reiner, a special assistant for the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s always sad when one of your projects that has been very productive disappears, but there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s sad. Every time you close a school or university, kids are getting less opportunities in the game of baseball. Every time an academy closes down, there are less opportunities for players to get a chance.”
According the 2008 book “Venezuelan Bust, Baseball Boom: Andres Reiner and Scouting on the New Frontier” by Milton H. Jamail, Reiner and his staff signed 77 Venezuelans between January 1990 and the end of 2000. By September of 2007, 19 of those players (25 percent) played in the major leagues, including five who represented Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.
Many of the players signed by Reiner reached stardom in different uniforms after being traded or lost in the Rule 5 draft. Garcia became known with the Mariners, Guillen with the Tigers, Santana with the Twins, Abreu with the Phillies and Mora with the Orioles.
The best-known player from the Venezuelan academy to succeed with the Astros was outfielder Richard Hidalgo, who was the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2003. Venezuelan minor leaguers Felipe Paulino, Fernando Nieve, Paul Estrada and Wladimir Sutil are still with the Astros.
“I always thought Venezuela would be successful because baseball is so rooted in the country and there are so many youngsters playing the game,” said Reiner, who recently helped convince the Rays to open an academy in Brazil. “It was a way of scouting and preparing the players before they came to the States, and the academy was very successful. We produced 22 players that played in the major leagues. The market is still there.”
The academy is set to close March 31, 2009 at the end of spring training. Those players who aren’t deemed ready to compete in the U.S. will be sent to the Astros’ academy in the Dominican Republic, while the rest will come to the Gulf Coast League. The Astros are in the process of upgrading their facilities in the Dominican.
Bennett said the Astros will still have a steady presence of scouts in Venezuela, including three full-time scouts and two part-time scouts. The Phillies, Mets, Rays, Mariners, Pirates, Tigers and Cardinals will still operate academies in Venezuela, taking advantage of the doors opened by the Astros and Reiner.
“From the outside looking in, I think it’s a big deal from an industry standpoint, but when we sat down and talked about the direction we were going as an organization it was the right one,” Bennett said. “We feel it’s going to benefit our players because they’ll be exposed to our culture in the States a lot faster, and that will speed up the development process and hopefully get them to the big leagues at a younger age.”