Baseball America national writer Ben Badler traveled to the Dominican Republic to prepare for the July 2 opening day of the international signing period. Today is his fourth and final part of his series on Latin American scouting.
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic—Since the Dominican Prospect League began playing in the fall of 2009, the league has consistently produced some of the top players in the Dominican Republic.
Last year, of the top 20 bonuses handed out to Dominican players who became eligible to sign on July 2, half of them played in the DPL. The league plays weekly games for a 25-game schedule, providing a transparent structure for everyone to see players. For some players, their stock rises because of how they perform in the league, like Red Sox shortstop Wendell Rijo did last year before his knee injury. With other players, exposure to game situations can reveal weaknesses.
“I think the emphasis on games in the DPL makes it a bit easier on our end to read their kids’ on-field makeup,” said an American League international director. “Just seeing the kids a lot, gaining a bit more access to them, I think it weeds some kids out who flat out can’t play the game.”
I spent two days watching the DPL’s Louisville Slugger Tournament Series in Boca Chica at the Yankees academy, where two games play simultaneously at adjacent fields with at least 100 scouts watching. One of the hitters who stands out is Dominican shortstop Michael De Leon, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound switch-hitter who trains with Valentin Monero. Last year Monero trained switch-hitting shortstop Frandy de la Rosa, who signed with the Cubs for $700,000, and De Leon has some similarities to de la Rosa. Between the two DPL games and the Major League Baseball showcase, De Leon goes 5-for-12 with two doubles, a triple and a stolen base. He hasn’t struck out yet and even several of his outs have been laced right at defenders.
The rest of De Leon’s tools aren’t as advanced. He runs the 60-yard dash in 7.18 seconds, which is below-average. His throws during infield are accurate, but his arm strength isn’t great. Then again, he just turned 16 earlier in the week. A grade you put on a player in January might be outdated by June.
“What makes this tough right now is within the next three months, five months, kids get better,” said a National League international director. “Kids come on, start running faster and the bats develop a little more. You’re not talking about 22-year-olds. You will see some guys who all of a sudden start to show you stuff in two to three months just because they’re developing.”
Third basemen in Latin America always seem to have a relatively homogenous profile: big body, big power, big questions on whether they’re going to stay at the position. Bryan Lizardo goes 0-for-5 in games, but the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Dominican third baseman also draws a pair of walks and displays impressive raw power from both sides on the first day in batting practice.
Lizardo also makes a few nice plays in the field, charging a slow roller and making an accurate throw to first base, then later making a good decision on a ball to his left to let the shortstop take it rather than try to cut it off and have to make an acrobatic throw. Lizardo trains with Fausto Garcia and won’t be able to sign until he turns 16 on July 26, so he’s one of the youngest players in this year’s July 2 class.
Dominican righthander Marcos Diplan, who was brilliant at the MLB showcase, doesn’t have the same success at the DPL event. Diplan only pitched two innings at the MLB showcase, but he’s still a 16-year-old kid being asked to throw on three days’ rest. Was he just tired? He lives in Santiago. Did he have to wake up at 5 a.m. just to get to the game two hours away this morning in Boca Chica? With so many high-ranking scouts and executives in the Dominican Republic this week, has he been throwing for other teams in between? These are all questions scouts have to ask to try to make sense of the inconsistency that’s so common among players here, and why many scouts preach the importance of what’s often referred to as “history,” or the sample size of views on a player.
“That’s everything,” said a second AL international director. “You’re going to struggle if you’re just making decisions on short looks. You try to identify the guys early and get as many looks as you can. The more you see a guy the more you’re going to know about a guy’s tools, consistency and makeup.”
Mayky Perez, a 16-year-old Dominican righthander who trains with Adan Ramirez, ranges from 89-91 mph with his fastball in the first inning, then settles down to 87-89 mph in the next two innings. Perez will generate some interest for his size (6-foot-5, 195 pounds) and arm strength. He strikes out four without giving up a walk in three scoreless innings, but he has trouble keeping his fastball out of the dirt and needs to bring along his secondary pitches, a 76-78 mph slider and a firm 82-84 mph changeup.
The games at the DPL and the International Prospect League have seemed smoother than what went down at the MLB showcase. Perhaps players are more comfortable in a familiar environment, maybe some of them have had a few extra days to shake off the holiday rust, or perhaps I’m just becoming desensitized to the rudimentary fundamentals. Other scouts who have been doing this for decades offer reassurance that the lack of game awareness is pervasive in the Dominican Republic.
“The DPL and the IPL and all those leagues have helped to start getting those guys some game play so they learn how to get some feedback and some coaching on situational baseball,” said the second AL international director, “but when these guys haven’t been growing up from six or seven years old playing in leagues and coming up through the league system, that’s obviously going to be hard. That’s not to say it’s everyone, but a lot of kids don’t have the opportunity to play in an organized league.”
In some ways, the DPL and other trainer-organized leagues in the country serve as a long overdue developmental tool. Scouts have largely been receptive to the DPL, not only because it allows them to see players in games but because it can accelerate players’ development. Unlike in the United States, Dominican players don’t play high school baseball or play on travel teams. While there’s clearly raw talent to be seen all over the island, the emphasis is on raw.
“That’s been the case forever with these kids,” said the NL international director. “To me, it’s no different than any other year. Baserunning is bad. Everything that’s baseball-related, it’s way behind. You see these kids get exposed a little bit because the culture has been so tryout-oriented—run the 60, catch a few ground balls, show me some power—OK, let’s sign you. Now when they’re playing games like this, that stuff is really getting exposed. The amount of money being invested in these players, I don’t agree with it. I understand the tools, but some of them, they don’t know how to play the game. That’s why they don’t get past A-ball.”
The players may be raw and the fundamentals in many cases may be sorely lacking, but Dominican players permeate major league rosters. Eventually, a lot of these raw prospects are going to develop into big leaguers.
“You have to rely on quality scouting to determine who has aptitude and who can make adjustments,” said a third AL international director. “You’re looking for those adjustments all the time. You’re looking at a guy who swings wildly at a breaking ball at 56 feet, the next breaking ball he spits on it and the next breaking ball he hits a missile to the shortstop. OK, we have an adjustment there. As you transfer over to player development, it’s just the day-to-day grind—repetition, repetition, repetition.”
Seeing players in the DPL gives scouts another vehicle to try to gauge which players have tools and which ones are able to apply them in game situations.
“You really have to look at their playability and their ability to compete, and then you look at those tools to see if they’re going to project to be big league tools,” said a second NL international director. “There are so many players, especially in the Dominican Republic, who have raw tools but don’t know how to play the game. A lot of the guys who are getting paid have raw tools but don’t know how to play the game.”
It’s a balancing act that teams have to strike here more than anywhere else in scouting. Everyone wants to sign the toolsy, athletic shortstop with a projectable body and a high baseball IQ, but that’s a rare monster. When someone like Franklin Barreto comes out of Venezuela last year showing plus-plus speed, a strong arm from shortstop (even if he may move off the position) and a track record of dominating at the plate everywhere he’s been, it’s not hard to see why he ranked as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect last year for July 2.
“Until the last three or four years really when they started organizing these leagues for the purpose of getting them in games and teaching them baseball acumen, before that, it was even worse,” said the third AL international director. “That’s why everyone has academies and why players spend up to two to four years here and why it’s so important to have good coaching here. That’s why it’s a huge step in the process. You have to sign tools, upside, athleticism. You have to sign what you consider to be a future big leaguer, or really a stripped-down big leaguer. Then the rest goes to player development. Compared to the (United) States, it’s vastly different. Being able to scout a high school player in the States is tough enough. Now take three years away from him and draft after their sophomore year of high school.”
The scouts in the Dominican Republic this week have signed just about every Latin American star in the big leagues. No area of scouting is an easy gig, but the degree of difficulty involved in Latin American scouting makes it a completely different beast.
“It is by far the toughest thing I’ve had to do,” said one longtime veteran executive with scouting and coaching experience. “Bar none.”