When the minor league season is over, instructional league is supposed to provide an informal environment for players to continue their development.
Every team runs its instructional league differently. Some have players focus on specific areas of improvement based on developmental needs, others prefer to be more hands-off with their first-year players from the draft or the international ranks. The common thread for almost all teams is that their instructional league program operates in a relatively low-key atmosphere.
For international signings, however, instructional league can be a pressure-packed experience, even if teams want to create the exact opposite feel for them to get adjusted to their new surroundings.
Instructional league is the first exposure to the United States for many international signings. Almost everything is a new experience, from the moment many of them step on an airplane for the first time to the culture shock of arriving in a foreign country where many of them know only a minimal amount of English.
Players need to adjust both on and off the field, and for many teams, bringing players to instructional league is a way to expedite the assimilation process. Yet whether a player signed a 2013 contract on July 2 or just spent the year in the Dominican Summer League, team officials say one of the most common problems they run into with international players at their first instructional league is that they treat it like it's another tryout.
"For many of them, it's an out of body experience," said Padres vice president Randy Smith, who is in charge of San Diego's farm system and international scouting. "When they first get here, they think they have to do everything better than what they did to get here. They try to hit the ball farther, run faster and throw harder. When you try to do that, you actually perform below your capabilities."
Yankees vice president Mark Newman, who oversees the organization's farm system and international operations, has also noticed a tendency from Latin American players to carry the tryout mentality with them.
"No question," Newman said. "They spent their whole lives—and they will continue with that—in a tryout mode, both in their physical manifestations and mental and emotional ones. That's part of what we're doing."
Teams take different approaches in determining which international players to bring to instructional league in the first place. If a player signs for at least $1 million on July 2, there's usually pressure to bring him over to the United States quickly. Mets Dominican shortstop Amed Rosario ($1.75 million), Blue Jays Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto ($1.45 million) and Twins Dominican shortstop Amaurys Minier ($1.4 million) were among this year's July 2 bonus babies who went to the U.S. for instructs. Venezuelan catcher Luis Torrens ($1.3 million) and Venezuelan outfielder Alexander Palma ($800,000) are both at instructs for the Yankees, while the Rays left their top July 2 signings—lefthander Jose Castillo ($1.55 million) and righthander Jose Mujica ($1 million)—back in Venezuela.
Then there are the players coming off a season in either the DSL or the Venezuelan Summer League. Many teams bring over their top prospects from the DSL or VSL to instructs, either to expedite their acclimation process to the U.S. or to reward them for their performance over the summer. Instructional league can also be a tool for an organization to determine whether a July 2 signing might be able to bypass the DSL and come right to the U.S.
"It's a combination of look at what you have that is stateside already in terms of who needs to go to instructional league and who doesn't," Smith said. "Some years there's more room than others based on the playoffs and injuries. It gets guys a taste of Arizona, where they're going to be, and gives them a bit of a head start for the upcoming season to get acclimated to the surroundings."
The Padres brought over one of the bigger groups of international players to their instructional league. Carlos Belen, a 16-year-old Dominican third baseman signed for $1 million on July 2, is with the team in Peoria, Ariz., for his introduction to pro ball in the U.S. Mexican outfielder Jose Urena, Dominican outfielder Franmil Reyes, Dominican shortstop Franchy Cordero and Venezuelan catcher Jose Ruiz—recipients of four of San Diego's five biggest bonuses for international signings in 2011—all played in the Dominican Summer League this year and made the trip to Arizona for instructs. Ivan Marcano, a 21-year-old Dominican righthander who is coming off his third trip through the DSL, also joined them.
Physical considerations also come into play. If a player is too weak to be able to impact the ball, he might stay behind in a team's Dominican academy.
Deciding which players to bring over can be a balancing act. Teams don't want to bring over a player who won't be able to handle the competition level, wasting the player's time and perhaps hurting his confidence. In other cases, players who may have just signed for a huge bonus and have heard all their lives how great they are might quickly realize how much work they need to do to catch up to the more advanced players in the organization.
"Do they look like a fish out of water on a breaking ball? That's probably the best indicator, because the breaking balls they see here are a lot higher than what they see down there," Newman said. "In general, it's the gap between tools and skills. For hitters, it's the ability to recognize and make contact with spin, if you wanted to pick one."
Teams try to ease the transition in various ways. Some clubs bring over their DSL managers or other instructors from their Dominican academies so that players will have more familiar faces at instructs. Yet it's not always the coaches who have the most influence on the players.
"Hopefully the best way these guys can get acclimated is their peer group, guys who have been here and adjusted, to help them through the rough spots," Smith said. "We do try to make sure there is some sort of veteran international player here to help with the transition."
Aside from going through the normal baseball work of instructional league, many teams provide international players with classroom assignments. Players work on learning both English and what teams refer to as "Baseball English." They learn computer skills and other basics of how to conduct themselves as professionals and how their life will be in a new country.
"For the kid's sake, it's trying to get him acclimated for the first time to all the coaches, the coordinators and what's expected of him," Mariners farm director Chris Gwynn said. "It's an easier transition probably than during the season because it's a lot more relaxed during that time. It's a good time for them to get their feet underneath them and compete against some of the better kids throughout baseball."
Teams cater to the needs of international players from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America—mostly the Dominican Republic and Venezuela—with a slew of bilingual coaches throughout the system.
Bilingual, however, usually just means English and Spanish. It gets trickier to cater to the needs of first-year players from other parts of the world. Having the world's greatest instructors is of minimal benefit if their messages can't be communicated in a way the player can understand.
The Mariners have signed players from throughout Europe and Asia in recent years, and this year they have 16-year-old Brazilian lefthander Luiz Gohara in Arizona for instructs. Gohara has a personal translator with him to translate from English to Portuguese until he has a better handle on English.
"Baseball is played the same way," Gwynn said. "It may be communicated a little different on the field, but off the field is the stuff that's really important. The quicker you can get them to assimilate in the U.S. language, the culture and how everything's done, the more comfortable they become and the faster the on-field skills get better because they're comfortable on the field."
When instructional league is over, many Latin American prospects will go back to their organization's Dominican academy for a Dominican instructional league. For the Padres, Belen stayed in Arizona for two weeks after instructional league to participate in a strength and conditioning program for a select group of players. He and the rest of the international prospects (aside from Urena, who is going home to Mexico and may play winter ball there) will go back to the team's Dominican academy. The Padres bring their roving instructors down to the island a couple of different times throughout Dominican instructs, where the players will play four games a week for a total of around 20 games from mid-October through Dec. 8.
Smith said San Diego's group of first-year international players adjusted as well as any group he could remember to their first exposure to the U.S., both in terms of their use of English and their acclimation to a new environment. The comfort level allows the players to relax, which sometimes is the key to allowing their natural talent to show on the field.
"Slow it down and realize what you did to get here was impressive," Smith said. "It's almost a second tryout. (Players think), 'Now I'm here, I've got to show I deserve to stay,' and the reason they're here is they do deserve to stay.
"Usually the first few days, guys have trouble doing a lot of things. It seems they just forget stuff. The sooner they can slow it down, the better they can perform."