International scouting directors spend hundreds of days every year in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to evaluate baseball's top international amateur prospects.
Over the past year, those top scouting officials have added a less traditional baseball country to their itineraries.
That's because one of this year's top international prospects is Marten Gasparini, a 15-year-old Italian shortstop who is expected to sign the biggest contract ever for a European amateur player. Gasparini, who turns 16 on May 24, is 6 feet, 175 pounds, hits from both sides of the plate and is an outstanding athlete with 65-70 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale.
Once he becomes eligible to sign when the 2013-14 international signing period opens on July 2, Gasparini will likely net a bonus north of $1 million. While Dodgers vice president of international scouting Bob Engle made the Mariners a leader in signing European prospects until he left in October and the Cubs have also shown interest, most sources believe the Royals are the frontrunners to sign Gasparini.
The last European prospect to captivate this much attention from major league teams was Max Kepler, a German outfielder who signed with the Twins in 2009 for a European-record $800,000 and entered 2013 as Minnesota's No. 10 prospect. In Gasparini, some scouts believe they are watching the best European prospect they have ever seen.
Yet Gasparini isn't just good for a European player—he's one of the premier prospects in the entire international market.
"He's a well-above-average athlete with really good agility and really good body control," said one international scouting director. "It's a good body on an athlete with tools. He brings a lot to the table. Even if he goes to center field, he profiles there at a premium position. The competition level in Europe is more like middle-of-the-road high school in the United States and he's not facing the 92-94 mph some of the Dominicans face, but he hits in games. He's a really interesting guy."
Discovering The Game
Born to an Italian father and a mother of Jamaican descent who grew up in London, Gasparini speaks Italian and English. Growing up in the small northeastern Italian town of Alture in the Friuli region along the Slovenian border, Gasparini originally dabbled in other sports as a child. He had played soccer. He had tried his hand at martial arts.
Gasparini also happened to live close to a club baseball team in Cervignano, which is how he got his start in the sport. Then in May 2011, when he was just about to turn 14, Gasparini showed up to a tryout for the Italian Baseball Academy. Bill Holmberg, who up until a year ago had scouted for the Cubs, now works as the director of the Italian Baseball Academy and serves as the Italian national team's pitching coach. He immediately recognized Gasparini's potential.
"As soon as I saw him at 13," Holmberg said, "I knew we had a chance to create a superior player if we could work with him for a couple years."
Gasparini joined the academy in September 2011, moving nearly 300 miles away form home to live and train in Tirrenia, Italy.
"He was extremely raw in his actions at shortstop, and his swing wasn't what it has become," Holmberg said. "But from the beginning you could see he had bat speed, range and an above-average arm for his age (85 mph) at 13 from shortstop."
At the Italian academy, Gasparini worked with infield instructor Pedro Jova, hitting instructor Marco Mazzieri, Gianni Natale, Armando Gutierrez, Daniele Santolupo and the rest of the academy coaching staff every day. By 14, he was already attracting the attention of major league scouts.
After a year in the academy, Gasparini went to Chihuahua, Mexico to play shortstop for Italy in the 15U World Championship, a tournament heavily attended by international scouting directors. While Italy went just 3-5 in the tournament, Gasparini shined, hitting .419/.514/.710 by going 13-for-31 with a double, four triples and six stolen bases in six tries.
Just a few days after the 11-day tournament ended, Gasparini was in Seoul, South Korea playing center field for Italy in the 18U World Championship. Gasparini struggled at the plate (2-for-17), but he was the second-youngest player in the tournament, facing players three years older than him.
Since those tournaments, Gasparini has only continued to improve and draw more top scouts from major league teams to Italy. Scouts highest on Gasparini believe he has the potential to hit at the top of the order, with gap power now that should improve as he adds strength to his frame.
"The thing I see when I watch Marten swing the bat is the bat speed," Holmberg said. "I don't think he will be a pure power guy, more of a leadoff guy or maybe a two-hole hitter. But I do think that he could eventually hit 20 or so home runs a year."
If a team is willing to spend more than $1 million on Gasparini, it's likely that organization will let him start his career at shortstop. He has good range up the middle, although making plays on balls hit to his right are more of a challenge because of his arm strength. Scouts give him a 40 to 50 arm on the 20-80 scale and have concerns about his throwing mechanics, which is why some think he might be a better fit in center field. Yet while some scouts last year thought he was a surefire center fielder, now those same evaluators believe it's a coin flip whether he will have to change positions.
"His arm action is a short arm action with a little funk to it, so I'm not sure if you can project it enough to play the shortstop position," said one scout. "But he's athletic and he has really good actions for a kid coming from that area. You look at that kid and you can compare him to some of the really smooth actions coming out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela."
Holmberg is among those who believe Gasparini has a chance to stay at shortstop. The plan at the Italian academy was to leave him at shortstop until he forced his way off the position, but over the past year he has only improved his chances to stay there.
"The player who he reminds of most is Derek Jeter," Holmberg said. "Now I realize those are some big shoes to fill and they are definitely different in their swings and some skills, but I think they are similar in their actions. I have seen Marten make some plays on (defense) that are more advanced than what should be the case considering the age on his identity card."
While Kepler was another athletic European prospect, he was 6-foot-4, 180 pounds when he signed and figured to settle into a corner outfield position, though he played mostly center field last year at Rookie-level Elizabethton. Gasparini isn't as big as Kepler, but he has more speed and a better chance to stay at a premium position.
"I've never had another player in our system with his ability or athleticism," Holmberg said. "I wish we had 10 of them every year—it sure would make my job easier. Seriously, I've coached a little bit in the States and have scouted for the Cubs in the past, and I have never had the pleasure to coach or to scout a player Marten's age with similar tools to his. Some have been close, but no one who could be considered in the same sentence. We had Max Kepler from Germany a few years ago who had great tools, but they were different player types and had different skill sets."
In March, Italy's World Baseball Classic team surprised people by making it out of the first round and nearly reaching the finals in San Francisco, but it did so with a roster nearly devoid of Italian-born players. Throughout Europe, attracting athletes of Gasparini's caliber into baseball has been a difficult task.
"Our main problem in developing players is not the lack of coaching or facilities, it's the lack of high-quality games that our kids can play," Holmberg said. "Quality competition—that is the real battle after we have been able to interest the superior athletes in our sport. We really need to play 120 games a year with our best players. Then, you would probably see even more quality players coming out of Europe and into pro ball."
There are signs it's going in the right direction. Alex Liddi, who was born, raised and signed in Italy, made his major league debut with the Mariners in 2011. Donald Lutz, who was born in the United States but was raised in Germany, followed Liddi to become the second graduate of MLB's European academy to play in the big leagues when the Reds called him up last month.
"The average player is better," Holmberg said. "The level of play has gotten better. The coaching has gotten better. Everything across the board is better than it was even five years ago.
"We will never get all or most of the best athletes—soccer and other sports are too popular. Slowly but surely baseball is being recognized as an alternative for these young athletes and I think it can only get better."