Baseball America national writer Ben Badler traveled to the Dominican Republic to prepare for the July 2 opening day of the international signing period. Yesterday he wrote about his experience at a two-day showcase hosted by Major League Baseball. Today, he writes about his time at the International Prospect League all-star event.
GUERRA, Dominican Republic—The Latin American scouting landscape has changed significantly in the last five years.
Spending on international free agents has blown up. The Collective Bargaining Agreement that created international bonus pools beginning last year on July 2 helped Major League Baseball limit signing bonuses, but one of the biggest changes in the international market over the last few years has been the environment in which teams evaluate players.
Five years ago, there was no such thing as the International Prospect League, the Dominican Prospect League or any other prominent organized baseball system where trainers brought their players together to play games for scouts.
In general, teams had limited options to evaluate Latin American amateurs. One way was for teams to invite players to their academy, either for the day or to stay overnight for up to one month, to put them through drills, games or whatever process they felt was optimal to better gauge the player and his abilities.
Scouts could also venture out to the fields where trainers have their players practice—something some trainers say many teams don’t do enough of—but with so many trainers at so many different fields across the Dominican Republic, many teams feel it’s more efficient to bring players into their academy instead, especially when the top evaluators are in from the United States for a week at a time.
Those are still important evaluation methods, but the rise of leagues like the DPL, the IPL and others have changed the Dominican baseball landscape rapidly. The trainers who run the IPL were originally with the DPL when it opened in the fall of 2009, but they have since broken off into their own league. There’s a bit of a rivalry between the two leagues and competition for the best players, but for scouts, it just means more opportunities to watch players play in games.
Today is Jan. 18, the first day of a two-day IPL all-star event at the Rays academy in Guerra. MLB finished its two-day showcase yesterday in San Cristobal, and there are at least 100 scouts here as the day is about to begin. It’s early in the morning and one of the Dominican scouts is putting on sunscreen.
“Hey, I’m Sammy Sosa, baby!”
The IPL all-star event follows the standard protocol for a Latin American tryout. Players run the 60-yard dash, the outfielders throw from right field, infielders take ground balls at either shortstop or third base, catchers throw to second base, followed by batting practice and a game.
Some scouts think the best player here is 16-year-old Eloy Jimenez, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound outfielder who trains with Amauris Nina, the same trainer who had Elier Hernandez when he scored a $3 million bonus from the Royals on July 2, 2011. Jimenez has plus speed, solid arm strength, a quick bat and the potential for above-average raw power from the right side of the plate. Given his body type, he’s eventually going to slow down and will have to be a corner outfielder, but it’s not hard to miss his tools in a tryout.
Another prospect who jumps out is the skinniest of the 34 position players here. Joan Mauricio is a 16-year-old shortstop out of San Pedro de Macoris who trains with Nelson Montes de Oca. He’s 6-foot-1, 140 pounds with a high waist and a couple of toothpicks for legs.
The physical contrast between Mauricio and Jimenez is stark. Jimenez has 60 pounds on Mauricio and a major league body right now. Mauricio is wiry and physically immature. His thin lower half looks like a shortstop’s frame, an important consideration for many of the shortstops on the island who are shortstops in name only.
When evaluating a 21-year-old college junior, body type matters, but it’s lower down the list in terms of importance. In the Dominican Republic, where players are signed as young as 16, physical projection carries more value. Not only that, but the body types are more extreme, ranging from the bony, lanky players to those who look like the oldest 16-year-olds on the planet. If a player is truly 15 or 16, he might still grow a couple of inches.
“We’re looking at the profile, who can stay at the position, who can stay at shortstop—projecting bodies,” said an American League international director. “Who’s going to get faster, who’s going to get slower, who’s going to stay the same and why? With a lot of that, there’s no substitute for experience. Is (a player’s body) going to thicken up? This guy has a great body, he’s lean, he’s going to put on weight, it’s going to be good weight and he’s going to hold his speed. This guy’s weak, but he has a good running gait, there’s a chance he could get faster. But you can’t bank on a guy getting faster.”
Mauricio wasn’t at the MLB workout yesterday, but today he takes a good infield, showing some range on a ball to his right and aptitude on a slow roller, a play that seems to give a lot of shortstops trouble this week. He’s a switch-hitter with barely any meat on his bones, but he’s putting a surprising charge into the ball during BP, driving pitches to the warning track and lacing line drives from line to line, with power coming from bat speed rather than strength.
There’s also a collegial atmosphere between the scouts and the dozens of trainers and agents, some of whom are former scouts. Ramon Genao, who everyone knows as “Papiro,” is the trainer who had Starling Marte when he signed with the Pirates. He’s chirping assorted words of colorful wisdom at his players during batting practice and cracking up the scouts.
Relationships are important in Latin America. Relationships among trainers are why a league like the IPL can exist in the first place. Even though they’re often competing to recruit players into their programs, the trainers work together so a league like the IPL can benefit all of them.
A good relationship with a scout can help a trainer pull six-figures annually. Teams that have good relationships with trainers can get priority access to their players, especially during the busy spring season when July 2 prospects are in demand to be seen at different academies. Too often those relationships blur ethical lines, where a scout will get a kickback from a trainer in exchange for signing his players, but there are legitimate baseball benefits for teams and trainers to build strong ties.
When the games start, two pitchers stand out, although neither of them are 16. The first is 18-year-old lefthander Jacob Constante, who touched 94 mph with his lively fastball, showed a solid slider and signed with the Reds a few days after the game for $730,000.
Later in the game, Dominican righthander Jefferson Mejia comes in to pitch. I first heard about Mejia in July 2010 when he was 13—or, at least, supposed to be 13. He was 6-foot-7 then and is still that height, but his age is in question. Last year MLB declared him ineligible to sign for one year over an issue with his age. Mejia claimed to have been born on Aug. 2, 1996, which would have made him eligible to sign on his 16th birthday last year, until the problem with his age came up. The roster lists Mejia being being born Aug. 12, 1995, which would make him 17, but that’s still in dispute.
What exactly happened isn’t clear. Mejia trains with Edgar Mercedes and is from the northern part of the island, where birth records are notoriously difficult to verify. One source with knowledge of Mejia’s case said the clinic where Mejia claims he was born no longer exists. Other details of Mejia’s background vary depending on the source.
In fact, it’s not even clear how Mejia is allowed to be pitching here. MLB declared Mejia ineligible to sign until April 4. When MLB suspends a player or declares him ineligible to sign for one year, the player is not allowed to enter a team’s Dominican complex. An MLB official said the league was aware that Mejia participated in the IPL game and that no violations took place, but there is no explanation why it’s not a violation if he’s not allowed to be at a team’s academy.
Regardless, Mejia has to be one of the biggest human beings on the island and his talent is clear. He was listed at 6-foot-7, 190 pounds at this time last year. Now the roster has him at 220, but he looks heavier with a thick lower half. Last year his fastball sat in the high-80s and scraped the low-90s. Today he’s sitting at 91-93 mph and getting both lefties and righties to swing through a good-looking 77-79 mph changeup, with a solid 75-76 mph curveball as well. For a guy with Mejia’s size, usually there are a lot of arms, legs, elbows and knees flying all over the place. His mechanics are fairly solid for someone with his length and he seems to have the athleticism to repeat his delivery.
Normally, players older than 16 have seen their market fall off once July 2 is in the rearview mirror. In Latin America, an 18-year-old who would be the equivalent of a high school senior in the United States is treated as old. A 21-year-old who would be the equivalent of a college junior is ancient, though some of that sentiment seems to be changing.
“To me, we as industry have it backwards,” said a National League international director. “For me, we should pay less money for 16 (year olds) because it’s a bigger risk.”
Constante has come on relatively recently, so teams don’t have much history with him. There’s an adage in scouting that, if you see something once, it’s in there. Regardless of how often a team has seen Constante, everyone in attendance saw him touch 94 mph regularly at the IPL all-star game. For some scouts, that’s enough. For many—especially when the bonus demands start to climb—it’s insufficient.
“You don’t have all the information, you don’t have all the history,” said an American League international scout. “You don’t see guys playing as much as you do (in the United States). There are so many pieces of information you don’t have. You try to know as much as you can, but it’s not simple. That’s why at the end of the day, I imagine we make more mistakes than people do out of the draft. Even if you try to do all you can, you don’t get to see those players as much as you should.”
While Mejia’s age is a question mark, the reality is that most of these players’ ages are in question, regardless of whether MLB raises an issue with a particular player. Many scouts don’t have confidence in MLB’s investigations, especially after the league has had to get rid of personnel over allegations that they were taking bribes. The Jairo Beras case didn’t do any favors for MLB’s reputation either. When there are millions on the line, it’s up to the teams to determine for themselves how old they think a player is, whether steroids might be involved and how much it matters to them.
“You see a 15-year-old kid throwing 93? Come on,” said one international director. “Josh Beckett didn’t throw 93 when he was 15. Is this guy superman? Maybe, but we’d better do our research. We’d better be diligent. You can’t just sit there and go ‘Ooh, aah’ and write this glowing report and invest millions of dollars without doing the research. The most important question you keep asking is: Why? Why is he doing this? Why is he showing so much rare raw power for his age?”