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 the third part of his series on Latin American scouting.
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic—There’s nothing glamorous here. It’s early on a Saturday morning and the Dominican Prospect League is playing games this afternoon at the Yankees’ Dominican academy in Boca Chica, but across the street the Cardinals are getting started on a long day of scouting.
The Cardinals are holding a private workout at La Academia, an independent academy adjacent to the Phillies’ complex. Several trainers over the last few years have brought their players here to work out, including Indians shortstop Dorssys Paulino and Athletics center fielder Vicmal de la Cruz.
It’s a beautiful field at a professional-level facility. The field is better maintained than the one MLB used for its workout a couple days ago in San Cristobal. It’s even in better condition than some of the Rookie league facilities I’ve seen in the United States.
The workout is relatively small. There are close to a dozen unsigned players here. A few are July 2 prospects for this year, mixed with some eligible hitters and a few eligible pitchers who will throw at the end. (Out of respect to the Cardinals—and some of the players—their names are omitted.)
Some players dressed in La Academia uniforms, but most of them are players that other agents and trainers have brought to the facility for the Cardinals to see. Part of what makes scouting in Latin America different than in the United States is that private workouts like these are often a significant portion of the evaluation process. Having the relationships with trainers to be able to bring the players over in the first place is something that just doesn’t come into play back in the U.S.
Trainers take several factors into consideration when it comes to making scheduling decisions for their players. Time and workloads are finite resources, especially for young players who can get worn down easily and pitchers who can (or at least should) only throw on several days’ rest. Should they bring a player to a team that never spends much money? Should they show a player to a team that’s already used up the majority of its bonus pool for the 2012-13 international signing period? Is it worth it to bring a player to a team that has a history of requesting access to players just because they want to have a report on them, then never makes a good faith effort to sign them?
The Cardinals sign 16-year-old players around July 2, like they did last year with Panamanian shortstop Eduardo Sosa, Venezuelan catcher Joshua Lopez and Venezuelan outfielder Luis Bandes. Yet they have a track record of being aggressive to sign players regardless of their age or the time of year. Dominican righthanders Carlos Martinez ($1.5 million in 2010) and Alex Reyes ($950,000 in December) are just two examples.
There were hundreds of scouts at the MLB showcase and yesterday’s International Prospect League all-star game. The only scouts here are five from the Cardinals, including international director Moises Rodriguez and international crosschecker Cesar Geronimo, who are in from the United States. The workout starts with the standard routine: players run the 60-yard dash, outfielders throw to third base and then home plate from right field, infielders take ground balls at shortstop or third base and then all the hitters take batting practice.
One of the outfielders starts throwing. He has a below-average arm but still bounces his throws past the third baseman. During infield, a third baseman wearing a Yankees jersey airmails his first throw. His third throw goes even higher over the first baseman’s head. A shortstop for July 2 uncorks a series of wild throws. I’ve seen this show before.
The third-base dugout starts to fill up, as 15 players have come out of their living quarters in the La Academia building to watch the tryout. Another dozen people—mostly the trainers of the players here—are watching from the stands behind home plate.
BP starts and a righthanded-hitting shortstop wearing a Dodgers jersey is squaring up the ball every time. The overwhelming majority of the players I’ve seen so far during my time in the Dominican Republic are extremely pull-oriented. The shortstop isn’t hitting the ball out of the park, but he’s driving the ball to center and right field, putting the sweet spot of the bat on the ball consistently in his first round of BP.
A few other hitters step into the box. One drops his hands when he hits, which makes for a choppy BP and a lot of weak grounders. Some of the July 2 prospects have live, wiry bodies with a lot of room to add strength, but their mechanics at the plate are raw.
The shortstop in the Dodgers jersey comes back for another round of BP and shows the same approach. His swing his loose. He’s barreling up the baseball, using all fields and wearing out the gaps.
I ask how old he is. It turns out he’s eligible to sign now—barely. He’s 16, born on Aug. 31, 1996. He’s been eligible to sign since he turned 16 last year. Had he been born 24 hours later, he would have missed the cutoff and been a July 2 prospect for 2013. Instead of being a July 2 prospect for this year who might be generating some buzz, he’s instead looked at as a “passed over” player, the shine and luster of July 2 having been worn off. As one of the youngest eligible players on the market, his youth should be appealing.
They’re not going to play a game this morning, but the Cardinals have three eligible pitchers here to throw live BP to the hitters. The first pitcher is a righthander in a Reds jersey. Every fastball is 90-91 mph. The curveball is 72-74 mph and needs a lot of work, but you wouldn’t know it from the hitters’ reactions.
The shortstop with the Dodgers jersey steps in and swings through two straight curveballs. They’re not knee bucklers by any means, but he bails early. The pitcher blows him away with a 90 mph fastball.
None of the other hitters have more success. As long as the pitcher is throwing 90 mph, the hitters aren’t able to catch up. The curveball isn’t great, but to the hitters here today, they might as well be facing Justin Verlander. One of the July 2 prospects swings through a curveball that doesn’t curve and nearly strikes him in the chest. The pitcher finishes after about 25-30 pitches, goes behind the plate to shake hands with every scout and walks off the field.
Another eligible righthander takes over. He’s 6-foot-2, 185 pounds and wears a hat with the MLB logo. He’s a converted catcher who turns 19 next month.
The first pitch lands in the catcher’s mitt and I check the radar gun—93 mph. Of the first 10 pitches he throws, nine of them register a 93. Jeez, how many unsigned guys on the island can there be who throw 90 mph?
“If you’re an area scout down here,” says one of the Cardinals scouts, “you see 90 every day.”
The fastball is impressive. The ball comes out of his hand fairly easily and it sits at 91-93 mph with heavy life. The hitters don’t have a chance against him, but it’s hard to know what to make of how hitters react to his stuff because these guys don’t have a prayer against average velocity or pitches that bend.
The breaking ball is 77-81 mph but it has slurvy, three-quarters break and needs work. It doesn’t seem like he can throw a top-to-bottom curveball, but given that he’s fairly new to the mound, what would happen if a good pitching coach helped him develop his breaking ball into a true slider? He throws a changeup, but it’s 86 mph and firm.
The shortstop in the Dodgers jersey digs in again. The swing and the approach that looked good in BP have disappeared. He can’t get the bat head out front to catch up to the velocity, while the breaking ball recognition is very limited.
The righthander walks to the side and a lefty steps on the mound. His arm action isn’t as loose as the first two pitchers and he’s throwing 85-88 mph. He has a decent changeup at 78-81 mph. There isn’t much of a breaking ball there. He looks like he could pitch in the Dominican Summer League, but there doesn’t seem to be much more than an organizational arm if he signs.
Finally hitters start putting a few balls in play, but nobody’s ripping line drives or doing much to stand out at the plate. The shortstop in the Dodgers jersey looks like he can handle the velocity, but he swings through a couple of changeups.
The intrigue from the beginning of the workout is gone. I don’t want to write him off completely. Maybe I caught him on a bad day. He’s 16, after all. I’d like to see him again in a couple months to see if he’s gained strength or made any improvements. He may end up signing for a low bonus, but there’s no way for a team to justify signing him based on today’s workout.
None of the players at the workout sign today, but the two righthanders should eventually get something done. The converted catcher was the best prospect here, but the interest level for teams is going to depend on how much money he asks for and how much history they have on him.
That is, if they see him at all.
Editor’s Note, March 15, 2013: The converted catcher is Jose Santiago, who has signed with the Mariners for $205,000.