PITTSBURGH—Rene Gayo saw the lanky, 6-foot-4, live-armed lefty differently.
Gregory Polanco, who will enter next season as the top propsect in the Pirates system, was showcased as a pitcher. But when the Pirates’ Latin American scouting director traveled to the Club Payero complex in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he watched carefully when Polanco rotated to the outfield.
“He’s backing things up. He had pretty good routes,” Gayo said. “He’s a big guy with a pretty short stroke . . . I walked up to him and go ‘Hey man, you’re pretty good in the outfield. Do you like the outfield?’ He said ‘That’s what I like to do. I like to play the outfield but they have me pitching.’ ”
Polanco signed with the Pirates as an outfielder for $150,000. After a 2012 breakout season, the five-tool prospect made a successful jump to Double-A this past season.
Scouts saw Starling Marte play shortstop on ramshackle fields on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. They saw a prospect lacking the actions and instincts for the infield. Gayo saw a competitive athlete. “He was smart enough to be able to evaluate the position change,” Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia said of Gayo.
The 25-year-old finished 15th in the National League with 4.6 Wins Above Replacement in 2013, per FanGraphs.
Other areas of the Pirates’ international scouting efforts have received rare publicity. The Pirates were the first club to sign India-born prospects, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, who are featured in the upcoming film “Million Dollar Arms.” Pirates prospect Gift Ngoepe was the first black South African to sign a professional contract. Gayo played a significant, if undesired role in the documentary “Pelotero,” which followed the courting of Miguel Sano, who signed with the Twins.
Those recruitments made for good cinema but the international signings elevating the Pirates system to elite status were lower in profile and accompanied with little initial media fanfare.
Marte, Polanco, and the organization’s top middle infield prospect, Alen Hanson, signed for a combined $325,000. To acquire Marlon Byrd, the Pirates sent another Gayo value find, Colombian second baseman Dilson Herrera, to the Mets before the postseason roster deadline.
Said Moises Rodriguez, the Cardinals’ director of international operations: “If you look at guys like Marte, Polanco, Hanson and Harold Ramirez (the No. 1 prospect in the New York-Penn League) . . . The work (Gayo) is doing is pretty obvious.”
Gayo prides himself in finding value.
“None of those guys came from a sexy program,” Gayo said. “What turns me on? Finding some guy in the field. That’s what I like to do . . . I’m not sitting around dreaming about being GM. I actually like doing this. Scouts are like the casting directors in baseball. One casting director once said you have to genuinely like actors and be interested in them. That’s the way good scouts are. You have to really like players and be interested in them.
“Anyone can see someone throw hard or hit a ball far but there’s more to it than that.”
The robust, charismatic Gayo is the son of Cuban immigrants who worked with the CIA to plot against Fidel Castro. They fled the country after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Gayo was born in the U.S., graduated from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and was signed as a nondrafted free agent in 1987 by the Reds. His career as a professional catcher lasted all of 30 at-bats in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before his knees betrayed him.
In 1989, Cam Bonifay hired Gayo to scout Texas and Louisiana part-time for the Pirates. Gayo began scouting full-time with the Indians in 1994. He was promoted to lead their Latin American operations in 1999, helping sign Jhonny Peralta, Danys Baez, Roberto Hernandez(^) and Edward Mujica to modest bonuses.
After the Indians restructured their scouting department, Gayo was hired by then-Pirates general manger Dave Littlefield to head the Pirates’ Latin American operations in 2004.
Part of the Pirates’ success in Latin America is looking at players differently. That tied in part to looking for a certain criteria.
“We go after players others don’t go after,” Gayo said. “I’m looking for guys who fit my prototype and when I find them I get excited.”
Confidence is one key aspect. Finding that trait is one reason Gayo and his 24 scouts spread over nine countries prefer watching games over showcases. Like most scouts, Gayo is also searching for advanced hit tools. Gayo also prizes speed. He counts Whitey Herzog’s athletic Royals and Cardinals teams of the 1970s and 1980s among the influences for his prototype of a player.
“(Speed) is the common denominator in offense and defense,” Gayo said. “It’s not just speed, it’s the threat.”
A prototype is important in Latin America, where the talent is further away from the big leagues than anywhere else and organized games aren’t as prevelant as they are in U.S. amateur scouting.
“It’s raw scouting in its purest form,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no stats. If you have scouts that know how to evaluate and if you can create a system to evaluate . . . you’re going to succeed.”
The Pirates’ success is also tied to travel. Gayo and his team are simply willing to go where other staffs are not.
“He’ll go in the hood if he has to,” DiPuglia said. “A lot of guys won’t do that. They won’t stay at hotels with no cable, no TV, dirty running water. I’ve done it. I try to avoid it now. I’ve done it plenty of times. I got tired of getting bacteria in my stomach.”
Said Pirates GM Neal Huntington: “(Gayo) is relentless in his pursuit of adding talent . . . Rene has made and continues to make a significant impact upon the organization.”
But the international success starts above Gayo, traced to Pirates owner Bob Nutting, who has poured more money than any owner into amateur talent acquisition and development since 2008.
The Pirates spent an MLB-high $51 million on amateur draft bonuses from 2008-12, and $3 million on Luis Heredia in 2010, the organization record for an international prospect. The Pirates also opened a new Dominican academy in 2009.
In 2007, Nutting visited the club’s aging facility in the Dominican Republic and saw dilapidated fields, outdated equipment, and a cramped clubhouse. Nutting promised change.
“He said ‘I’m going to give you the tools to do your job,’ ” Gayo said. “We had a ground-breaking ceremony at the academy. I introduced a guy who works for the Yankees at their academy to (Nutting). Bob Nutting shook his hand and said ‘Congratulations you have the best Dominican (facility),’ and paused, looking down at his watch, ‘for another eleven months.’
“He looks like Clark Kent, but he’s Rambo.”
In 2009, the Pirates opened their $5 million complex. The 46-acre academy meets all developmental needs, including weight training, batting cages and on-site dormitories.
Beyond the academy, the commitment includes funding bonuses, the Dominican Summer League team and scouts—including Juan Mercado, who was hired from the Cardinals to run the Pirates’ Dominican operations. Mercado helped identify and sign Cardinals top prospect Oscar Taveras.
Gayo said without management’s commitment “this would not be happening.”
What is happening? The development of a farm system the Pirates hope will make their 94-win season the start of a competitive window, not a one-year outlier.
Said Gayo: “This is just the beginning.”
Travis Sawchik covers the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review