PHOENIX—More than one quarter of major league players on Opening Day rosters are born outside the United State. Countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Korea and Puerto Rico have reached the finals of the World Baseball Classic, while the U.S. has yet to appear in the championship game in three tries.
Enthusiasm for baseball in countries outside the U.S. continues to grow, and major league organizations continue to mine Europe, the Far East and, particularly, Latin America to find the next Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar or Oscar Taveras.
Fittingly, the topics of player development, the amateur signing age and emerging sources of talent took center state at “The International Baseball Landscape” panel on Day Three of the SABR Analytics Conference. The passionate, well-spoken panelists—Venezuelan journalist for ESPN Deportes Leonte Landino, Pirates director of player personnel Tyrone Brooks and Diamondbacks senior vice president of communications Josh Rawitch—all had firsthand experience in the realm of international scouting.
On the topic of the WBC, Landino was both laudatory and critical.
“The WBC is a national matter in Latin America and Europe,” he said. “For countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Italy, the Netherlands and Mexico, it’s a matter of pride when those nations play well in the tournament.
“The biggest drawback for the WBC is that the owners have not let players fully participate in the event, and it’s affecting the quality of the tournament. We’ll begin seeing improvement with more player participation, but right now MLB governs the WBC too tightly.”
Rawitch said, with Brooks and Landino nodding in approval, that the most exciting baseball atmosphere he’s ever been a part of was the Japan-Korea showdown at Dodger Stadium during the final game of the 2009 WBC.
New Sources Of Talent
On the topic of baseball’s next international hotbed, Landino nominated Brazil and Colombia as potential pipelines. Colombia, he said, is the “next frontier” with more than 100 players currently under contract with major league clubs and five players who appeared in teh big leagues in 2013, including Braves righthander Julio Teheran and White Sox lefty Jose Quintana.
Landino said the Pacific coast of Colombia is particularly fertile because that’s where the nation’s professional league is centered. He also noted that the country is easy for major league clubs to scout due to its proximity to Venezuela, its neighbor to the east. Colombian trainers often drive four hours over the border to showcase their amateurs at tryouts in Venezuela, he said.
Brazil is not nearly so far along, though it graduated its first two big league players in the past two seasons: Indians catcher Yan Gomes, who grew up in Brazil but attended Barry University in Florida; and White Sox righthander Andre Rienzo, the first Brazilian amateur to sign directly from the country and make the majors. Amateur players in Sao Paolo, Brazil’s largest city, learn baseball in the Japanese style, Landino said, from ancestors of the first wave of Japanese immigrants to the nation at the turn of the 20th century. Even today, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan.
Brooks nominated China as a future source of baseball talent, owing to the nation’s immense size and high quantity of athletes. It’s a matter of helping Chinese players translate those skills to the U.S. style of baseball, he said.
Signing Age, Signing Deadline
All the panelists agreed that 16 years old is an appropriate age for major league club to begin signing international players, even though a player must be 17 by the end of the minor league season in order to be eligible to play in the National Association.
Spending two or three years at the signing club’s Dominican academy—where most Latin teens go, regardless of nationality—helps prepare them to compete with older players in the U.S. minors when they’re 19 or 20.
The one drawback to the young signing age, Landino said, is that players who don’t sign initially are viewed as too old when they’re 17 or 18 years old. “The fact is, not every player develops at the same rate,” Landino said. “Some pitchers don’t grow into their velocity until they’re a little older than 16.”
The Dominican Prospect League, Landino cited as one example, has helped “older” amateurs get noticed by scouts and signed to contracts in some cases.
On the subject of the new international signing rules that went into effect for the 2012 signing period and limited each club to an allotted bonus pool, all three panelists agreed that the system was preferable to an international draft. (Brooks noted that some clubs have circumvented the signing rules by blowing out their international budgets in one year, knowing that doing so will incur financial penalties and restrictions for the following year. The logic behind this strategy is simple: Some teams find it preferable to bring in a high-ceiling class every other year rather than a more modest one each year.)
“I think the current signing system will continue,” Landino said, “because to do otherwise would be fighting against tradition. The various pro leagues all have their own interests at heart.”
Those interests usually align closely with money. For example, countries such as Japan and Korea forbid their players from circumventing their national major leagues to sign with an MLB club. Of course, that hasn’t prevented Japanese clubs from posting elite talents like Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka and turning a profit on their sale to U.S. clubs.
The Latin American counties would not want to disrupt the buscone system, which typically funnels 25 percent of a player’s signing bonus (and sometimes more) to the trainers—or buscones—who scout, develop and sell players to major league clubs.
Brooks said the Pirates’ efforts to teach Latin American prospects English has paid off handsomely. Not only does it speed up the players’ development and help them assimilate to the clubhouse, he said, but learning the language also instills in them a sense of accomplishment.
Landino said that even though it’s been a long ride, baseball has come a long way in terms of its development of Latin teens. No longer are they plucked directly from their native countries and thrown into the deep end in a domestic Rookie league.
“The next-level steps teams have taken with Latin players is wonderful,” Landino said. “A 16-year-old prospect now plays in a state-of-the-art academy, and by the time he’s 19 or 20 he knows basic English, which helps him understand the philosophy of the organization and makes teaching much easier, which helps him focus on the baseball field.
“Plus, all these kids have iPads and iPhones, which helps speed up the process (of assimilation).”
Rawitch said the Diamondbacks invested $500,000 in renovating their Dominican academy this offseason. “It’s not cheap to operate an academy,” he said. “You have to build it, hire coaches and training staff and budget for food and weight training—but to compete in today’s game you need an academy.”
To get an idea of startup and maintenance costs of a Dominican academy, Landino said that the Mariners opened a $4.2 million facility (note: MLB.com says $7 million) for 2014, and that annual operating costs for the academy will run between $2 million and $3 million.
State Of Baseball In Puerto Rico
A lack of active major league stars from Puerto Rico has affected the level of fan interest in the country, Landino said, and it’s clearly hurt the Puerto Rican League, which has diminished in stature during the past decade. Many blame the amateur draft, which the country has been subject to since 1990, for the decline in impact talent and, thus, fan interest.
“The incentive used to be stronger to find players on the island back when it was not subject to the draft,” Brooks said. “Now, teams have lost incentive to search out players on the island because they won’t be able to sign them on sight.” Now, they would have to compete with the other 29 teams to draft them.
As players like Carlos Beltran, Jorge Posada and Ivan Rodriguez enter their twilight years or retire from the game, the nation has fewer and fewer marquee stars in the big leagues. While true, a number of the game’s top prospects have roots in Puerto Rico, including three of the brightest shortstop talents. The Astros drafted Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft from the P.R. Baseball Academy, while the Cubs’ Javier Baez and Indians’ Francisco Lindor grew up on the island before moving to Florida to play high school ball and going in the first round of the 2011 draft.
“High schools in Puerto Rico can never compete with the programs in the U.S.,” Landino said, “for various social and economical reasons. The pool of talented players gets thrown into the same pool as the talented players from the U.S. in the draft.
“So now teams don’t need to scout as many players, because you have maybe 10 players grab the spotlight. That’s a huge disadvantage to the rest of the (draft-eligible) players, who don’t get seen as much by scouts.”