The Venezuelan Summer League is shutting down for the 2016 season. With several teams having pulled out of their Venezuelan academies in recent years, the VSL was down to just four teams—the Cubs, Phillies, Rays and Tigers—in 2015. According to multiple sources, the Cubs decided to pull out of the VSL this year, so with just three teams remaining, the league is cancelling the 2016 season.
It's the latest move in a trend of teams reducing their presence in Venezuela, a country rich in baseball talent but one that has become more challenging and dangerous for teams to navigate as Venezuela has struggled with political turmoil, soaring inflation, shortages of basic goods and one of the world's highest homicide rates.
There is still uncertainty among some clubs about how they will proceed, both in terms of whether they will continue to operate their Venezuelan academies (though most teams seemed optimistic they would still operate them) and what they will do with the roster full of players they were planning to have play in the VSL this year.
Some organizations are planning to bring those players to the Dominican Republic and field an extra Dominican Summer League team. However, that creates a logistical challenge, as teams would need to house and accommodate another 30-plus players and staff in Dominican academies that typically aren't suited to hold that many people.
The Tigers' plan is to field two teams in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, taking their most experienced players who would have played in the DSL or VSL and sending them instead to the GCL, where their Lakeland, Fla. facility can accommodate the extra players. The less experienced players, including the July 2 signings from last year who would have debuted in the VSL, will play in the DSL.
While many Venezuelan players have started their careers in either the United States or the DSL, the VSL was the league where many of them made their pro debuts. The Tigers in particular have snagged several Venezuelan prospects who weren't heralded signings at the time but reached the majors after starting in the VSL, including outfielder Avisail Garcia, shortstops Eugenio Suarez and Dixon Machado and relievers Bruce Rondon and Jose Ortega. The VSL was also the first stop for Jose Altuve, a $15,000 signing who already is already a three-time all-star, 2014 batting champ and 2015 gold glove winner at age 25. Ten years ago, there were 11 organizations that fielded a team or at least a shared roster in the VSL, so while it remains to be seen whether the VSL could return in 2017, the trend of teams leaving the league doesn’t bode well for its future.
"A lot of us are disappointed," said one team official. "We liked having that league over there. Even though it wasn't ideal with four teams, it was good for us because some of the kids benefit from playing their first year at home, when they're so young. Going to the Dominican Republic isn't the same. For some families, it really mattered."
Teams that have had a Venezuelan academy and a team in the VSL saw it as a competitive advantage. Volume is critical to success in signing teenage prospects in Latin America, and fielding a team in Venezuela in addition to the Dominican Republic gave more players opportunities. While Venezuelan players who play in the DSL at least don't have a language barrier to overcome, having a VSL team allowed a player to spend his first year or two playing in his home country where his family could watch him play, which several team officials said was often an important selling point particularly with players signing for smaller bonuses. While much of the focus is often on 16-year-old players who sign on July 2, scouts felt they had an edge in Venezuela because they could give more opportunities to 17- and 18-year-old players who were being passed over by other clubs.
Teams will continue to operate in Venezuela, where clubs all having a scouting supervisor and a team of area scouts, in addition to an international scouting director and crosscheckers who go in to the country, though many Venezuelan scouts and trainers say the visits from American scouts have become less frequent in the last couple of years. Many scouts on the ground in Venezuela feel the talent there is better now than it's ever been before, but the cancellation of the VSL season is the latest sign of teams pulling resources out of Venezuela.