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International scouting presents unique problems

by Tracy Ringolsby
April 17, 2004

DENVER--Here's the irony of all ironies.

Sandy Johnson, currently the number two baseball man with the Diamondbacks, is this generation's most influential man in Latin America. His list of signings ranges from the Alomar brothers and Ozzie Guillen in San Diego to Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa and Ivan Rodriguez in Texas to Erubiel Durazo in Arizona.

Johnson took over as the scouting director for the Padres in 1982, after years as a scout and minor league manager. Yet the Padres are one team that has never signed an impact player out of the Dominican Republic.

During Johnson's tenure with the Padres, Puerto Rico was still not under the control of the draft, and with the help of talent finder Luis Rosa, Johnson dominated that market. When Puerto Rico became covered by the draft, Johnson turned his attention to the Dominican, but by that time he had become scouting director for the Rangers.

Since he became general manager of the Padres in 1995, Kevin Towers has put an effort into establishing a presence in Latin America, but it hasn't been easy trying to play catch-up.

The Padres initially brought Bill Clark over from the Braves to handle international operations, and Clark has put a system in place that Towers says could allow San Diego to once again become a player in Latin America. From 2000-03, the Padres signed 135 foreign amateurs from nine countries, including Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia.

"There's no question the Padres would have done better (had they kept Johnson)," said Clark, who with the Braves found future all-star Rafael Furcal in the Dominican and Andruw Jones in Curacao. "Sandy Johnson understood the area."

Playing Catch-Up

Randy Smith, who Towers replaced as GM when Smith took the GM job in Detroit, has since replaced Clark in running the international department.

Johnson says his signing of Latin American talent wasn't so revolutionary. It goes back to his playing days. He was signed by the Pirates in 1959, and he said it wasn't a secret that the best players on every team he played for in the minor leagues were from Latin countries, thanks to Pirates superscout Howie Haak.

Here's another touch of irony: When Johnson became scouting director in San Diego, one of his first draft picks--in the first round of the secondary phase of the June 1982 draft a January draft--was a righthander out of Brigham Young: Kevin Towers.

Another organization that has been trying to play catch-up in Latin America has been the Brewers, but their efforts with Epy Guerrero have not been productive. So they have abandoned their academy in the Dominican Republic, and replaced Guerrero, who made a name for himself with the Blue Jays.

Milwaukee has hired Fernando Arango, a native of Cuba who lives in Florida and has worked as a scout and agent in Latin America, and Brewers officials say instead of trying to build an academy they will look to bring Latin players to the United States as quickly as possible. They say doing that will expedite the cultural adjustment for players and will give them better control over the players' development.

Fausto Sosa-Pena will scout the Dominican Republic for Arango, with Freddy Torres working in Venezuela.

Doesn't Like Yes-Men?

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wants results, and he respects hard-nosed employees. That's why former Cubs pitching coach Oscar Acosta resurfaced as a key part of the Yankees' player-development staff. Acosta not only will be the manager and pitching coach for the Yankees' Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team, but he will also oversee the rehab of pitchers at the Yankees complex in Tampa.

Steinbrenner developed respect for Acosta when Acosta was pitching coach at Triple-A Columbus, and Acosta did not hesitate to offer his opinion when asked about evaluations of talent.

Minor league veteran Scott McClain made a strong case for himself with the Cubs during spring training, hitting .348 with six home runs and 16 RBIs, tied with Derek Lee for the team lead. It wasn't enough to get him a big league job, though.

McClain was a 22nd-round pick of the Orioles in the 1990 draft and has been a reliable player throughout his career, with a career .266 average and 173 minor league home runs. He has never been able to earn significant time in the major leagues, and his only opportunity was 20 at-bats with the Devil Rays in 1998.

Instead of gambling that he would eventually get called up from Triple-A Iowa after the Cubs sent him down, McClain opted to re-sign with Seibu in Japan. He has spent the last three seasons with the Lions, hitting 39 home runs in 2001.

"You have to take care of your family," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "I told him, 'Hey man, I understand.' I wouldn't fault anyone for doing that."

There was one feel-good story in Cubs camp, however. Righthander Michael Wuertz, 25, was an 11th-round draft pick in 1997 and has a 46-47, 4.41 record in the minor leagues. But he was invited to spring training and wound up making the Opening Day roster.

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