Alderson Bringing Changes To Dominican Republic
When Major League Baseball hired Sandy Alderson in March to reform the sport's operations in the Dominican Republic, he wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms.
News of Alderson's hiring triggered a wave of reactions in the Dominican Republic and became front-page news in the local media. The Dominican press was critical of Alderson's hiring, with many viewing it as a precursor to an international draft.
When Alderson went to the Dominican Republic in April, trainers organized a rally outside of his hotel as a protest. When MLB announced that its Scouting Bureau would begin traveling to the Dominican Republic to file reports, tension from both trainers and scouts escalated. Tempers grew fiercer when trainers confronted scouts from the bureau and told them to leave a game, which prompted Alderson to respond by ordering the trainers and players to vacate the premises.
It's been an eventful two months on the job for Alderson, yet even in a short period of time he has begun to implement changes while cooling much of the initial panic hostility—to a degree. What remains is uneasiness and uncertainty about what's to come from all corners of the Dominican baseball community.
"We don't have the open opposition that we initially had," Alderson said. "I think there's been more cooperation. I think there's increasing realization that the system does need to be changed and cleaned up, and that it's in everybody's interest."
At a meeting facilitated by the Dominican government in April, Alderson met with around eight or nine trainers, a handful of club representatives and the minister of sport in the Dominican Republic. Alderson followed up with another meeting with four or five of the country's top trainers and agents. Some of those present at the meetings came away impressed by Alderson's professionalism, his ability to communicate his vision and his patience to answer any questions thrown his way.
"The communication has been good," Alderson said. "It was always intended to be. The only reason that perhaps it wasn't right off the bat was that I was not actually in the Dominican Republic as usually as I have been recently."
Alderson has stayed on message in interviews with the press and in meetings with scouts, trainers and agents, saying he is there primarily to reduce age and identity fraud, to clean up the steroid problem and to improve the image of baseball in the Dominican Republic, not to implement an international draft.
Yet parties on all sides see the writing on the wall. Commissioner Bud Selig has said the league needs an international draft, something he has said MLB will be "very aggressive in talking about" after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December 2011. Michael Weiner, general counsel to the Players Association, has publicly said that the union is "not philosophically opposed" to the idea of an international draft.
Not everyone is convinced that an international draft is certain to come in 2012—and nobody seems to know exactly how it would be implemented—but agents, trainers, scouts and team executives seem to believe there's a strong chance that baseball is headed in that direction.
Sign Them Up
The biggest date on the international baseball calendar is July 2, the opening of the signing period and the first date upon which 16-year-olds outside of the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico can sign.
This year for the first time, MLB selected 40 of the top unsigned Dominican prospects—a group compiled with input from various sources, including the bureau—who will have to register with MLB in what Alderson dubbed a pilot program for 2010. By 2011, the league is aiming to expand registration to virtually all players in the Dominican Republic.
MLB contacted the 40 players and gave them around seven to 10 days to go to the league's Dominican office with their representation and parents or guardians, provide biographical information, consent to an age and identity investigation and to a drug test. Alderson said 31-32 players registered on the first day, and the league was expecting the rest to register soon. If a player among the 40 selected does not register, Alderson said he would be subject to a one-year suspension. Players registering also were photographed and fingerprinted.
"What it does is it helps us begin to nail down identities and provide a database so that we can be more certain over time of the identities of players and we won't have to go through the same elaborate investigative process as we do now," Alderson said.
"The difference now is that the investigation is taking place pre-contract. So the advantage for the player is that these investigations are done earlier, and if the investigation is satisfactory, then the player is good to go. So that's a big change from last year."
Players registering were not subject to a DNA test.
"DNA testing only comes in to play if there is an investigation that comes back undetermined," Alderson said. "A player may then voluntarily provide that DNA if (he) thinks it might be helpful to (him). But we don't require it."
While age and identity fraud have transpired in the Dominican for decades, teams were more willing to deal with the risk when signing players for small bonuses. With signing bonuses soaring, the risk from the teams' perspective has become more substantial.
"If you've been scouting in the industry long enough, you've gotten burned by it one way or the other," said an American League official who directs his club's operations in Latin America. "Obviously no one likes to feel like they've been deceived or fooled, especially when you go to bat to your GM or owner and say we're going to go after a guy.
"We put our jobs on the line with significant bonuses, so you want be able to make sure. It's hard enough to look at a 16-year-old kid and project what they're going to be in the big leagues when they're 22, 23 years old, let alone what a 15- or 16-year-old kid who is really a 19-year-old kid is going to be."
Another risk for teams is signing a player who has been using anabolic steroids, a problem several international scouting directors say has gotten worse in recent years. Dominican third baseman Duanel Jones signed with the Padres in April for $900,000 after his $1.3 million deal with the Giants was voided in January because of a positive steroid test.
The Athletics voided their $800,000 deal with Dominican righthander Michael Feliz in March when he tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. Feliz signed with the Astros in May for $400,000.
Other prominent Latin American prospects in recent years have had their contracts voided or reworked due to drug use, while some trainers have privately boasted about their players not getting caught.
"(The trainers are) not governed by anyone down there," said a National League club official. "They take kids, inject them (with drugs), take them on a showcase and get them $200,000. Then they take 40 percent of that. If you do that once a year, you get $60,000, $80,000 and you're really rich there."
While there seems to be consensus on all sides that trying to eliminate drug use and age and identity fraud is a good thing, the one area that has both trainers and scouts biting their fingernails is the possibility of an international draft and the growing presence of the bureau in Latin America.
When MLB started the bureau in 1974, many teams cut back on their scouting staffs, believing that they could rely on the outfit for reports rather than having to pay as many full-time scouts. These days, the bureau provides scouting reports and video to all 30 organizations on prospects eligible for the draft as well as minor leaguers and major leaguers.
Soon, however, teams realized that having more scouts on their staff gave them a competitive advantage. Today's scouting staffs are larger than they have ever been, with bureau reports used as supplementary information.
"We appreciate what the bureau does, but we're going to use our own evaluations to get to know the kids and see where we want to spend our money," one international scouting director said.
Right now the bureau does not have scouts based in Latin America, though Alderson said he suspects the bureau will eventually have scouts stationed in both that country and Venezuela. For now, the bureau has sent two scouts at a time from the U.S. to evaluate Dominican prospects, with bureau director Frank Marcos making occasional trips as well. The bureau reports will not be extensive this year and likely will not include an overall future potential (OFP) grade for players.
While some high-ranking team officials said they did expect some scouting cutbacks in the Dominican Republic because of the bureau or in the event of a draft, most said they did not expect to make any changes to their own staffs.
"The scouts who go out and work hard can make a difference with their hard work," said an NL international scouting director. "The bureau can go out and make us better, but certainly the guys who work for us, I know we need our guys. We know our scouts, we know the guys we have and we know our scouting philosophy. Everybody's philosophy and everybody's way of doing things is different."
Fear of Puerto Rico
The bigger fear for the livelihoods of everyone working in baseball in the Dominican Republic is how subjecting the island's players to the draft would affect the future of the baseball on the island.
While Alderson publicly maintains that his role is not to create an international draft, many in the industry think it is the next step for MLB. Some believe Selig will rehire Alderson after his current job in a new role specifically to implement a worldwide draft.
Nobody, however, seems certain about how a draft would be imposed, which countries would be subject to the draft or how it could logistically function without major issues dealing with different cultures and different governments.
With their players going from the freedom to negotiate with 30 teams under the current system to only having the ability to sign with one team, a draft would almost certainly cut in to the potential earnings of agents and trainers. And, unlike players in the U.S., Dominican players would have even less leverage without the alternative of playing college baseball.
Not all teams are even in favor of an international draft. Executives with teams that perennially pick at the end of the draft, teams that are already heavily invested in Latin America or believe they have some other competitive advantage in the region say their clubs would be better off without a draft. And while a draft would help MLB keep costs down by suppressing signing bonuses, even team officials fear that MLB's cost-cutting could potentially run them out of their jobs.
After MLB began to include Puerto Rico in the draft in 1990, the level of major league talent the country produced has decreased. While there is debate as to whether the draft is what caused the drop-off in Puerto Rican baseball talent, the fear of a decline of Dominican baseball is real.
"As good as the players they have (in the Dominican) are now, the major issue you have is if the agents don't have an incentive to make money, then kids are not going to get worked out," said an NL international scouting director. "Right now those kids are dollar signs. Kids don't have the resources to go out on their own, to get gloves and shoes. So what happens if you don't have an agent backing you up when you're 14 or 15 years old?"
If the Dominican Republic starts producing fewer prospects, teams might have less need to scout the island as heavily. With the bureau already covering the region, scouts fear that their jobs could potentially be in jeopardy.
"You're dealing with Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and even though they're a 40-minute plane flight (apart), it's a world of difference in terms of culture and everything like that," said the AL executive. "You can't predict what will happen."
A League Of Their Own
Brian Mejia and Ulises Cabrera aren't waiting around for 2012. In October 2009, they launched the Dominican Prospect League, a nonprofit organization that Cabrera said is designed to bring more transparency to the scouting process in Latin America and to improve the image of the Dominican baseball community.
Mejia and Cabrera are two of the premier agents in the Dominican Republic, having negotiated deals for Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez ($3.1 million bonus last year) and Padres shortstop Alvaro Aristy ($1 million in 2008). Mejia and Cabrera organized some of the country's top trainers from different regions, including Enrique Soto, Amaury Nina, Astin Jacobo and Christian "El Niche" Batista, to form a four-team league modeled after the Area Code Games in the U.S. The league plays games once a week on Wednesdays and by July 2 will have completed a 25-game season, the equivalent of a high school season in some states.
The league has some of the top prospects for the 2010 international signing class and has already had 23 players signed to professional contracts, with many more expected in July when the 2010 players become eligible.
Mejia and Cabrera's Palante Management & Consulting Group represent some of the players in the DPL. For a player to participate in the league, the cost is two percent of his signing bonus, which Cabrera said is used to support operational costs of the league.
"If you see a player for 25 weeks, there's no way that you're not going to know his history," Cabrera said. "If you see a kid for 25 weeks and you spend time evaluating, there's no way that kid doesn't show you what type of player he is, whether he can hit the offspeed pitch, whether he has strike-zone discipline, whether he can throw his curveball in any count—all of these questions that have existed in the past."
The DPL was the stage for a source of friction between trainers and MLB in April when representatives from the bureau arrived at the Rays' Dominican facility in Guerra on April 15 to scout the league's all-star game. According to some in attendance, trainers were unsure at the time of the bureau's intentions in the Dominican Republic and told the bureau scouts to leave the field or they would pull their players out of the game.
The scouts left, but Alderson informed the league that if the bureau was prevented from attending DPL games, then the league could no longer operate on MLB facilities.
When the bureau arrived at the Giants' complex in Boca Chica on April 21 for another DPL game, the trainers again told them to leave. According to sources at the game, Alderson responded by dispatching a messenger within 30 minutes to inform the league that it had to end the game immediately.
Despite those contentious moments, international scouting directors say the league has helped fill a need in the industry. One Latin American director with more than a decade of experience said he's never seen more July 2 prospects playing in game situations than he has this year, a sentiment other veteran scouts have echoed.
"Every time you can go to a place and see five, six, seven guys you're following playing in games, it's going to help," he said. "Most July 2 guys, they have so many workouts that they get to June and they're already done, they're tired. Sometimes you have to let the agents know 15-20 days in advance because they have such a busy schedule, so it's good when you just go to one place and see all the guys."
The DPL is not affiliated with MLB, though the league's board of advisers includes several club executives, including Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman and Rays director of international operations Carlos Alfonso.
Alderson said MLB would be open to the possibility of creating its own league or showcase in a similar format, but because of the timetable with July 2 coming up, it isn't a priority issue.
"We're definitely under the belief that, especially the more significant the bonus, the more game situations we need to see the players in," said the AL official. "Obviously a player where the level of bonus is not significant enough but the tools are significant, you just roll the dice and sign the player because your risk factor isn't very high.
"But if you're giving a guy a seven-figure bonus and they are going to a Rookie ball team, you might expect them to struggle a bit, but they'd better be ready to perform."
Alderson's first two months on the job certainly haven't been dull. Team officials are eager to see how the new systems in place will work in the weeks leading up to July 2, but there is already a sense of optimism among some scouts.
"They're more worried about getting age fraud and steroid use under control, and I think it is getting under control," said an international scouting director. "I've been doing this a long time, and it's a lot better than it ever was before."