Guillen Quickly Becomes Player In Venezuelan Market
MARACAY, VENEZUELA—One of Venezuela´s newest up-and-coming baseball academies is located just a few hundred yards from the stadium of its most recent national champions, the Tigres de Aragua, in the city of Maracay, about 60 miles west of the capital of Caracas.
The academy boasts some of the finest facilities of any in the country, including four fields, batting cages, a weight room and a training room. It provides its players with comfortable dormitories and a cafeteria.
It also counts on one advantage that no other academy has: the financial backing and name recognition of recently retired three-time major league all-star infielder Carlos Guillen.
The Carlos Guillen Baseball Academy was founded in 2010 when Guillen decided that he wanted to give back to his homeland by creating opportunities for young baseball players so that they could succeed just as he did 20 years ago.
His decision was notable given that no other Venezuelan player of comparable status has chosen to do so. Former big league righthander Dennis Martinez has an academy in Nicaragua, Edgar Renteria has one in Colombia, but the majority of even the top programs in Latin America are run by former minor leaguers and local professionals without nearly the same level of on-field achievement or financial compensation Guillen received over the course of his 14-year major league career.
Guillen set out to create Venezuela's preeminent academy for young prospects by focusing on the quality rather than quantity of its players. Currently 32 players are enrolled, ranging in age from 12 to 15. They benefit from the instruction of six full-time baseball coaches, a strength coach, a speed and conditioning coach, and an athletic trainer.
When Guillen founded his academy, he was still an active major league player. Some coaches and scouts wondered how it was within the rules for Guillen at the time to own an academy and potentially directly influence where his players would sign.
But Guillen explains that his role with the academy is only that of investor and supervisor.
"I do a little bit of everything," Guillen said. "I make sure that the players receive good training and a quality education, monitor the coaches, and ensure that the facilities meet the highest standards."
During the last offseason, Guillen visited the academy most days to observe practices and provide a few tips. He does not directly receive any money when his players sign with major league teams, though the academy does receive a portion of the bonuses to pay the salaries of its staff and to maintain and upgrade its facilities.
Guillen signed a minor league contract with the Mariners in February, but a month later he chose to retire. Since then, Guillen has begun to take a slightly more active role in the academy. He and Alberto Cambero, a coach at the academy and Guillen's right-hand man within the organization, have begun the process of registering to become licensed agents with the Major League Baseball Players' Association.
While many trainers are no longer involved with their players once they sign their first pro contracts, Guillen and Cambero hope to be able to continue to represent the majority of their signees on their journey to the big leagues.
For the players attending the academy, having Guillen's presence provided a strong incentive to enroll. While all players interviewed mentioned the outstanding facilities—especially the weight room—and coaches as important reasons to choose it, 14-year-old Juan Meza spoke for many when he said, "When a scout from the academy came to watch me play and recruit me, he mentioned the name Carlos Guillen, and I immediately lit up."
Victor Rodriguez, 13, echoed his teammate's comments, and added "because of the fields and the dorms and having Guillen, almost all of the other players I know want to come here."
Staff members confirmed that using their boss' name was a common technique their scouts used to attract players. Guillen, however, downplayed the significance of his name recognition.
"The success is not from my name," Guillen said. "An academy can carry anybody's name, but it's the facilities and the training that make the difference."
Despite being in existence for less than two years, the Guillen Academy has quickly grown into one of the top programs in Venezuela. During last year's signing period, the first for which it existed, five of its 12 players eligible to sign with major league teams were able to do so, led by catcher Abrahan Rodriguez, who received a $200,000 signing bonus from the Rays.
This year the academy has nine players who will be eligible to sign come July 2, and its coaches expect eight of them to do so. The class is led by righthander Jose Mujica, who at 15 already had his fastball clocked at 93 mph, demonstrates an advanced feel for his changeup and throws plenty of strikes with a free-and-easy delivery. Several scouts consider him to be one of the top pitchers in this year's signing class from all of Latin America. Outfielder Alexander Palma, a 16-year-old righthanded hitter who has excelled during international competition, has also drawn strong interest from teams for his relatively polished bat and is expected to sign for a hefty bonus as well once July 2 arrives.
Coaches at the academy attribute its success in such a short of period of time to several factors. They mention Guillen's financial backing and name as a critical factor in their ability to recruit Venezuela´s best young players. More than that, however, they cite the academy's facilities and a commitment to instilling professionalism in their players as their decisive advantages.
"Nobody has invested in the academies in Venezuela," Guillen said. "That's what I am trying to fix . . . Baseball players here become adults when they turn 16, and most of them are left unprepared for the responsibilities that entails. We instill a strong education and good habits in them by the time they are 14 or 15."
Coaching director Clemente Alvarez stressed the discipline that the academy´s coaches demand in their players to "work hard and conduct themselves properly every day." Alvarez also emphasized the advantage that having daily access to a fully equipped weight room gave the academy's players.
Cambero supported Alvarez's analysis and noted that "focus on proper attitude and behavior with their players is critical, since it is usually one of the first questions that scouts ask me about the prospects."
All coaches take pride in the education the players get.
"It's not just on the field that is important . . . instilling a good education in the boys and teaching them English is also critical to their long-term future," Guillen said.
Guillen's academy also has an ambitious plan to expand its operations. By the end of 2012, Guillen plans to open a new branch of the academy in the Dominican Republic in the city of Boca Chica.
Due to the spiraling risks and costs associated with the political volatility and deteriorating security situation in Venezuela, most major league teams have closed the academies they once owned and have cut the number of scouts that they employ in the country. The Rays, Phillies, Tigers and Mariners are the only major league teams still left with Venezuelan academies. As a result, there is some feeling that Venezuelan prospects no longer receive as much exposure as their Dominican counterparts.
Guillen and Cambero, who handles the academy's contacts with major league organizations, have hit upon a creative solution to the problem. They will move their 2013 prospects to Boca Chica in order to get them greater exposure, while keeping the younger players in Venezuela. Some Dominican trainers and agents have brought players from countries like Panama and Colombia that are less heavily-saturated with scouts to the Dominican Republic to work out, but Guillen's academy has a larger-scale blueprint.
No matter how the move to the Dominican Republic works out, the academy has already drawn the attention of scouts and players in Venezuela. Its most recent showcase event drew representatives from all 30 major league organizations, and its coaches believe that it already boasts outstanding prospects for the 2013 signing deadline and beyond.
With continued investment and support from its major league benefactor on the way, there is no reason to believe that its outlook will change any time soon.