July 2 League Provides Unique Opportunities
Each year, July 2 brings with it a flurry of activity in the international marketplace as teams rush to sign the top 16-year-olds on the first day of the signing period.
The problem is, after a 16-year-old player signs he enters a state of limbo.
Players who become eligible to sign on July 2 and come to terms that summer all sign contracts for the following year. That's because baseball's participation rules stipulate that players must turn 17 by the end date of their leagues' regular season.
Newly-signed 16-year-olds can go to their team's Dominican academy to work out, take batting practice and go through drills. They can travel to the United States and participate in instructional league in September, but they can't play in any official games—including the Dominican Summer League—until 2013.
That's where, in 2008, the Red Sox had an idea. Instead of having July 2 signings stay at their own teams' academies all summer, why not collaborate with other teams to organize those players into games? Manny Nanita, Boston's Dominican supervisor, helped spearhead the creation of an unofficial July 2 league, reaching out to other teams to get them involved.
Now in its fifth year, the league features participants from six organizations—the Cardinals, Indians, Mets, Phillies, Rangers and Red Sox—and runs from mid-July through late August. The league is commonly referred to as either the July 2 League or the "Tricky League," though nobody seems to know how that name originated.
The Dominican Prospect League and La Academia, an independent academy for amateur prospects run by Abel Guerra, each have a team in the league. The Marlins and Royals have participated in the league in previous years as well.
The league is organized yet also both unofficial and informal. Games, which are played at the teams' Dominican academies in the mornings, resemble those played during spring training and instructional league. If a team wants to, it can choose to bat a certain player every inning. There are no standings or championships, and teams can schedule games against other independent programs.
Some teams play a couple of games a week and end up with a 15-game season, while others schedule as many as four per week and can squeeze in close to 30 games. Home teams are responsible for providing the umpires—usually one or two per game—and the baseballs.
"Having them be at your academy, not competing and doing BP and fundamentals every day gets old," said Cardinals international director Moises Rodriguez. "They set up the league to try to accommodate kids who can't play until the following year, to try to keep them active in a setting that resembles game competition."
The Cardinals have their top July 2 signings—Venezuelan catcher Joshua Lopez ($475,000), Panamanian shortstop Edmundo Sosa ($425,000) and Venezuelan outfielder Luis Bandes ($350,000)—all participating.
"We make it a priority to play Sosa, Lopez, Bandes—those guys and others," Rodriguez said. "(We) make sure a coaching staff member from the normal DSL team manages it, our scouts help out and we staff it with a trainer.
"The idea is to make sure you have July 2 guys going in the same direction as the DSL guys. They practice, they take instruction in the morning with the DSL team, then in a July 2 game, they break off into that. The expectation is that they execute and play as though they were playing a (DSL) game."
Scouting And Development
Depending on the team and how many July 2 players they signed in a given year, some clubs use the league more for development, while others lean on it more as a scouting tool to evaluate unsigned prospects.
The Phillies are in the league for the first time and have five players participating, including their top July 2 signings, Dominican outfielder Jose Pujols ($540,000) and Dominican catcher Deivi Grullon ($575,000). Since teams don't have a full roster of July 2 signings to field a game, they have to find supplementary players.
That might include players on the DSL team who aren't getting enough playing time, rehabbing DSL players and those with pending contracts, since players signed in May or June may have to wait months for their background investigations from MLB and might have to miss the entire DSL season waiting for their contracts to be approved. Instead, teams can send those players to the July 2 league to continue their development.
Most important, teams also bring in unsigned players for evaluation. The most pressing players for teams to scout are those who were eligible to sign on July 2 but remain unsigned. While the showcases tend to die down after July 2, the league gives teams the opportunity to put those players in games against professional competition.
Teams can also get a jump on players for the following July 2. Dominican shortstop Amed Rosario, who signed with the Mets for $1.75 million on July 2, played on the Cardinals team last year as an amateur and is back in the league this year with the Mets. Cuban outfielder Yasiel Balaguert, who signed with the Cubs for $400,000, also spent a couple of weeks with the Cardinals' team last year.
"It's a really good league," said Phillies international scouting director Sal Agostinelli. "Anyone who's in tryouts, anyone we're working on, instead of having him come to our academy, we just watch them come to games. It's been great."
The DPL team plays one game per week in the league, sending a team mainly comprised of its top players who remain unsigned since July 2. By this time, the DPL regular season in the Santo Domingo division has wrapped up.
"It's really no different than what we do in the DPL, it's just a different environment for the kids," said Ulises Cabrera, one of the co-founders of the DPL. "It's fun for them to strap it on against players who have signed who they've played against and to continue to be evaluated."
The Rangers were one of the original teams in the league in 2008. Their '09 team included shortstop Jurickson Profar, who had signed for $1.55 million out of Curacao that year on July 2 and played extensively. He's now 19 and has reached Double-A Frisco.
"I'm not saying Jurickson Profar wouldn't be in Double-A, but he got half a season— like 125 at-bats—in 2009," said Rangers international scouting director Mike Daly. "So maybe that allowed him to jump over the DSL, jump over the Arizona League and go straight to (short-season) Spokane (in 2010). Maybe those 125 at-bats allowed him to perform better in instructional league, and from our end, that's the goal. It's about trying to push their development as much possible."
Last year the Rangers played 29 games with a team that included their big-ticket July 2 signings: Dominican first baseman Ronald Guzman, Dominican outfielder Nomar Mazara and Venezuelan lefthander Yohander Mendez. Dominican outfielder Jairo Beras, who ended up signing with the Rangers for $4.5 million in February, also spent considerable time playing for the Rangers' team last summer when he was an amateur. Beras can't play in any official DSL games due to his suspension for using a false age, but he's back playing in the July 2 league this summer.
The league helps prepare players like Beras for their first instructional league in the U.S. The July 2 league helps the players learn how an organization wants to run its cutoff plays, where he should be in position to backup a play in the field and how to run the bases in different scenarios. Those can all be taught in drills, but getting repetitions doing them in games adds another level to their foundation.
"If guys are going to be sitting around the academy for three months," Agostinelli said, "then what good is that? It's a chance for us to give them an opportunity to basically get some at-bats in and get some real game situations. I don't know anything more important than that."