International Tournaments Provide Big Stage For Prospects
Before Francisco Lindor
and Albert Almora
became first-round picks, they had already established themselves on the international stage.
Lindor, the shortstop the Indians drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011, had led Team USA to a gold medal at the 16-and-under World Championships in 2009, earning all-star honors at the event. Almora, an outfielder who went to the Cubs at No. 6 overall this year, joined Lindor in Taiwan and then won the MVP award two years later at the Pan American Championships in Colombia.
For many scouts, however, their focus at the '09 World Championships was on the other teams in attendance. The Venezuelan Baseball Federation put together a team featuring three players—shortstop Rougned Odor
, third baseman Renato Nunez
and outfielder Vicente Lupo
—who would go on to become some of the most coveted prospects in the country for the following July 2.
"The playing level was a lot higher," Odor said in Spanish. "In the Federation back home, it's a different level, but when you go to a (World Championship), you have the best of every country. The pitchers I faced in that tournament, I had never faced that type of velocity before."
The big stage didn't faze Odor. In seven games, he hit .536/.618/.857 (15-for-28) with five steals in six attempts and ranked eighth in the tournament in OPS to join Lindor on the all-tournament team. In the bronze-medal game against Mexico, Venezuela jumped out to a 9-2 lead after the top of the sixth inning, but the bullpen gave up seven runs in the bottom frame and Mexico rallied for the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth to win 11-10.
Odor did his part for Venezuela, going 3-for-4 with a home run, a pair of walks and a stolen base, but the pain of how Venezuela lost is one of Odor's most enduring memories of the tournament.
"You're representing your country with the lights on," said an international scouting director with a National League club. "It duplicates the kind of environment you're going to get in the big leagues. How do you play when the lights are on, when the pressure's on you? It's not about how much you're going to get signed for. It's about representing your country. You can tell a lot about a guy in that environment."
Odor knew who Nunez and Lupo were—he played against them during regional and national tournaments—but they had never played together until the World Championships. Now, Odor said, they regularly keep in touch.
They have also continued to deliver on the promise they showed as amateurs. Nunez signed with the Athletics for $2.2 million, Odor got $425,000 from the Rangers and Lupo scored $350,000 from the Mets.
Odor played the entire 2012 season at low Class A Hickory and ranked as the No. 20 prospect in the South Atlantic League. Nunez, 18, hit .325/.403/.550 in 42 games and ranked as the No. 13 prospect in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Lupo, also 18, hit .343/.500/.608 in 65 games in his second year in the Dominican Summer League, leading the league in on-base percentage and OPS while tying for second with 10 home runs.
In recent years, international tournaments have provided a stage for some of the top rising July 2 prospects to shine. Much like Odor when he signed, Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto isn't physically imposing (5-foot-9) and will probably have to change positions soon, but he has been one of the most dominant players Venezuela has ever had. Barreto's 70 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale is a major separator, but his track record of dominance at the plate helped him net $1.3 million from the Blue Jays this July 2.
Catcher Luis Torrens ($1.3 million) and outfielder Alexander Palma ($800,000), the Yankees' top two July 2 signings this year, both represented Venezuela during international competition. Omar Luis, a Cuban lefthander who signed with the Yankees for $4 million, was another international tournament standout at multiple events. Most teams do little if any coverage in Brazil, but every team had the opportunity last year at the 16U World Championship in Mexico to scout Brazilian lefthander Luiz Gohara, who became one of this year's top pitching prospects for July 2 and signed with the Mariners.
The top two pitchers signed in 2011—Mariners righthander Victor Sanchez
(Venezuela) and Blue Jays righthander Roberto Osuna
(Mexico)—both pitched at 16U World Championships in Mexico in 2010 and zipped their way to the Northwest League this year at age 17.
"Performance always plays into it," said an American League international director. "I don't think you can be an international scout and be a 'performance scout,' but when you're going to throw heavy dollars at a 16-year-old kid, when a player is performing at a world tournament, yes, it matters.
"If you're going to throw money at a guy, you have to see some performance to hang your hat on. If not, you're begging to get fired. We don't sign based on the tournament, but it does supplement the evaluation. As much history as you can get with the player, the higher percentage chance of success."
While scouts say it's helpful for them to be able to see players from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea all in one place, the lack of Dominican talent at most international tournaments is a major drawback. Teams do the majority of their international amateur spending in the Dominican Republic, yet during international competition, that country's teams rarely feature much in terms of what scouts want to see.
There are some exceptions. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) tournament has included players like outfielder Gustavo Cabrera (Giants) as well as outfielder Nomar Mazara
(Rangers) and first baseman Ronald Guzman (Rangers), though it's also a metal-bat tournament.
Rangers outfielder Jairo Beras
, Yankees third baseman Miguel Andujar
, Mets third baseman Jhoan Urena
and Athletics outfielder Luis Barrera have all traveled abroad to represent their country in tournaments as well, but they are more the exception than the rule.
"There's definitely value in seeing players in those situations—absolutely," said a second NL international director. "Any time you can see guys play in games against foreign competition, against different competition than they're used to—sometimes in different countries than they're used to—that's great. The only thing is, the Dominican Republic doesn't participate, and then some of these other countries, the selection of those teams is not driven by scouts or MLB. There is value, but the quality in terms of what we're looking for isn't that great."
The bulk of scouting, however, is done in other environments. There are various leagues in the Dominican Republic that have popped up in recent years. Trainers hold showcases throughout the year and MLB has even started hosting events.
Teams also invite players to their academy to get a closer look. When a club has a player in its academy, it provides the team flexibility to put the player through whatever process it feels is optimal to get the best gauge of the player's abilities.
"In your academy, you control the scenario," said the second NL international director. "If he's a basestealer and you're playing an intrasquad game, you put him at first base and have him steal. You can do it repeatedly.
"During games at your academy, you can put on hit-and-runs and see how they're able to handle that situation. You can put them at different positions. You may see a guy and he's a shortstop, and you put him at third or second. At your academy, not only is the pitching more like what they're going to face when they sign, but you can control the environment they're playing in.
"If they're in your academy, you can have BP rounds where they're going the other way. You can alter their mechanics and see if trying something different with the player makes him better. You can get a gauge on the aptitude, whether they're able to make adjustments they need to make, either with swing mechanics or pitching mechanics. Tournaments are valuable, but there's more you can do when you have them at your place."
At their academies, many teams play simulated games. If they want, they can have a priority prospect bat every inning or multiple times in an inning. They can have him face a pitcher who throws 90 mph and is going to generally be around the plate. While international tournaments or other game settings limit scouts to seeing whatever happens organically on the field, teams in their academies can create defensive situations to see how a player responds.
"You can isolate the evaluation into whatever red flags the player may have," said the first AL international director. "If you feel there's a red flag on a guy with a breaking ball problem, you can't isolate that in a world tournament or a showcase. If you have them in your academy, you can isolate that by, after he's done taking practice, when he's facing your pitchers, tell the catcher to throw him 75 percent breaking balls."
At international tournaments, every scout is watching the same performance. When players come to a team's academy, that team is essentially gathering its own proprietary information. Bringing a player to the academy allows the team to get to know the player, learn about his personality, learn about his makeup and get to know him in a way that you can't do sitting in the stands at a tournament. Yet no matter how many creative drills or simulated games a team can try to manufacture, it's hard to replicate the competitive, pressurized atmosphere of an international championship.
"For me, international tournaments are one of the best environments to evaluate guys and to see their fundamentals because most of the time they're going to be facing kids their age who are the best in their countries," said a second AL international director. "I can see how some of the other guys would rather have them at their academies and have them face older guys pitching or have them face better hitters, but then we forget these kids are 15 years old."
One aspect of international tournaments that scouts agree about is that it's imperative to go to any tournament where Cuba is playing, be it a 15U tournament, the World Baseball Classic or even a series of exhibition games in a place like Nicaragua or Taiwan, which is where the Cuban national team will play in November.
"As soon as you hear Cuba's going to be in a tournament, everyone's going to go take a look because it's so hard to see them," said the second AL international director.
While Cuban defectors often get portrayed as mysterious wild cards by the media, the reality is that scouts work tirelessly to build years of history on them, particularly for established stars on the Cuban national team.
Even a younger player like 20-year-old Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler
, who had only a handful of at-bats in Cuba's Serie Nacional before he left, had been scouted for years. Teams saw Soler star at the 18U World Championships in 2010 in Thunder Bay in Canada. Soler had also played at the 18U Pan-American Championships in 2009 in Venezuela, where he faced Pirates righthander Jameson Taillon
and Rangers righthander Cody Buckel, and in 2008 in Mexico at the 16U World Championships, where he played third base.
, Alexei Ramirez
, Yunel Escobar
and Yuniesky Betancourt
all played together representing Cuba when they were younger. More recent defectors like Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin
and White Sox left fielder Dayan Viciedo
were also scouted together at international tournaments, as were Blue Jays shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria
and Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias
Alfredo Despaigne, a 26-year-old left fielder, just won his third MVP in Serie Nacional and set the single-season record with 36 home runs in the league's most recent season. Should Despaigne ever leave, teams are prepared not only with years of performance data from playing in Cuba's top league, but also having scouts who have followed him since he won a gold medal at the 18U World Championships in Taiwan, where he played against a Team USA squad that featured Justin Upton
The World Port Tournament, World University Championships, Intercontinental Cup, World Cup, the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic are all on Despaigne's resume, and scouts were there to see every at-bat.
"The value for those tournaments—the real value for those—is the Cuban teams," said the second NL international director. "Obviously you don't get to go to Cuba to see these guys, so you have to see them when they go out of the country. If they defect, you don't get to see them in this type of environment. It's all workouts."
In recent years, however, one problem is that some scouts believe Cuba has become hesitant to send some of its best players to international tournaments due to fear that they will defect. Cuba didn't send a team to the 18U World Championship this year in Korea, where scouts were hoping to get a look at promising 18-year-old third baseman Yoan Moncada.
"They used to have great teams before," said a third AL international director. "It used to take a long time for them to defect. Now they're defecting quickly. If you see them at an 18-and-under tournament and they have two players who are really good, they'll disappear. The agents are after them, there's money there, so they'll go after them. The talent pool was a lot better before."
For Odor, by the time he went to Taiwan for the World Championships, it was his fourth time traveling abroad to represent Venezuela. He had gone to Guatemala and then Mexico for the Pan-American Championships. He had traveled to Cuba for a series of exhibition games before the next Pan-American Championships that were hosted in Venezuela.
When Odor signed with the Rangers, the organization could have sent him to the DSL, where he would have been away from home but would have at least been surrounded by a team of fellow Latinos. They could have sent him to the Rookie-level Arizona League, where he could get acclimated to the U.S. in the team's camp in Surprise, Ariz. Instead, they sent him to short-season Spokane, where he faced long bus rides and was one of the youngest players in the college-heavy Northwest League. Odor didn't blink at the assignment.
"It definitely helped me preparing for that first year with the Rangers getting that aggressive assignment," Odor said. "When I was going to all those international tournaments in Guatemala, Mexico and Taiwan, I used to get homesick and miss my family. By the time I went to Taiwan and came back, went to tryouts and later signed, I had passed that stage mentally and was more mature to be able to move into my professional career without having to go through those adjustments."