Prospect Pulse: Jan. 3

Political changes in Venezuela leave teams concerned




Whenever the words "Cuban defector" are mentioned, intrigue--and usually a large bonus amount--almost inevitably follows.

But imagine what would happen if Venezuela becomes the next Cuba--which is seemingly the direction many front-office officials across Major League Baseball see the country taking after electing president Hugo Chavez to another six-year term in December.

Chavez sees Fidel Castro's Cuba as a model for countering American influence in his country, and cutting off Venezuela's talent completely from MLB organizations, in Castro-like fashion, would be the worst-case scenario. It is not completely out of the realm of possibility according to many international scouting directors, especially based on the recent experience many clubs have had while doing business in the country.

"Just 10 years ago we had over 10 academies set up and running there--a lot of time and money invested," said one scouting director from a National League club. "Four years ago we had three, and as of last year we pulled out completely.

"We still scout the country heavily, but even that is riskier than it's ever been. And the cost to run academies there just isn't worth it for small to mid-market teams."

Much of that cost comes in taxes, but Venezuela also hits clubs hard in building and maintenance fees, as well as a separate tax on foreigners working in the country.

The Chavez regime has limited flights to and from the country, and crime in Venezuela is at an all-time high, making security an issue, not only for each club's scouts and personnel, but their players as well.

"It's very difficult to even get in there now," a scouting director from an American League team said. "And there's more and more crime--especially against Americans. And now you hear it more often against native Venezuelans who work for clubs."

Risk Vs. Reward

MLB disputes many of the claims about Venezuela but is obviously concerned about doing business in the country, especially with the political climate being what it is.

"I don't think it's as much the political climate as much as it is the costliness of the venture and how much more involved it is than, say, opening up an academy in the Dominican," MLB's vice president of international baseball operations and administration Lou Melendez said. "There are three main points clubs want to address when considering investing in Venezuela: the basic laws of the country and what kind of burden that really can be; the safety issue, because the security situation there is tenuous at best; and then there's Chavez . . . and there isn't anything you can do about that."

Chavez has been an enigmatic figure on the world stage since he was sworn in as president in 1999. A career military officer, he is extremely popular among Venezuela's poor majority while promoting his vision of democratic socialism, and he isn't shy about trying to use his country's vast oil revenues to combat disease, illiteracy, malnutrition and poverty in the country.

Since he was elected, relations between Venezuela and the U.S. have progressively worsened. And Chavez' public friendship and trade relationship with Castro hasn't won him any fans in Washington.

Last September, Chavez addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, referring to President George Bush as "the devil," and has called him "Mister Danger," countless times since Bush took office in 2000.

Charez,though, is a huge baseball fan. He references the sport in many of his speeches, and the game is also his country's national pastime--rare in soccer-dominated South America.

"You just don't know what this guy is capable of or what he might do," said another MLB official. "The more you listen to what he's saying, the more the concern grows about what the future holds. I don't see him shutting the country down though. There's too much to lose. Baseball is king in Venezuela and the game might be the one thing bigger and more popular than him."

As fewer and fewer clubs are less willing to pour money into the Venezuelan economy, other countries are stepping up their progress on the international market.

Several clubs, including the Phillies, Braves and Marlins, have strong interest in Nicaragua, Colombia and Panama, which might be the next hotbeds of churning out talent down the road.

"If something off the board happens in Venezuela and we're looking at a defector-only situation, I could easily see those countries being the next ones to be farmed," one international scouting director said. "And even if it doesn't, clubs are not happy with what's happening (in Venezuela). It'd be much cheaper and easier to scout (Venezuela), sign players and move them to the Dominican than spend a lot of needless money in a country that directly opposes what we stand for politically.

"And if something doesn't happen to change the political climate, the biggest loser will be Venezuelan players and the people of Venezuela. And that's a shame, not only for Venezuela, but for baseball."