Prospect Pulse: Feb. 9

Clubs lean on big names when scouring talent in Latin America




Several clubs made a splash on the international market in 2006, but according to several international scouting directors, the Red Sox and Yankees came away with the three best talents.

Boston signed outfielder Engel Beltre and shortstop Oscar Tejada out of the Dominican Republic, and the Yankees--who were extremely busy as usual on the international front--nabbed Venezuelan shortstop Jose Pirela.

While power-hitting catcher Jesus Montero grabbed headlines with his $2 million bonus--later adjusted down to $1.6 million--one international scouting director with an American League organization said Pirela was the best value and had the biggest upside of the Yankees' international haul.

"Plus runner with good hands, range," the scout said, ticking off Pirela's tools. "Nice, compact stroke . . . wiry, projectable body. The tools are all there."

Another international scouting director clocked Pirela at an above-average 4.1 seconds from the right side, adding that he showed outstanding natural instincts on the bases. The Yankees reportedly tried him out in center field after signing him, though their plan is to keep him at shortstop for now.

"His instincts for the game are such that center field could be an option down the road," one Yankees official said. "But he's got all the raw tools to stay in the middle of the diamond. The range is exceptional, the hands are soft, the arm strength is slightly above average."

The righthanded hitter has yet to make his debut in the States, and did not play for either Yankees club in the Dominican Summer League last season. Pirela is likely to start his pro career this summer in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

International scouts and scouting directors who'd seen the bulk of players either prior to their signing or in instructional ball in Latin America this offseason liked Pirela, Beltre and Tejada as the best signs because of their tools packages, but also because of the amount of money involved.

Beltre, whose lean body and tools have elicited comparisons to Barry Bonds and Darryl Strawberry, was the most expensive, signing for $600,000. Tejada signed for $525,000, and Pirela's price tag was $300,000.

Those were low-end figures considering other deals signed in 2006, led by the $2.1 million deal the Giants gave to third baseman Angel Villalona.

"There are a lot of us out here who can't compete with even what Boston gave (Beltre and Tejada)," says a National League club's international scouting director. "We get to see them, but you can never have them. It is never real. You see them and then they go to New York, they go to Boston. That's why you're starting to see clubs hire bigger names to gain some kind of an influence in the market.

"Clubs are doing anything they can to make up that gap between rich and poor, hoping that by having a more recognizable face lures these kids away from the big fish."

Gaining Ground?

The Nationals and Rockies are examples of two such clubs, and don't discount the role special assistant to the general manager Jose Rijo played in securing shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez for Washington, or the role the Rockies hope new special assistant Vinny Castilla will play in Mexico.

The Rockies already have a strong international presence, headed up by Latin American operations director Rolando Fernandez and scouting director Bill Schmidt. And with the addition of Castilla, the club expects to have more of a presence in Mexico by bringing a popular face to the program.

"We're really excited about having Vinny as part of our international operations," Schmidt said. "He's so well-connected in Latin America and we're looking forward to having him as part of our department."

Even though he was still playing for Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League playoffs, Castilla already made an impact on the club in his new position. The Rockies signed 24-year-old lefthander Oscar Rivera, who went 9-7, 3.73 in 121 innings for Yucatan during the regular season, in January.

Rivera was impressive again this winter, putting up 8-2, 1.51 numbers with a 67-21 strikeout-walk ratio in 77 innings for Navajoa. The only way money will be involved in the deal is if Rivera makes the club out of spring training; then Colorado will have to pay Yucatan $1.3 million. He received a nonroster invitation to big league camp.

Looking For Clues

And so that begs the question: Does hiring a familiar face really translate into making things easier on the international front?

"You're seeing this kind of thing more and more with clubs," says an American League scouting director. "Teams that think by hiring a name guy is going to bring you a presence in Latin America . . . it's just wrong. And it's not their fault--it's an American way of thinking, 'Let's get the big name player to return home and that will bring success in scouting (Latin America).'

"Yesterday's big league names don't impress these people. Money does; commitment does. Having a presence means investing money, investing time and building an operation from the ground up--having a network of people you trust seeing every player they can. I don't care if you played one day in the big leagues. This is a whole different animal.

"Just because you once drove the train doesn't mean you can fix it."

The Nationals tend to disagree with this view, arguing that they wouldn't be where they are or where they envision the club's international efforts to be in the future without big league time on their main representative's resume.

Having Rijo--who seemingly knows everyone on the island richest in baseball talent--on board is essential. And with Rijo the commitment factor to his home country is obvious, even if the Nationals have to pay for it.

The former major league pitcher built an academy in the Dominican with his own funds, and currently houses the Nats, Tigers and Padres--with each club paying anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 a month to rent the state-of-the-art facilities.

"Where it helps is in terms of relationships," Nationals scouting director Dana Brown says. "You still have to go out there and pound the pavement, scout the players. Having that relationship with Jose brings instant harmony with the family because he's recognizable and has a history people there know very well.

"A 16-year-old kid might have no idea who Jose Rijo was as a player, but he is certainly a guy they can identify with because he paved the way for a lot of players who came out of the Dominican Republic. Let's face it--Jose Rijo is a big name there. You still have to have scouts to bring the talent in, but where Jose helps a lot is in the relationship-building that takes place--not only in the country, but within the individual families."

QUICK HITS

• Rockies righthander Juan Morillo was shut down in the Dominican Winter League with a strained forearm after just three appearances. "He just came up with a strain and we decided to shut him down for precautionary reasons," farm director Marc Gustafson said. "We don't anticipate it to be anything serious and we fully expect him to be ready for spring training." Morillo went 0-0, 13.50 over his two-inning stint with Azucareros this winter.

• Angels righthander Rafael Rodriguez was able to salvage his year this winter after finishing up the regular season with 5-10, 6.63 numbers in 150 innings at Double-A Arkansas. Rodriguez turned it around for Gigantes in the Dominican, going 1-1, 3.47 in 23 innings. "That was really a pleasant surprise," Angels director of baseball operations Abe Flores said. "The problems he ran into in the past were certainly not due to a lack of athleticism, but more due to minor flaws in his delivery where he'd fly open and experience a lack of command. But everything seemed to click for him (in the Dominican). Now it's just a matter of him continuing on."

• Cuban outfielder Ryde Rodriguez was the highest-profile unsigned free agent still on the international market, and the Cardinals reportedly offered the 18-year-old a bonus in the $450,000 range. Rodriguez played in the Nicaraguan Winter League where he batted .242/.309/.323 in 62 at-bats.

• Also on the international free-agent market, three Dominican outfielders--Jose Ricardo Garcia, Itaniel Guzman and Anderson Pujols--are creating quite the buzz in anticipation of the 2007 international signing period. All three will turn 16 by the end of March and reportedly have more than six clubs scheduled to see them over the next two months.

SIGNING STARS
Top international bonuses signed in 2006
Player, Pos.Org.CountryBonus
Angel Villalona, 3bGiantsDominican Rep.$2.1 million
Jesus Montero, cYankeesVenezuela$1.6 million
Esmailyn Gonzalez, ssNationalsDominican Rep.$1.4 million
Carlos Truinfel, ssMarinersDominican Rep.$1.3 million
Young Il-Jung, rhpAngelsSouth Korea$1 million
Larry Suarez, rhpCubsVenezuela$850,000
Yoslan Herrera, rhpPiratesCuba$750,000*
Francisco Pena, cMetsDominican Rep.$750,000
Balbino Fuenmayor, 3bBlue JaysVenezuela$725,000
Mario Martinez, ofMarinersVenezuela$600,000
Engel Beltre, ofRed SoxDominican Rep.$600,000
Oscar Tejada, ssRed SoxDominican Rep.$525,000
Manuel Solis, 3bRangersDominican Rep.$525,000
Juan Miranda, of/1bYankeesCuba$500,000*
Yohannis Perez, ssBrewersCuba$450,000
*Signed major league contract