MLB Showcase Highlights Challenges For International Scouts
Baseball America national writer Ben Badler traveled to the Dominican Republic to prepare for the July 2 opening day of the international signing period. Over the next three weeks, he'll be sharing his thoughts from his trip, followed by reviews of every team's international signings for 2012 before wrapping things up with the Dominican Summer League/Venezuelan Summer League Top 20 Prospects lists.
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic—It's day one of one of the busiest scouting weeks of the year in Latin America, as scouts begin to filter into Estadio Temistocles Metz in San Cristobal.
For the second year in a row, Major League Baseball has attempted to bring together the top 15- and 16-year-old prospects from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela—with a handful of players from Colombia, Panama and Curacao sprinkled in this year—for a two-day showcase on Jan. 16 and 17.
Hundreds of scouts are in attendance. Teams have flown in supervisors from Venezuela. Nearly every international director is here, as are several high-ranking executives from the United States. Most teams have at least half a dozen personnel here to evaluate players.
It's my first day seeing these players live and an opportunity for many of the American executives to do the same, but scouts have followed these players for years. With kids this young, players can change significantly from January to July, but teams already have a sense of who they like, how their preference lists line up and who they're here to target.
Tryouts in Latin America follow the standard blueprint: run the 60-yard dash, outfielders throw from right field to third base and home plate, infielders take ground balls at either shortstop or third base, catchers throw to second and the hitters take batting practice.
Before the game begins, it's apparent just how raw—and perhaps nervous—many of the players are. As coaches hit ground balls to players in right field, the outfielders try show off their arms. Some flash above-average arm strength, but whether the ball gets close to the intended base is of secondary concern. Some throws are off the mark by at least 20 feet.
During infield, the sloppiness continues. After several throws, it quickly becomes clear that watching this routine from the stands behind first base is putting your safety in danger. Accuracy is lacking. Throws get airmailed regularly.
"That's how every tryout is," said an American League international scouting director. "That's why guys who throw the ball through the cutoff man and online, and guys who hit the cutoff man, those kind of things stand out. Remember, these guys think that they're trying to show teams that they're worth a lot of money. They're trying to show off their tools.
"In order to do that they're going to max out everything they can in order to show off their tools. That's putting their entire body and exerting force into throwing the ball with the hopes that it's (reaching) the first baseman. A lot of times, it's just trying to show off pure arm strength. And a lot of time they haven't gotten coaching to show them proper footwork, proper alignment, how to read hops and all the stuff that goes into making successful completion of a play."
It's a common refrain from international scouts that Latin American players are groomed for tryouts rather than games. Some of that has changed in recent years with the establishment of trainer-organized leagues, but before the games even begin, it's not hard to see why that belief is so pervasive.
"In those deals, they're throwing to impress," a second international director said. "Like the pitchers, they're throwing to the radar gun. Outfielders are charging as hard as they can to throw it as hard as they can to show off their arm. What ends up happening is that plus arm ends up becoming a real weapon once they get the mechanics down and learn to calm down to use the arm. The ones who cannot calm down mentally or don't have the aptitude to learn, they don't ever get off the island."
There was one shortstop in particular who stood out to me during infield, but it wasn't for his arm, hands or footwork. When coaches hit ground balls to the shortstops, almost all of them line up where the outfield grass meets the back of the infield dirt. Yet there is one high-profile shortstop who sets up a few steps closer toward home. When he fields the ball, rather than transfer the ball from his glove to his right hand, step and throw, he fields the ball, then takes several steps toward first base. By the time he releases the ball, he's already on the infield grass.
In a game, with a runner hustling down the line, that type of maneuver would never fly. Yet in this showcase environment, the shortstop is trying to make his arm appear stronger than it really is. Veteran scouts have seen plenty of moves like these. Sometimes it's a lack of fundamentals, other times it's someone trying to fool them. The 60-yard dash has been known to turn into the 58-yard dash. Some scouts have been known to verify measurements at the bases to make sure running times from home to first and catcher's pop times are valid. If a catcher and the hitter have the same trainer, the catcher might tip pitches to the batter.
"You see it more so with outfielders," said the AL international director. "Outfielders tend to creep up, creep up, get the ball, one hop, then unload to home plate. Shortstops will get it, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, get themselves closer to first, and it's like throwing to first with a crow hop."
Batting practice comes next. Dominican outfielder Micker Zapata, a 16-year-old who trains with Abel Guerra at La Academia, is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and is expected to be one of the elite prospects for July 2. In one round of BP, he hits three balls out of the park, then drives another one off the center-field wall. The crowd in attendance—the showcase has drawn family members and some other fans—cheers for the first time.
Eloy Jimenez, who trains with Amauris Nina, is another huge, righthanded-hitting Dominican outfielder (6-foot-4, 200 pounds). He showed plus speed in running the second-fastest 60 among outfielders and now he's stinging the ball.
So is Jaime Ramos' outfielder Jose Almonte, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound Dominican who sends a couple of balls over the fence. The crowd cheers again when Yimmelvyn Alonzo, a 15-year-old shortstop who trains with Edwin Sabater, launches three balls out of the park in his first round. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound righthanded hitter jacks three more over the fence in his second round. More applause.
Luis Encarnacion, a 15-year-old, righthanded-hitting Dominican third baseman, hits one of the deepest home runs of the day in his first round.
The majority of BP approaches are the same: pull the ball, dip your back shoulder and hit every baseball as far as you can. The grass between the left field foul line and the stands is getting worn out.
Once the games start—MLB has them play one on the first day, then a doubleheader the following day—those loud noises from BP disappear. Swings from BP look different from game swings, something several international scouts have warned about in the past. Hitters chase high fastballs like they're required to by law. Players draw walks, but it's more because the pitchers aren't throwing strikes rather than keen plate discipline.
"There's so many times that the Americans come down," one international director said, "see these athletes, and they're like, 'Sign him.' Hang on. Let's see him in games, see how he performs, see if he's got the aptitude."
Evaluating July 2 prospects in games is a sharp reminder of just how raw some of these players are. I'm used to breaking down a player's tools, his body type and trying to get a sense from scouts of how much feel for the game he has right now. Seeing the power from Zapata or 15-year-old Dominican shortstop Obispo Aybar running the 60 in 6.5 seconds didn't surprise me. What jumped out to me at the MLB showcase was how low the level of fundamentals and baseball decision-making were among the players.
In one at-bat, Jimenez smashes a grounder to the third baseman, who can't handle the ball and it goes into left field. Rather than stop at first, Jimenez tries to make it to second base, even though he's clearly going to be out with a decent throw.
Of course, that doesn't happen. The left fielder's throw is wild and gets past the second baseman. Jimenez vacillates between staying at second or heading to third, but the fielders eventually make the decision for him. The ball rolls past second base, then scoots past the fielder who's out of position and too late to back up the ball, which dribbles into right field. Jimenez jogs over to third base on what should have been a routine ground out.
Not long after that play, with runners on first and second, a pitcher steps off the mound to fire a pickoff throw to second. The pickoff is slow and deliberate, as the pitcher is clearly thinking through each step of the move to try not to balk, but that isn't the problem. When he turns and throws, the ball flies into center field—there's nobody covering the base, and the runners advance.
I haven't seen a pitcher do that in a long time, I thought to myself.
Not long after, the scenario repeats itself on a pickoff throw to first base.
"That's commonplace down there," a National League international director said. "On any given day when you're watching even guys who have signed in the Dominican Summer League, you'll see things you have never seen on a baseball field. It's like watching JV baseball in the United States with obviously a more advanced tool set and better bodies, but the ability to play the game is sometimes non-existent.
"The more times they make those mistakes and you correct them, then one day light switch goes on, and you have a guy who has a chance to play in the big leagues. Anyone who's done this for a long period of time knows it's the most difficult evaluating scale probably in any sport."
Among pitchers, the standout at the MLB event was Marcos Diplan, Luis Polonia's righthander out of Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Diplan started on the first day and threw two shutout innings—six up, six down with three strikeouts—while showing an 89-91 mph fastball, a mid-70s curveball with tight spin and good depth, a nice 80 mph changeup and a smooth delivery.
The problem for some scouts with Diplan is that he's 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, but he showed feel for pitching and the potential for three average or better pitches at the MLB event. Other pitchers who were supposed to be the top arms at the event struggle, to the quiet delight of some scouts who don't want to see their price tags soar out of their comfort level.
When the games are over, I look at the stats recorded by MLB. That huge raw power in BP from Zapata? He went 1-for-7 with a walk and two strikeouts. Jimenez, the toolsy outfielder? Hitless with two walks in six at-bats. Rafael Devers, the infielder who some scouts call a pure hitter? He went 0-for-5. Alonzo? Another 0-for-5 with a walk.
Encarnacion stood out in games, going 4-for-7 with a double, but there was nobody who dominated the showcase this year like Jairo Beras (who signed with the Rangers), Franklin Barreto (Blue Jays), Amed Rosario (Mets) or Alexander Palma (Yankees) did last year.
Yet these are just two days. Jumping to any conclusions on players after such a brief viewing is dangerous at any level, but even more so here. When evaluating players anywhere, context is king. For one, the MLB workout was almost three weeks earlier this year than it was last year, which may have caused some rust.
"January is a tough time to evaluate a player just because the holidays are in effect," the NL director said. "These guys are off for two to three weeks. The January dates are usually like that first college game, the first game of the season, or the first reporting date for a college or high school player—there's a lot of rust. So at that showcase, there's always some rust out there from the Christmas holidays."
It has only been two days, but one thing is clear: trying to evaluate players with such a disconnect between tools and baseball skills isn't easy.