Teams are always looking for the next great source of overseas talent. They look for places where the talent pool has growth potential, where they can discover and sign undervalued players. To find baseball’s next competitive advantage, teams don't need to travel to a remote country where baseball is still trying to take off.
This year, the country where bargains can be had is Venezuela, where the baseball culture and infrastructure are already in place, where the track record is strong and the prospects are better than ever, yet still cheaper than a player with the same skills in the Dominican Republic, where teams are more heavily saturated. Yet Venezuela has also always been challenging to scout and has only grown worse in recent years.
The problems in Venezuela are complex. The country is in a deep recession, with skyrocketing inflation and controls on foreign imports contributing to a shortage of basic groceries and supplies, with long lines to get what is available. Since 2014, there have been large-scale protests in the country against the government for several things, ranging from economic policy to corruption and violence. Estimates of Venezuela's crime statistics vary, but according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, last year Venezuela had the second highest homicide rate in the world.
"I've been going there for 20 years," said one American scout, "and this is as bad as it's been."
It's also why many believe the talent in Venezuela is on the way up, even as the prices for those players drop.
American decision-makers have grown increasingly wary of flying in to Venezuela. International directors and their crosscheckers from the United States still go to the country, but they are going with less frequency. As of March, Venezuela began requiring American citizens to obtain a visa before entering the country, a process that entails sending in your passport and going without it for a few weeks, though international directors say that's been resolved for them at this point. Trips from other American executives—scouting directors, special assistants and assistant general managers—have dwindled.
"I pride myself on spending a lot of time in that country," said one international director. "I'm just not comfortable going in there right now. It sucks because I love that country. There's really good baseball there. I love spending time with the players and the people there. It's just sad to see the government do this stuff."
Others echoed similar sentiments, that their competitive nature pushes them to go wherever they can find talent, but that their safety concerns have increased. In February, Major League Baseball sent teams a "SEVERE" travel warning for Venezuela, which included this message: "Due to the current civil unrest throughout Venezuela, it is recommended that any planned travel there be postponed." Players—including young prospects who signed for big bonuses—have either been kidnapped themselves, had their family members held for ransom or even killed, with only some of those cases public knowledge.
"It's getting really bad in Venezuela," said another international director. "I've been going there for a long time. My last trip there, I didn't think I was even going to get there. I figured people were just going to be hitting the streets. But anybody that rebels, they're cracking down. I haven't felt uncomfortable, but you hear the locals talking, and you hear about the scarcity of certain goods like toilet paper and basic necessities. People, when they get hungry, they're going to steal. If they think you have dollars on you, especially, you're going to be susceptible."
Those who live in Venezuela—the trainers, the players and the team's local scouts—see the difference, too.
"They are not coming very often to Venezuela," said one Venezuelan scout. "The last five years there has been a decrease in the number of bosses coming down. They prefer to go to the Dominican to see all the prospects out there."
That has made it harder for Venezuelan trainers to get their players seen by decision-makers, which has caused the market for Venezuelan talent to drop. Scouting in Latin America is competitive, with teams often agreeing to deals with players 6-12 months in advance of July 2. When teams strike early, they are doing it for players they—and in particular, their international director making the decision—have more history on. In general, this year, that has meant Dominican players.
With the bonus pools, teams have limitations on how much they can spend without facing signing restrictions. So when there are teams committing the majority of their money to players early in the process, that causes the market for other players to drop. It also hurts Venezuelan players that the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees—three teams that have typically spent heavily in Venezuela—can't sign any players for more than $300,000 this year. In fact, it's those teams in the penalty box that Venezuelan sources say they see most frequently in their country, since they know they can find better value in Venezuela than in the Dominican Republic, with the Red Sox and Yankees expected to be especially active in Venezuela this year, within their spending limits.
"This year is hard for us," said one Venezuelan trainer. "We have fewer scouts coming to Venezuela, but it's not about the visas—it's about the situation in Venezuela. Right now, the visa is something they can fix, but the situation in Venezuela is getting harder and harder. They don't want to come here. I talk to other agents in Venezuela and they say maybe we have to move to the Dominican Republic. We can go to Colombia. We can do something there—it's a better situation than our country. We need to do something here. We haven't had as many tryouts as two or three years ago."
To some degree, the market has always favored Dominican players. The record for a Venezuelan signing bonus came in 2010 when righthander Adonys Cardona signed with the Blue Jays for $2.8 million. There are 10 Dominican players who have signed for more money.
This year, the market has become more distorted. When the international signing period opens on July 2, there are around 20 Dominican players who are expected to sign for at least $1 million. In Venezuela, there are just three or four players likely to eclipse that mark. Some of that may have been trainers misreading a rapidly changing market—and there are other factors at play with international bonuses—but the difference in talent level alone is not enough to explain the price disparity between the top Dominican and Venezuelan players.
"We don't have the same kind of opportunities we used to have," said another Venezuelan trainer. "Our market is in a different position from the Dominican Republic market. First, we don't have 30 academies down here like they have over there. Second, a lot of international directors are going back and forth often to the Dominican Republic, but that doesn't happen here. Third, the market seems to be right now at a different level. Their first choice is Cuban players, their second choice is Dominican players, their third choice is Venezuela players, mainly because of the things that are happening here in our country. We have to move quick, we have to get into our deals very fast and as early as possible, because being in position to wait a little longer like some players did, that didn't pay off this year. It's a different landscape, so we have to make adjustments."
Desperation Breeds Talent
As life gets more difficult for the people of Venezuela, families grow increasingly desperate. Some players are taking deals worth a fraction of their value because their families want to lock in the security of an agreement. That desperation could also be fueling the rise of Venezuelan talent.
"The reason Venezuela is getting better," said one source who represents Venezuelan players, "is because the country is f***** up. People would never leave school before to play baseball. Now they're promoting their kids to drop out of school and play baseball. The kid who used to practice an hour a day after school, those kids are in (trainer) academies now when they're 13. The worse the country is, the more parents who will push their kids toward baseball. Because there's no guarantee in studying, so let's try sports. That wouldn't happen 15 or 20 years ago in Venezuela."
That may sound twisted, but it's a reality that many veteran Venezuelan scouts are seeing first-hand.
"More baseball players are growing up and playing all around Venezuela with more dedication and baseball instruction because many people—parents and trainers—are looking for a shot through the baseball business," said the Venezuelan scout. "It's amazing how many people are now interested in becoming baseball agents and players. Obviously it's because of the lack of money (in the country). Suddenly we have become the hungriest players on the field. It did not happen 15 years ago, when going to school and getting a degree was a great deal for your future living in this country. That's why I call this a gold mine."
The talent bubble is already starting to rise next year. With scouts noticing the 2015 price discrepancies between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and with Venezuelan trainers making adjustments, the 2016 market may be in for a rebound. Scouts consider 15-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Kevin Maitan a phenom, perhaps the best prospect on the international market since Miguel Sano out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, maybe the best Venezuelan prospect since Miguel Cabrera in 1999. On Thursday, Maitan and more than 100 other 2016 prospects will be in Carabobo, Venezuela for the start of a three-day showcase. Venezuelan trainers compete with each other for talent, but they have also realized the need to bring their players together—and to do it early—to get them all more exposure to teams' top scouts.
That will just be three days though. It's hard for an international director to do as much during one trip to Venezuela as he can during the same time in the Dominican Republic, because while the two countries are baseball's primary sources of international talent, each country presents a unique challenge. Most of the Dominican Republic is within reasonable driving distance of the capital in Santo Domingo. Venezuela is much more spread out, nearly 20 times the square mileage of the Dominican Republic, and a country where scouts prefer not to travel after dark.
While players up north in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic may have to travel a little farther to get exposure, it's much easier for trainers to bring their players together in the Dominican Republic in trainer-organized leagues like the Dominican Prospect League or the International Prospect League. It's also easier for American scouts staying in Santo Domingo to visit different trainers' fields across the island. In Venezuela, that type of same-day travel just isn't as feasible.
Then there is the academy advantage in the Dominican Republic. All 30 teams have a Dominican academy, a place they use as central headquarters for their Latin American operations. Those academies house players who are already signed to the organization and provide a home field for each organization's Dominican Summer League team. They also serve as a place for teams to bring in amateur prospects for private evaluations.
In Venezuela, just four teams have academies—the Cubs, Phillies, Rays and Tigers—after the Mariners left this year. Ten years ago, there were 13 teams that either had a team or a split team in the Venezuelan Summer League. Those teams fill their VSL rosters with their most recent Venezuelan signings, many of whom sign for small bonuses but can later emerge as prospects and big leaguers. Now, the teams that have left send their Venezuelan players to the DSL, which means fewer roster space opportunities. The teams still in the VSL used to send players from Panama and Colombia to the league, but now those players are going to the DSL out of safety concerns. If one more team pulls out, the VSL will likely disband altogether.
"It's going to be business as usual for us," said an official from one team with a Venezuelan academy. "We're not pulling out. We just see it as an advantage to have an academy and a year-round operation. Parents like that (players) can start their career there. It's an edge from scouting and development, to have a parallel league there, to have guys compete against older competition. It's not the ideal situation with the government there, but we're still sending our people in there and hoping things get better. We don't want to pull out then start from scratch there, but we have an exit strategy if we have to pull out."
While there are just four teams left with Venezuelan academies, every team has scouts there, usually a Venezuelan supervisor and multiple area scouts spread across the country. In some way, their jobs might become more valuable than ever. If fewer eyeballs are flying in to Venezuela to see players, the work of Venezuelan scouts on the ground to discover and evaluate players takes on greater importance. At the very least, some Venezuelan scouts already know that their bosses want more video than ever before.
Yet there's also a concern that Venezuelan players will try to increase their stock by leaving the country, whether that means training with someone in the United States, joining forces with someone in the Dominican Republic or doing more tryouts in countries like Colombia or Aruba. That isn't cheap though, so for the majority of players, that won't be an option.
The truth is, a team can spend all of its bonus pool money on players in the Dominican Republic and come away with talented prospects, both at the top of the price range and its lower-level signings. But Venezuela continues to pump out talent, perhaps now more than ever. Whether it's getting in early to sign the next high-priced bonus baby like Miguel Cabrera or Felix Hernandez, or finding the hidden gem like Jose Altuve, Venezuela is a place where teams can impact their organization in a challenging, often dangerous arena.
"You just have to be vigilant and be careful about where you scout," said a third international director. "It's not the most desirable scouting destination, but there's talent there. If I don't go there, someone else is going to beat me."