Latin American Teens Get Used To Circuit

MESA, Ariz.—They may come from different countries, play different positions and have different skill sets, but nearly every international player has one thing in common: They've been through the wringer that is life on the showcase circuit.

On Saturday on the backfields of the glistening new Cubs Park, 33 Dominicans and one Venezuelan, ranging from 15 to 20 years old, were put through their paces in front of a host of scouts and international scouting directors.

This day's drills included: batting practice, a 60-yard dash, throws from the outfield to third base and home, infield practice, and pop times for the catchers. If everything seemed commonplace to these kids, it's because it was.

Eloy Jimenez

Eloy Jimenez (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Although the location was new, nearly every player on the field has been playing and performing for evaluators since they were very young. Some players have been through as many as 100 showcases.

Take Pedro Gonzalez, a shortstop (for now) who stands at a sinewy 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds. Unlike many of his teammates with the International Prospect League—the group that puts on the showcases—Gonzalez comes from an affluent family, speaks fluent English and had been to the United States many times before this trip.

He'll turn 16 in October, but has been playing in leagues since he was 4 years old and has long been a veteran of the showcase circuit. Given his age, it'd be understandable if his performances were affected—especially during his first few go-rounds—by the presence of so many men whose opinions hold the key to his livelihood.

"I've been in them so many times," Gonzalez said, "so it's just going to do my work, no pressure. If it comes good, good. If it comes bad, (that's OK) too. (The first time), I had some pressure, but when I caught the first ground ball, that's it."

Gonzalez isn't alone in his businesslike approach to what is essentially the international answer to the big-time American travel-ball circuit, which bounces talented high school prospects across the country to get scouts as many opportunities to see them as possible.

His teammate Starling Joseph, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound outfielder who turns 16 on Aug. 1, didn't venture in to the United States until a showcase in Miami last May. Like most of the rest of his teammates, he doesn't speak English.

Even so, Joseph echoed Gonzalez's feelings of ease on the ballfields after so many repetitions abroad.

"Even though I'm at a young age, I like doing this," Joseph said through an interpreter. "Through this whole process, I feel it's bringing me closer to professional baseball because I've been through so many things. And now being here in the States, it's similar to what it's going to be like when I sign."

If simply achieving their childhood dreams wasn't good enough, the IPL players didn't have to look very far to find a great example of all the hard work and travel and practice paying off.

After Saturday's drills, the IPL on Sunday morning played a game against low-level Cubs farmhands. Hitting third in the lineup was third baseman Eloy Jimenez, who signed for $2.8 million last year as one of the jewels of Chicago's international class.

Jimenez, who will make his professional debut in 2014, also went through the same showcases and was seen by the same evaluators as the kids he was playing against on Sunday and agrees that it's all business once he gets between the lines.

"I wasn't nervous. I had a little pressure at the beginning, but then I got used to it," Jimenez said through an interpreter, "and started playing my way."

And odd as it may seem, the scouts on the other side watching the players agree that, as the showcases have expanded, the players in them have seemed more at ease with the process.

"Now, with the travel ball and the way these guys have these showcases all over the world, I think that they're used to it," one NL scout said. "They start to really look forward to showing off for the scouts and showing what they can do. Back in the day I think it was a little bit more nerve-wracking, but now it's commonplace, so I don't think it affects them."

If and when the nerves do set in, the scout continued, they wouldn't let on anyway.

"They're all confident; they'd never admit if they were nervous," he said. "It's something that they're used to and it's part of their daily routine. I think they've all handled it well."

Through it all, the players do have a support network. Gonzalez's parents were at the game on Sunday, as were those of other players on the team. Beyond that, there are the coaches who go from city to city and country with the team.

And if you're lucky like Gonzalez, you have a friend like Jimenez—with whom he played from the time the pair was 10 and 11 years old—on the other side who can offer an insider's perspective on what awaits once he signs his first professional contract.

"It's good to be a professional player," Jimenez told Gonzalez. "It's a whole other world."