Rangers Make Big Bet On Nomar Mazara
Before he took his first professional swing, Dominican outfielder Nomar Mazara was already breaking records.
When the Rangers signed Mazara for $4.95 million last July, the 16-year-old eclipsed the mark for the highest international amateur bonus of all time, surpassing the $4.25 million the Athletics gave Dominican righthander Michael Ynoa in 2008.
Mazara had as much raw power as any prospect in Latin America last year. With his long, lanky body, bat speed and strength, the lefthanded hitter out of Santo Domingo offered plenty to like, and the Rangers had their top evaluators, including general manager Jon Daniels, scout Mazara in person before he signed.
"We like the power, the makeup and physically he's 6-4, 190 pounds, as he continues to grow and get stronger, he's a big strong kid, a big strong MLB-type body," Rangers international scouting director Mike Daly said. "It wasn't only power—we feel his arm is average to slightly above. Average now but with a chance to be above-average in the future. He has a chance to be a real defender there in right field. We thought that he could do some things other than the power."
The Rangers hope Mazara can provide a power corner bat that they have so far struggled to find in their international scouting efforts. Scouts from other organizations aren't sure he'll be up to the job.
Outspending The Competition
The Rangers have baseball's best farm system, and their international program is a major reason why. Texas has shown a keen eye for evaluating talent overseas and has blanketed the international market under Daly and his predecessor, A.J. Preller, who is now the team's senior director of player personnel but is still involved in the team's international operations, along with special assistant to the GM Don Welke. Most of the players they have signed haven't yet become big league contributors, but the development of 16-year-old players is a long process and some of those players are now on the cusp of breaking through.
The Rangers have consistently identified the top international players and recruited them into their system. While they have rankled people at times in recent years, they have infused their farm system with talent. Even trainers and agents who have had issues with the Rangers say their scouts are among the hardest workers in the game, know how to evaluate and have a deep understanding of the inner workings of the international market. Even before the Rangers blew everyone else out of the water by spending an estimated $12.83 million on international amateurs last year, trainers, agents and other teams remarked that Rangers scouts are all over the island, both the local Dominican scouts and their American bosses, Preller and Daly.
The Rangers' Top 10 Prospects list has seven players from six different countries: righthander Yu Darvish (Japan), shortstop Jurickson Profar (Curacao), lefthander Martin Perez and second baseman Rougned Odor (Venezuela), outfielder Leonys Martin (Cuba), catcher Jorge Alfaro (Colombia) and third baseman Christian Villanueva (Mexico).
For all of their recent success, however, the one country where the Rangers haven't signed and developed a recent premium prospect is the Dominican Republic—the overwhelming leader in producing international talent for the major leagues. Shortstop Leury Garcia, righthander David Perez and lefthander Miguel de los Santos are all Dominicans with intriguing skills, but the island hasn't been a major source of talent for the Rangers.
If the organization's scouts are right about their 2011 international signing class, that may soon change. The Rangers signed Dominican outfielder Ronald Guzman for $3.45 million, and if not for Mazara, Guzman would have been the highest paid international amateur hitter ever, surpassing the $3.15 million the Twins gave Miguel Sano in 2009.
The Rangers have typically invested their money in more athletic players who can play premium positions—like Profar, Martin, Odor, Alfaro and Venezuelan shortstop Luis Sardinas ($1.2 million in 2009)—or in high-end pitchers. Neither Guzman nor Mazara is particularly athletic or runs well, and both are either first basemen or corner outfielders. Daly said the change is by design, after the Rangers brought in a new Latin American crosschecker from the Braves, Roberto Aquino.
"We had signed a bunch of shortstops like Profar, Sardinas, Hanser Alberto, those types of guys," Daly said. "You go back in the Prospect Handbook, something we identified as an area where we were a little deficient (was) power corner bats."
Many scouts considered Guzman, now 17, the best international amateur on the market last year, or at least the best hitter. At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, he has a large frame, a smooth lefty swing with good extension and an advanced approach for his age. He shows the ability to manage his at-bats, square the ball up to all fields and lay off pitches outside the strike zone. Some scouts note that he's already limited to left field or first base and that his bat speed and game power weren't as flashy as some of his peers. Some scouts said the top international prospect last year was Elier Hernandez, a Dominican outfielder who signed with the Royals last July 2 for $3 million. Other scouts didn't like either player. Disagreements like that aren't unusual in the world of evaluating Latin American teens, but the debate about who the best player in the Dominican Republic was last year mostly centered around Guzman and Hernandez.
Yet when the international signing period opened on July 2, neither of those two received the highest bonus. Instead that went to Mazara, who signed for $1.5 million more than Guzman and a tick shy of $2 million more than Hernandez, shattering every international amateur signing bonus record. Mazara's raw power was in little dispute. He put on batting practice displays that left scouts in awe. But in games?
"The biggest debate in the industry is if you saw him hit," said a scouting official with one team who said he saw Mazara several times. "My grandparents could see he has unbelievable power. We didn't necessarily see the high-level performance out of him in games that you want to see for that sort of investment."
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Daly said the Rangers first saw Mazara in the spring of 2010, when he was 14. Mazara had already latched on with Ivan Noboa, who runs a prominent Dominican baseball program that became well-known in 2004 because of the scandal involving righthander Tony Pena due to a fake age and identity. Noboa also represented Emilio Bonifacio and righthander Esmerling Vasquez when they signed with the Diamondbacks, where his brother Junior Noboa was the team's director of Latin American operations. More recently he has represented outfielders Fernando Martinez and Cesar Puello and third baseman Jefry Marte, all of whom signed with the Mets while Omar Minaya was general manager. In addition to Mazara, the Rangers also signed two of Noboa's other players last July: righthander Pedro Payano for $650,000 and shortstop Crisford Adames for $200,000, bringing the Rangers' total package for Noboa's players to $5.8 million.
Aside from training with Noboa, Mazara also played in MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, where he was teammates with Guzman, Payano and Adames. The Rangers scouted them at an RBI qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, then again in August 2010 in Jupiter, Fla., where the Dominican Republic won its first RBI championship. It's a metal-bat tournament and the competition is far from pro caliber, but the Rangers said it helped them build history on Mazara.
From there, Mazara went through the usual tryout process for Dominican amateurs becoming eligible to sign, though officials from other teams said Mazara was showcased judiciously. Trainers and agents of high-profile players like Guzman, Hernandez, Mazara and others have to schedule their time wisely leading up to July 2, putting a player in front of the right teams that have money to spend while also not overworking a 16-year-old. Teams had a chance to see Guzman play regularly in the Dominican Prospect League and Hernandez do the same in the International Prospect League, but Mazara did not play in one of the newly established, trainer-organized leagues.
"Anybody could have seen Guzman take at least 30 at-bats," a National League international director said. "He was playing everywhere, always available. That was a guy who gave everyone an opportunity to see him in multiple situations. Mazara was absolutely the opposite situation. But he got all the money, so good for him."
According to multiple teams, Mazara would show up for tryouts and take batting practice, but would leave without playing in games or facing live pitching. Some teams who saw him face live pitching said he would only do so when facing pitchers also handled by Noboa.
"I saw him hit them into the trees with legit power," said one scouting director. "We were scratching our head on the rest of the game, but he had serious juice. We like to see guys in games. Games are a big deal . . . Mazara wouldn't let us do it. He would only take BP. I can't tell you exactly what he'd do otherwise. He would not allow us to play him. We just didn't get any feel or conviction. To his credit, I guess he did it perfect."
"He showed a lot of raw power, that was it, but contact against pitchers was not very good," said an American League international director. "I couldn't tell you if he was a good baserunner or a bad one because we weren't able to see him in games. Simulated games, but that's enough."
Other teams said they saw Mazara face enough live pitching to feel confident in their evaluations of whether he could hit. "We just thought it was too much money," said another international director. "The games we saw him, he played well. I know a lot of people say he swung and missed a lot, but for us, it was just too much money."
"That lefthanded power is hard to find," said an international director from another club. "He had that. He wasn't a bad player overall, he fielded good. We saw him in game situations, we saw more than 25 at-bats, that's for sure. We saw a lot of game swings against quality pitching."
Scouts' biggest concern about Mazara is his propensity to swing and miss. He employs a huge leg kick that helps him generate good weight transfer in BP and loft balls to the outfield. His leg kick was so exaggerated that he would pick up his front knee on a stride and draw it behind his back knee. He has toned it down since signing, but in game situations it can cause issues with balance and timing, and ultimately the ability to get the bat head out and connect with the ball. With a player like Mazara who drops his hands and just lets it ride, as another scout put it, "you roll in for one game, you might see a couple bombs, you might see three strikeouts."
"Contact issues and length," said another international director. "If he's anything, he's going to be more power than average, by far. You start talking about those kind of guys, we may be talking about Wily Mo Pena. He needs to shorten up, hit ball other way, make more consistent contact . . . He would hook some balls and hit them a mile, but frequency of contact, length of swing, feel for bat head in the zone, it wasn't there. The kid does have power, he does look good in a uniform. Can they develop him? Sure, he's a young kid, but as of right now, he has a ways to go as a hitter. Can they fix that? Can he make adjustments? Maybe."
After signing, Mazara played in an unofficial league organized for July 2 signings, then went to Arizona for instructional league and then back to the Dominican Republic before returning to Arizona for spring training. Reports of contact issues have been consistent throughout. "We didn't see him anywhere near that ($5 million)," said another NL international director. "Tons of swing and miss. He put on a show whenever he's right, but he didn't do so well against live pitching and didn't do well out of his environment . . . We had him far down on our list compared to other guys."
Even some Rangers officials have told people outside the organization that there was internal debate regarding Mazara, and the organization knows his power may come at the expense of contact.
"He's still 16 right now, and we saw enough contact," Daly said. "We did see some swing and miss like anyone else, but he's going to be a power bat at the end of the day. He's going to strike out in the future, and guys understand that, guys do that in the big leagues. We saw enough contact there along with the size and future strength to impact the ball."
By giving Mazara a record-breaking bonus, the Rangers have placed him under the microscope before he has played in his first official pro game, which he's expected to do this summer with Guzman in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Will he be the phenom his staggering bonus would suggest, or is he a one-trick pony who won't hit enough to get to the big leagues?
People throughout the game are fascinated to find out.