Image credit: Rising Nationals stars Victor Robles (left) and Juan Soto (Photo by Tom DiPace)
International scouting may have an old school reputation, but it’s an area of the game where there is constant, rapid change.
Jose Ramirez, Gary Sanchez, Gregory Polanco, Luis Severino and Ketel Marte are all in their mid-20s, entering the prime years for major league players. Yet when they signed out of the Dominican Republic 10 years ago, it was a completely different era in Latin American scouting.
The core fundamentals of scouting remain, but the operations for teams and trainers in Latin America in 2019 makes 10 years ago look like ancient history. Compared to a few years or even 12 months ago, teams have had to adapt to a new landscape in Latin American scouting, which centralizes around the Dominican Republic.
Some of those changes have been to the rules themselves. Signings were uncapped 10 years ago, changed to international bonus pools in 2012 with penalties for exceeding those pools, then switched to a hard-capped system in 2017. Major League Baseball has gone back and forth on rules regarding when amateur players are allowed to enter a team facility, and more recently the league loosened rules to allow teams to reimburse players for travel expenses.
Another change might come in 2022 with the potential for an international draft, but under the current system, teams still have the ability to beat their competition to a player to sign anyone they want. At its core, signing players in the Dominican Republic still revolves around grassroots scouting and player development. But as teams look for competitive advantages and adapt to a quickly changing market, there has been an evolution of scouting in the Dominican Republic that has changed the game for everyone involved, not just over the last decade, but the last 12 to 36 months.
Ten years ago, the common complaint from international scouting directors was that they weren’t able to see players in the Dominican Republic enough in real games. At the time, the emphasis was on workouts. Games existed, and teams could run players through simulated games when they brought them into their academies, but clubs were making significant investments in players based heavily on the 60-yard dash, infield, batting practice and live BP.
Today, there are games every day across the country. There are trainer-organized leagues like the Dominican Prospect League, International Prospect League, JDB Baseball and others where trainers pool their best players together to play games. MLB organizes games. Trainers coordinate their own games, with one program playing heads-up against another. The result has been not just a better way for teams to scout players, but a better process for the players to develop their game skills and be ready to have immediate success in pro ball.
There used to be only a handful of teams who were aggressive in scouting the Dominican Republic. A lot of clubs were hesitant to make any significant investments in signing an international prospect, but that’s no longer the case.
Today, there are fewer soft spots around the league. Teams take different strategies each year, but there are 29 clubs who are competitive with the top players in Latin America every year, and it looks like the Orioles are about to join the club. Every team is willing to sign players to a million-dollar bonus. The size of scouting staffs and personnel on the ground has increased. With teams dedicating more resources than ever to international scouting and the ability to sign or agree to sign a player 365 days a year, it creates a hyper-competitive atmosphere in Latin America.
SCOUTING YOUNGER PLAYERS
Part of that increased competition has accelerated the scouting process for teams trying to beat each other to the best players. July 2 is the opening of the international signing period each year, when teams can officially sign players who are 16 years old. In reality, players reach agreements to sign with those clubs well before July 2.
Ten years ago, those agreements were happening just as July 2 approached. As competition increased, those commitments crept earlier on the calendar. By 2015, top players were committing to sign the year before they became eligible. Things slowed in 2017, since the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the new international rules weren’t known until December 2016, but since then, teams have put their feet to the accelerator.
Today, several teams have committed most if not all of their bonus pool money for 2019. Same for 2020 for some clubs. Right now, you won’t see many 2019 position players if you go to a major Dominican showcase. The focus at those events now is heavy on 2021 and 2022 players. Some of the 2021s have already committed to sign, and in the most extreme cases, even 2022 players have agreements. There’s no CBA yet for 2022, so those agreements are contingent on whether the signing system remains intact instead of switching to an international draft.
MLB has changed with the times as well. When MLB used to hold showcases, it would bring in the players for that year who they knew would be signing for the biggest bonuses. It’s MLB, so the players often felt compelled to go. MLB no longer does that, instead reserving spots at its events for uncommitted players who are with trainers who participate in MLB’s Trainer Partnership Program.
At its core, grassroots scouting still drives the process of signing international players. Today, though, teams have more technological tools at their disposal than ever before. The use of TrackMan is widespread at club academies in the Dominican Republic, where teams can gather data both on their own players under contract as well as amateur players they bring in for tryouts. When they’re outside the team facility—whether it’s for a showcase, a game or a private workout—some teams bring FlightScope or Rapsodo devices to get the same type of data on spin rates, movement and exit velocities. Blast motion sensors placed on the knobs of bats can provide data on a player’s bat speed and swing plane.
These newer, shinier toys generate the most attention and publicity. But what might seem like more basic technology has had a greater impact on scouting in the Dominican Republic. Ten years ago, teams didn’t use much video to scout players. Today, every major showcase has a wall of team employees holding high-definition video cameras, with dedicated video specialists in the country in addition to area scouts frequently recording video they can upload quickly for international directors and other club officials to see. With scouts seeing thousands of players every year—and now having to keep track of five classes of players at once—video is a critical component of their process.
The first iPhone launched in 2007. Today, every scout and every trainer with a major program has a smart phone. They can find remote fields on unmarked roads easily through a pin on Google Maps. They can take HD videos with their phones, then send them to anyone almost immediately. That’s often done through WhatsApp, the primary messaging tool that allows scouts and trainers to stay in constant communication and share information on upcoming showcases or games. Some of those videos go on Instagram, which is occasionally the first time someone with a club will spot a player they like, whether it’s a scout based in the Dominican Republic or a club executive who’s intrigued and asks one of his scouts on the ground to go check out the player.
All of these tools have given teams more information than ever, information that gets into their hands faster and is shared with greater ease to help them make better and faster decisions.
MORE SOPHISTICATED TRAINER OPERATIONS
Players in the Dominican Republic typically spend several years working out in a trainer’s program before signing with a team. The size and scope of these programs has changed significantly over the years. The top trainers aren’t one-man operations. They’re more like owners or CEOs of a company, with a staff of employees responsible for coaching, strength and conditioning, meals, travel and recruiting.
They find players in their local area and they go out into the remote areas of the country to discover players they can bring into their programs. Some have their own Little League-type program, while a lot of them rely on their network of contacts with lower-level trainers or coaches to connect them with players who have pro potential. There’s a lot of cooperation among trainers, but just like with teams, there’s increased competition there, too, and as teams scout players younger than ever, trainers have had to respond by recruiting players at younger ages too.
There are still players who sign out of the Dominican Republic from a local, low-level trainer, but the level of sophistication in most of the programs producing the top Dominican prospects has grown significantly over the years.
The Dominican Republic is the primary place for scouts to see international players. Every team has its academy there in a country bursting with young talent. It’s also the place to be seen, so players from other countries flock to the Dominican Republic.
With the current situation in Venezuela, a lot of Venezuelan players spend significant time training in the Dominican Republic, though several trainers said they have had difficulties getting their players into the country. Cuban players have to leave their country to sign with a major league club, so many of them end up training in the Dominican Republic. Players from the Bahamas, Aruba, Spain and other countries go there to face better competition and to get seen by more scouts.
The increased volume of players in the country has changed the dynamic for scouts and trainers. Venezuelan trainers now sometimes partner with Dominican trainers, allowing Venezuelan players to live and work out in the Dominican Republic. For Dominican area scouts and supervisors, not only are they having to cover Dominican players from the 2018 to 2022 classes, they also have to keep up with all the players from other countries coming in who now fall under their territory.