Scouting Children: Why MLB Has Teams Competing For 14-Year-Olds
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic--It's an early January morning at the Yankees academy in the Dominican Republic. In a couple of hours, hundreds of scouts will be here to watch some of the top Dominican prospects in the 2014 signing class.
For now, on one field, the Yankees are holding a private workout with a pack of team personnel there to evaluate the players. On an adjacent field, with only a few people watching, a pair of infielders are out early taking grounders.
They both look young--too young to be July 2 players for this year. One wears a Nationals shirt and carries a Phillies equipment bag. He looks like he belongs in Little League. He has the mechanics of a child and the arm strength to match.
"He looks like he could be a guy," said an agent, using the industry nomenclature for a legitimate prospect.
The player is 13 years old, international class of 2016. It's a school day, but instead he's here, taking infield on a professional diamond. If the agent doesn't get him now, someone else will. By paying a family and his youth league coach a few thousand dollars today, a trainer can secure in the neighborhood of 20-40 percent of a player's future signing bonus.
In Latin America, this sight is not unusual. The system now in place with Major League Baseball drives teams to aggressively scout 14-year-old boys, with trainers and agents looking for the next great 12-year-old. Want to sign one of the top 16-year-old players for this year? You're probably too late. The aggressive nature of international scouting, combined with MLB's bonus pool system, gives players incentive to reach agreements with teams earlier than ever. The 2014-15 international signing period begins on July 2, but for some teams, it's already over, and has been for several months. The race is on to sign the top players for 2015.
"The market really has gone sideways for me," an American League executive said. "It’s really against my scouting instincts to go get out there on 14- and 15-year-olds. Holy smokes. Who knows? Sometimes you have to do what the rest of the industry does."
Being the first team to discover a player has long been a source of pride for scouts, particularly old-school types. But even many of them are uneasy with the industry's trend toward scouting and agreeing to sign players when they're still so young.
"In Venezuela, I saw 12-year-olds in a workout," one American League scout said. "He was born in 2001. And he was really good, by the way. I saw another kid who was 13. I’ve seen 2017s already. There's a team that's already offering 2015 deals to guys. A lot can happen between now and 2015. How can you guarantee that? But it’s not far-fetched that there are already deals done for 2015."
New Rules Of Scouting
Teams cutting deals with players before the July 2 international signing period begins each year has long been standard industry practice, with MLB's full knowledge. After a player goes through the tryout process and his representatives gauge the interest level from the market, the player will reach an agreement to sign with a team well in advance of July 2.
Sometimes those deals happen days before July 2, but more often they happen weeks or months in advance. In the most extreme cases, even before the bonus pool era, teams were locking in players to oral agreements before the calendar flipped to January. And because Latin American amateur players don't play for organized high school or college teams, the player will usually stop going to tryouts for other teams and either just train at his own field or report to his future team's academy. Even if another club comes in later and tries to offer more money, the player's representative will usually keep his word and stick to the deal, at the risk of being blacklisted by that team or being seen by other teams as a person who can't be trusted in negotiations.
Every year there are cases when the agreements don’t hold up, however. Sometimes it's the player or his representation going to another team for more money. In other cases it's the team that backs out after realizing the player isn't as good as scouts once thought, and the team will come up with an excuse, such as a physical ailment, as the reason for the change. Some of baseball's best prospects have had early agreements with one team, only to end up in another organization. As one scout put it, a lot of couples get engaged--not all of them get married.
In some ways, players striking deals before they're eligible to sign is a good thing. As long as all parties keep their word, having a deal in place before July 2 takes pressure off the kids. It can help keep pitchers healthy because their young arms are prone to overuse and injury. Unlike in the United States, where players can pitch in high school or college games that every scout can attend, Dominican players often have to go to a team's academy to be evaluated. If a pitcher doesn't have a deal in place by June, it can put pressure on the trainer to have him throw several times a week as July 2 arrives.
Also, if the rules were followed to the letter and teams were not allowed to start negotiating until players became eligible to sign, the youngest players in a signing class would be at a huge disadvantage. Dominican outfielder Leonardo Molina ($1.4 million from the Yankees) and Dominican third baseman Luis Encarnacion ($1 million from the Phillies) were two of the premium prospects on the market last year, and they had to wait to sign until their 16th birthdays in August. If players with August birthdays weren't able to cut prearranged deals, it would significantly affect the market. A team would take a significant risk by saving money to try to sign a top prospect with an August birthday--and perhaps come away empty-handed--while passing on players eligible to sign on July 2.
The complications have come as the competition has escalated. In 2011, 17 teams spent at least $2 million on international amateur players. Last year, 28 teams did. Three years ago, the Dodgers, White Sox and Diamondbacks each spent less than $1 million on international players. Last year, all three teams spent more than $1 million on one player alone. Now every team is a threat to sign a player for $500,000, and almost all of them have gone near or above the $1 million mark for a prospect.
The bonus pools have also pushed teams and players toward earlier agreements. In 2012, the first year of the pools with a $2.9 million budget for each team, Venezuelan trainers were quick to realize the new rules imposed a ceiling on what they could realistically command for their players. Several struck early deals to minimize their risk. Other trainers, particularly in the Dominican Republic, failed to adapt and ended up leaving money on the table once teams had committed to other players.
Trainers everywhere have adjusted. So have the teams. By July 2 last year, some organizations had already committed their entire 2013-14 bonus pools. With many of those deals in place months in advance, teams knew they wouldn’t be able to sign any players for more than $50,000 (each team gets six signings of $50,000 or less that are exempt from the bonus pools) for more than a year. Once their budgets were tapped out for the 2013-14 signing period, rather than wasting time scouting eligible players they couldn’t sign, teams turned their focus to 2014 players, scouting them more aggressively and trying to get them to commit to earlier deals. Now some teams already have their bonus pools committed for 2014 players--and especially with the $50,000 exemptions being eliminated in the next signing period--so they have moved on to the 2015 class.
"I think teams are placing more of an overall emphasis on trying to be ahead of everyone else since the money has made everything else equal for a lot of teams," an American League international director said. "With the structure now, you have to try to continue to find ways to beat everyone, and one of the ways to do it is to scout those younger kids from an earlier stage."
When MLB held its annual international showcase for the top July 2 prospects in January, hundreds of scouts packed into San Pedro de Macoris. In addition to the Dominican area scouts and supervisors, Venezuelan scouts and international directors, crosscheckers and assistant general managers came in from the United States. While MLB's goal was to provide a platform for the top players to showcase their skills and make it easier for scouts to see them all in one place, the unintended consequence has been that January has became an unofficial deadline to strike an agreement with a player before he has a chance to raise his profile at the MLB showcase.
"We’re making these evaluations so early," the AL executive said. "That event is supposed to be like the beginning of the next signing period, and it’s almost the end. All these guys are gone. What are we doing here?"
Sometimes players stand out early on and follow through on that potential. Jurickson Profar was a Little League World Series sensation when he was 11. One scout called a 14-year-old Miguel Sano the next Manny Ramirez. Baseball America pegged Austin Jackson as the top 12-year-old in the country in 1999, then in 2005 called Bryce Harper "possibly the country's best 12-year-old hitter." B.J. Upton was the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, which helped put scouting eyeballs on younger brother Justin Upton, who jumped on to the national radar after standing out at the Area Code Games that year when he was 14.
But if the error rate on scouting 18-year-old high school seniors is high, and the track record of paying big dollars for 16-year-old Latin American players (who might not even really be 16) is even more dicey, the decision-making on players who are 14 and 15 will only grow.
"That’s the trend," a National League international director said. "It’s just going to be earlier and earlier. I don’t know how to evaluate a 14-year-old. I think that’s an extreme crapshoot. Sixteen is a crapshoot, for the most part, let alone 14 and 15."
"It’s crazy," another NL international director said. "We're looking at guys who are 14 and a half, 15 years old. The July 2 market is crazy enough, now it’s becoming like a baby in a mother’s womb. It’s pre-birth. We’re doing pre-birth stuff now. There’s some pretty interesting guys in the 2015 group, but we’re talking about freshmen in high school. These are JV players. It’s crazy. We’re going to find out that a lot of teams that signed guys for $100,000 or $150,000 are better than guys teams are signing for millions of dollars."
Traditionally, scouts have referred to players who became eligible to sign on July 2 but remained free agents into the summer as "passed over" players. Now, the "passed over" term extends to players who aren't even eligible to sign for three more months but don't have a deal in place yet.
"That’s exactly what’s going on," a fourth international director said. "Our scouts are seeing guys for 2015 and 2016, some of whom are making the leftover 2014 guys look bad. The other side of this is the investment you have to make to get them off the market. Because that’s where the money goes into play. If you’re going to do an early deal, you have to overpay to get them off the market. Nobody’s doing an early deal for $200,000."
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When the Dominican Prospect League and the International Prospect League held their events in January to piggyback with the scouting crowd in town from MLB's showcase, both leagues had specific days dedicated to showcasing their top 2015 talent.
The industry changes have put more attention on 2015 players such as 15-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Franklin Reyes. For now, Reyes is best known as the little brother of 18-year-old Franmil Reyes, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Dominican outfielder who signed with the Padres for $700,000 in 2011 and is coming off a strong season last year in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Reyes is 15, but with a well-developed 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame and advanced tool set he could easily blend in as a high school senior, much like Franmil at the same age. Reyes is an early bloomer, and his Sept. 11, 1998, date of birth means he missed the cutoff to be eligible to sign this year by less than two weeks.
Before games for the 2014 players begin, the DPL holds a showcase for 35 of its top 2015 players. The outfielders throw from right field, the infielders take groundballs and the hitters take batting practice. More than 150 scouts have showed up to watch a group of 35 players they won't be able to sign for another 18 months not play a baseball game.
The righthanded-hitting Reyes walks up to the plate for his first round of batting practice. The first pitch he sees lands over the fence in left-center field. His bat is quick, the contact is loud and the raw power would rank among the best in the 2014 class, let alone 2015. In two rounds of BP, Reyes cranks three home runs. From right field, his throws are strong. Reyes dreams of being like his favorite major leaguer, Nelson Cruz.
It's a dream Reyes spends nearly every day working toward. He began playing baseball when he was 8 years old, splitting time between third base and the outfield. When he was 12, he met Basilio Vizcaino, the prominent Dominican trainer known as "Cachaza," who at the time was training Franmil. But Franklin has trained with Cachaza for only the past year, living at his academy in San Cristobal and playing baseball five days a week. His days start at 8 a.m. and finish around noon, playing games on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with drills the other days. Reyes has always been a big, lanky kid, but in the last year and a half he had a growth spurt, shooting up three inches while adding strength.
"When I was at the little league level, I'm a baseball fan, so I always watched how players went about their business and I started to try to implement that into my routine," Reyes said through an interpreter. "When I grew, got stronger and got more confidence, that's when I started to take off in the tryout process."
Reyes never tagged along with his brother to tryouts, and he said the two haven't talked much about Franmil's experiences in professional baseball. But every team in baseball already knows Franklin. As of January, six teams had brought him to their academies in the Dominican Republic, and scouts have come to Cachaza's field to watch him and the other players he trains with as well.
"I know I have to work hard because I know during the whole process there's going to be a lot of competition," Reyes said. "I want to be at the top of the board. My goal is to be No. 1 for July 2, 2015."
Over at the IPL's showcase for 2015 players, Christopher Navarro is making an impression already despite his pint-sized frame at 5-foot-8, 135 pounds. He shows nifty glove work in the field, then squares up a mid-80s fastball to center field for a double. He is 14.
"Is this f—ing ridiculous, or what?" said another international director while shaking his head.
"But you have to be here."