Where Do July 2 Prospects Go After They Sign? Explaining The Tricky League

Image credit: Cardinals lefty Genesis Cabrera was a Tricky League find back in 2013. (Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

When draft picks sign, they typically play right away.

High school players usually go to a Rookie-level complex league in Arizona or Florida, while a college player might spend his summer with a more advanced short-season team in the New York-Penn or Northwest league.

For international prospects, July 2 is when 16-year-old players are eligible to sign. But unlike draft picks in the United States, those players aren’t eligible to play in official games until the following year. That’s because Minor League Baseball rules stipulate that players must turn 17 by the end of the minor league season to be eligible.

At the age of 16, it’s remarkable how much players can change in a span of a few months. With the Dominican Summer League opening 11 months after these players sign on July 2, that’s nearly a full year of development that can take place before they play their first official pro games.

So when Latin American players sign on July 2, what do they do for the next year?

For many players, their introduction to professional baseball comes in the informal Tricky League. While it’s not an official league like the DSL, the Tricky League is similar to instructional league and opens on July 15 and runs for six weeks through late August. Games are staged at clubs’ academies in the Dominican Republic, mostly in Santo Domingo and Boca Chica.

Sixteen teams participate in the Tricky League, with clubs playing two to four games per week from Monday through Friday. Teams keep stats on their own players, but there isn’t a centralized, official accounting of stats, nor are there league standings or playoffs. The Tricky League is a versatile tool for clubs, but its primary purpose is for teams to get their 2019 signings playing in games as soon as possible.

“It provides an opportunity for these guys to play and really speed up their acclimation process to professional baseball,” Rays international scouting director Carlos Rodriguez said. “It’s the first step in the process. A lot of the kids have had a layoff from playing competitive games. This allows us to close the gap and get them at-bats and innings to help them get ready for the DSL next season.”

Learning The Basics

For the most part, Tricky League games look like a normal game in the DSL or one of the U.S. complex leagues. For a lot of players, that’s different than what they’re used to on the tryout scene. No drawing a walk and then sending a player off the bench to be the runner at first base while the hitter stays at the plate and the count resets. No extending the inning if the pitcher gets three quick outs so he can get more work. If an inning goes too long and a pitcher is out there past a certain number of pitches, most teams will roll it over to the next half inning, but Tricky League games otherwise replicate what players will see when they get to the DSL.

“You get them to work on the fundamentals from day one,” Dodgers vice president of international scouting Ismael Cruz said. “Once they come in for camp in January or February, they’re ready. The coaches are familiar with the guys, the pitching coaches have them on a routine.

“The new players are getting at-bats and innings, but at the same time, they’re getting instruction from coaches who are going to be their coaches the following year. The DSL coaches will get to know those kids a year in advance. That’s one of the benefits.”

Players signed at 16 across Latin America can have vastly different baseball backgrounds. Some have played organized baseball since they were little kids, while others are relatively raw in their game experience.

This initial step gives players the basic building blocks to a professional career. Teams teach their players everything from how they stretch, how they play catch, how they do their band work, how they take infield, how to set up pre-pitch and where to be on a cutoff play—and why they do it that way.

The development off the field begins as well, with English classes, strength and conditioning instruction and plenty of calories to help players pack on mass. Players get accustomed to a similar schedule to what they will have the following year during the DSL. For many of them, it’s their first extended period of time living away from home. And for a lot of the players born outside the Dominican Republic, their first time living in a foreign country.

“They get to see what the DSL guys are doing,” Cruz said. “And we get to teach them basic English. We start from ground zero with those kids. We have them sitting when we bring in someone like (Dodgers special assistant and former major leaguer) Joel Peralta to talk with the DSL pitching staff. We have the Tricky League guys sit in the back to see and learn. We introduce the Tricky League guys to the computer stuff, the media and all that, way before they get to play in the DSL. I don’t see any down side of Tricky League.”

Scouting Tool

The Tricky League’s primary purpose is development, but it’s also an evaluation vehicle for unsigned players. While Tricky League teams are built around each club’s 2019 signings, clubs supplement their rosters with “tryout players” who are either 2020 prospects or players currently eligible to sign.

Teams add tryout players to their lineups, though it’s most common with pitchers. Clubs are cautious with their 16-year-old pitchers, many of whom just shut it down entirely for the summer after signing. Those who do pitch generally won’t throw more than an inning or two in a game, so scouts work with trainers to bring in unsigned pitchers to throw the bulk of their innings. It’s a great opportunity for the players and for the teams, who get to evaluate pitchers against a lineup of professional hitters rather than other amateur players.

Lefthander Genesis Cabrera, who reached the big leagues this year with the Cardinals, was first spotted by the Rays in the Tricky League, albeit in an unusual manner. Cabrera was pitching for the Astros in a 2013 Tricky League game against the Rays, who had their top scouts in attendance that day.

“I was sitting with our Dominican supervisor, Danny Santana, watching (Cabrera) pitch against us,” said Rodriguez, the Rays’ international director.”He was probably 83-85 (mph), throwing a lot of strikes, loose arm with good arm speed—a lot of things you look for. I casually asked Danny, ‘Who’s this guy?’ So Danny looked at him and said, ‘I think he’s a tryout guy.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ ”

Santana pointed to Cabrera’s shoes, which were broken on the sides. The Astros, Santana said, wouldn’t send out one of their signed players wearing spikes in that tattered condition. After the game, the Rays asked around to find out who Cabrera’s agent was, saw him pitch again and signed him for $34,000.

“We use that a lot,” Cruz said. “You bring guys, let’s say from (another country) to play there, just to crosscheck them. Sometimes the agent wants a lot of money, so you need to bring them in to see them play against better guys playing on those teams.”

Teams obviously have agreements lined up with players well before they sign on July 2. But by the end of the Tricky League season, clubs gain a much deeper understanding of their abilities after seeing players in games for six weeks.

“When the season is over, right before they go home, we give them a player plan,” said Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies’ vice president of international scouting and development, “which is what we see as their strengths and what we think they should work on when they go home. We want them to take some time off, but we want them to make sure they’re working, too.

“I think it helps you have a plan for them, so that when they go home after August, you give them a program they can follow. That way, when they come back for instructional league, they’re ahead. Without the Tricky League, for me, it’s very hard to get guys better. If you wait until instructional league, it’s too late. It’s great that more teams are participating every year. A few years ago, we didn’t participate, and it’s made a big difference for us.”

At the end of August, nearly every team takes a break for a bit at their Dominican academy. The Tricky League ends, the DSL wraps up and players get some time off before Dominican instructional league begins. A handful of teams get started with Dominican instructs in September, while a lot of clubs begin in October and keep it running through November or December.

It keeps the development going for those 2019 signees and the team’s lower-level Latin American prospects, with a mix of practices and games, both intrasquads and against other organizations’ players. Some teams play a limited number of games, while others play three or four per week. As more organizations dial back their U.S. instructional league or eliminate it entirely, Dominican instructs has taken on added importance for many clubs who want their young international prospects gaining as much game experience as possible.

“We make decisions, where maybe guys who played a lot of games in the DSL might need more time in the gym, while the guys who didn’t play as much might play more,” Fernandez said. “The July 2 guys play a lot.

“In the States, it seems like teams are playing less games (at instructional league), but we continue to play a lot of games in instructional league in the Dominican Republic. There’s a lot of teaching.”

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