Major League Baseball’s International Prospect Showcase, which took place last month in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is the crown jewel of the league’s international development efforts. The showcase consists of a traditional baseball tryout (60-yard dash, fielding/throwing from their position, and batting practice) and a few exhibition games that give hundreds of professional scouts a fair chance to evaluate players. As the majority of Latino players hail from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, Santo Domingo is the logical site; Venezuela has become so politically unstable that many MLB teams are closing their academies there.
In years past, this period before the international signing date was dominated by private workouts, which led to some gamesmanship between franchises. Teams save money when a player’s talents are lesser known; when bidding, the most preferable circumstance is a lack of other bidders. Whether known or not by teams, many scouts employed manipulative tactics that often exploited teenage ballplayers eager to win the lottery of a sustainable career. MLB seized the opportunity to bring transparency to this period; players collectively benefit from being showcased buffet-style because they are seen by at least one scout, if not several, from every team.
I was working as a correspondent for the MLB Network at the showcase, and found myself repeating an unscripted phrase in live segments, speaking from the experience of being a baseball prospect last decade: we’ve come a long way in protecting players. Because of increased oversight and awareness, the future for Latin prospects is brighter.
Large companies with long bottom lines often lumber to make their business practices equitable, but Major League Baseball was never necessarily in charge of making sure teams behaved themselves in Latin America. Far from league and team oversight, scouts were free to employ the methods that suited them while operating in markets like the Dominican Republic. Some scouts behaved nobly in the shadows. Others did not.
Scouts’ performance is often measured in the quality of their hauls of kids, and the price impacts this value: the system tends to compel scouts to be pick-up artists, intelligence agents and businessmen. I’m not speaking in hypotheticals here; consider what happened to me during the weeks leading up to the draft (the American version of a “signing period”) as a fringe prospect coming out of Columbia University in 2004.
One scout called me while I was still in the parking lot preparing to leave his club’s invitation-only workout and aggressively negged me for twenty minutes or so, enumerating the reasons I was “just not that good,” and “only worth a few thousand dollars”. He was urging me to agree to a dollar amount that was ultimately less than a quarter of what I agreed to. He called me hours after I was drafted by Tampa Bay to apologize for his “old school tactics”. “I didn’t mean any of that,” he said–it’s just part of the game.
After I worked out for one East Coast National League club, their scout asked me what other teams I was planning to work out for. I mentioned a workout at the Arizona Diamondbacks stadium that weekend. The next day, that scout invited me to what he said was a private workout that the GM would attend, exclusively for the few players they’re looking to select in the first five rounds. It was on the same day as the Diamondbacks workout. I was entirely new to this process, and I was not certain I was even going to be drafted, so the sound of “the first five rounds” was moving. However, I thought the best move was to go to the Diamondbacks workout because I had already worked out for this club.
Unfortunately, my connection flight to Arizona was cancelled, making me miss the workout there. While I was stranded in a Chicago airport, I realized that I could make it back to east for the private workout the other scout had mentioned. When I called to tell him that I would be there after all, he told me he fabricated the workout in an attempt to keep me from working out for the Diamondbacks. He said it was one of the oldest tricks in the book. I told him he was a scumbag and hung up the phone.
If these things happened to an educated American prospect in the 2000’s, one could only imagine what was happening to young prospects throughout baseball history in Latin America, especially those living under the poverty line, lacking education.
The buscone is an independent scout. At their best, they are headhunter coaches worth the small commission they take for finding and connecting talent with team-affiliated scouts that can lead to signing-bonus money. The best buscones teach the game and mentor players. The worst buscones were pimps who took unethically large commissions, and gave their players steroids so both the bonus and commission would be larger. These scouts set up players for failure if they don’t make the big leagues.
Allow me a brief anecdote: one of my old teammates (we’ll call him Raul) told me that his buscone took half of his signing bonus, and overcharged him for the steroids he said were necessary. Raul always wanted to move to New York City; consider his story similar to the plot of Sugar, where a Dominican pitching prospect quits on baseball after a few disorienting years in the minors to pursue his passion for carpentry. Only difference is that Raul wanted to sell drugs, “como Biggie”. I always thought he was kidding when he said this on long bus rides, or after bad games, but during my rookie season with the Rays in September 2008, he showed up to (the old) Yankee Stadium between games of a double header, to congratulate me. He had more bling and baggage under his eyes than I remember, and he mysteriously weaseled out of a photo before disappearing.
Through the joint efforts of the league, the MLBPA, and countless whistleblowers, power has now swung to aspiring players. In this year’s crop at the International Prospect Showcase, there are about a dozen soon-to-be millionaires, some so young they still have braces on their teeth. The baseball community should be proud of the progress made in recent years, but the next frontier should be to prepare these players—especially those who will invariably be released by clubs after just a year or two—to compete for college scholarships. To their credit, some teams are already working on that: recently, Vice did a great expose on the Arizona Diamonbacks’ commitment to educating the prospects they invite to their Dominican academy.
Every prospect has a target figure in mind. As a minor leaguer, I met American players that admitted they were so allergic to the idea of more school they were going to sign no matter what figure they were offered. These pro-ball-or-bust high school prospects will sign a letter of intent with a college as a formality; the college commitment is just more leverage for negotiating a bonus with a Major League club, and it’s leverage that Latino prospects rarely have.
At the Dominican showcase, the most intriguing player to me was not the consensus best of the lot—that honor belongs to Wander “Sammy” Franco, a slick-fielding, switch-hitting, sparkplug shortstop related to the Aybar brothers–it was Dominican OF prospect George Valera, whose stance is a dead ringer for Robinson Cano’s. When I ducked into the dugout for shade after a live TV hit, Valera struck up a conversation, in English, and eventually told me his story. His family lived in New York until his father was in a car accident that required the insertion of metal plates into his hand. The pain was exacerbated by the Bronx winters, so the family moved to the tropical Dominican Republic when Valera was in middle school.
I asked Valera if he had any desire to go to college in the states, and he said he hadn’t really considered it. Here in the Dominican Republic, the scent of the Major Leagues is stronger. Baseball-wise, the weakest prospect here in this group of 16 and 17 year olds would probably be a top recruit at any top 25 college program in the US. Later in the scrimmage, Valera stroked a double deep into center field, and I realized he might be one of the lucky ones who gets an offer he can’t refuse.
Signing bonus figures create a class system within the organization. Let’s say Valera’s signing bonus is $100,000. First-round draft picks, with millions invested in them, can fight with their coaches while hitting .220 and still move up the ranks. On the other hand, a player signed for just a few thousand will struggle to find playing time while teams test their larger investments. Even with a quarter-million dollar bonus, it wouldn’t be strange for Valera to spend 3 or 4 years making it to single-A. If he were to go to college during those years, he might start there as a million-dollar prospect.
Valera, and other prospects like him, could do well with knowing the story of Julio Borbon, who passed on a signing bonus of about $200,000 when he was a high school player in the Dominican Republic in order to attend the University of Tennessee–after which he signed with the Texas Rangers for a cool $1.3 million. As college coaches have the ability to bend academic standards for players they prize, all that keeps Dominican players from competing for American scholarships is an ability to speak English, though that may come as a surprise to some. And the rewards could even be massive, as they were for Borbon. (It’s important to note here that Borbon’s English skills were strong—like Valera, he was born in the United States as his father immigrated to pursue a PhD.)
During our next chat, Valera stressed yet again that he was confident, not cocky, about making it to the Major Leagues, which reminded me of Will Smith’s unconventional wisdom about having a plan B: that it only detracts from plan A. An injury probably wouldn’t slow an actor. However, college athletes can lose scholarships, and professional signing bonuses are guaranteed. I didn’t know how direly Valera needed or wanted the money, but under normal circumstances of health, a free college education would certainly not impede his journey to the Major Leagues. He might even get a leg up on the competition.