For the last seven months, I have been living in the Dominican Republic. It has been quite the life experience and one of the highlights has been attending Dominican Summer League games. Most of the team’s facilities are not open to the public but I have been able to get make a handful contacts that have granted me access to their facilities. I am very grateful for their generosity.
In May, I began my preparation for the season and since it started in early June I’ve attended at least one game nearly every week. During this time, I’ve met some extraordinary people who have shed light on player evaluation, international operations, and the Latin American perspective on the game of baseball. There is a lot that happens behind the scenes before these prospects reach the United States and become relevant to the fantasy baseball community.
The new MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement established a hard cap on the amount teams can spend on international prospects in a given signing period, but that has not diminished the significance of July 2nd throughout Latin America. Every year on J2 the most heralded prospects headline the class with multi-million dollar signing bonuses.
One thing I’ve learned is that while the big bonus guys get the headline and are sometimes sent immediately to the United States, the vast majority of players spend time at the Dominican facilities and sign for more modest signing bonuses. Here, there are maybe a couple guys that signed million dollar bonuses but smaller deals in the $400,000-$600,000 range are the hyped, big men on campus at each teams’ academy in the Dominican Republic.
The signing bonus, while exciting and illustrious, is only the start of the journey for these youngsters. There are many prospects that receive small bonuses and then excel beyond their initial pay grade. Take fantasy darling Ronald Acuña for instance. He signed for a modest $100,000 bonus out of Venezuela in 2014 and has risen quickly through the minor league ranks to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball. The signing bonus is a starting point that casual fans can use to identify some of the most promising names in a given year, but it is far from the end all be all.
The players at the academies here are age 16-22 and hail from all parts of Latin America including Cuba, Panama, Brazil, and Mexico. However, the majority of the prospects are from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. It has been thought-provoking to watch these players and discern the similarities and difference between the talent from these two baseball hotbeds. The following commentary is far from indisputable conclusions, but rather the observations I’ve made from my time watching and interacting with the players over the past two months.
The Dominican prospects seem to more often have the BIG carrying tools that earn 60+ grades on the scouting scale. At the dish, these are the hitters that display plus raw power or 4.15 run times to first base out of the box. They have the tools that catch scouts’ eyes in one pitch. This seems to make sense because Dominican amateur baseball concentrates heavily on preparing talent to impress scouts at showcases. As a result, players do not take live reps on a daily basis which is materialized in a lack of feel for the game.
Venezuelan players, on the other hand, generally seem to have fewer of the loud tools that scouts laud but arrive at the Dominican Summer League with a polish that the Dominican prospects lack. These guys play games every day in Venezuela and receive the at-bats necessary to develop baseball instincts and an understanding of the game within the game. What they lack in the tool shed they make up for with their baseball IQ. It’s not a perfect science and there are Venezuelans with BIG tools, like Victor Garcia (STL) for instance, but there seem to be fewer.
The theme of Dominican prospects with one outstanding tool also applies to pitchers, and I’ve seen a handful that boasts fastballs in the mid to upper 90’s. Some of them also have an average breaking ball, most often a slider, that they use to complement the cheese. Very few exhibit feel for a changeup, and that is a critical part of the player development process as they strive to become starting pitchers. For me, most of the guys I’ve seen profile as bullpen arms, especially in today’s game with high leverage bullpen arms more valuable than ever before.
I have seen more Venezuelan starting pitchers than Dominicans but have yet to see one Venezuelan starting pitcher that boasts a 60 grade (93-94mph) fastball. I’m sure they’re around but I haven’t run into one yet. Instead, the ones I’ve seen usually work in the high 80’s to low 90’s with an effective repertoire of off-speed pitches. These guys seem to have a feel for pitching and a basic understanding of how to manipulate the strike zone to induce outs. Youngsters in Venezuela are taught the changeup in youth baseball before they are allowed to throw a true breaking ball which may act as one reason for this trend.
When I attend these games, I always sit behind home plate beside the Trackman operator, if there is one. It’s the best seat in the house because it not only gives me the opportunity to see the Trackman information after each pitch but also to interact with the pitchers that aren’t scheduled to throw that day. Shooting the shit with these guys during the game is my most cherished memory from this DSL experience: learning about their lives, how they perceive the game of baseball, helping them with their English, and practicing my Spanish. It is a once in a lifetime experience that has been invaluable to me as both a man and a fan of the sport we all love.