While watching a torrential downpour that caused an hour-long delay at last Saturday's Braves-Cubs game, I was a little annoyed to be stuck in a cold, wet, and miserable position and to be waiting for baseball to be played.
Normally, during such delays, the Braves will play another game happening in the league on the Bravesvision jumbotron or one of the monotonous "Driven" documentaries about Chipper Jones or someone else that we've seen advertised and played ad nauseum. But this time, my attention was caught by a feature that began to play about the Braves' academy in the Dominican Republic, a crucial base of operations that serves as a hub for Atlanta's young and raw talent from Latin American countries. Embedded below is the feature, divided into two parts, which was put together and released last month by FOX Sports South.
This feature does a good job summarizing just what the function of the academy, located in a coastal, baseball-crazed city named San Pedro de Macorís that's produced an astonishing number of Major League players for a city of its size (fewer than 200,000), including Robinson Canó, Starlin Castro, Johnny Cueto, Sammy Sosa and Rico Carty.
One of the more under-followed and overlooked aspects of Major League teams' attempts to locate and produce talent is the business of international scouting and development. According to Major League Baseball, over a quarter of baseball's players on Opening Day rosters were born outside of the United States, with the overwhelming majority of these players being Latin American.
The two countries that dominate the ranks of foreign-born players in the United States are the Dominican Republic, a country that encompasses the eastern half of an island in the Caribbean Sea, and Venezuela, located in the north of South America. The Braves have seen many contributions from players from these two countries, including Ervin Santana, Martín Prado, Luis Àvilan, Rafael Furcal and countless others. The Dominican Republic has produced some of baseball's brightest stars, including Albert Pujols, Pedro Martínez, and Juan Marichal, and Venezuela's résumé isn't shabby either, consisting of players such as Miguel Cabrera, Luis Aparicio, and Andrés Galarraga.
Although traditional power countries in baseball's Latin American diaspora produce most of baseball's foreign talent, other places in Latin America have begun to produce talent as well. The Braves are a testament to this, employing a shortstop from a tiny Dutch territory on an island in the Caribbean, called Curaçao, named Andrelton Simmons. Oh yeah, and some centerfielder by the name of Andruw Jones also grew up there. Additionally, Julio Teherán became the tenth Colombian-born player to make the big leagues with his debut in 2011.
Clearly, Latin American talent is a crucial part of the big leagues. So, it's easy to understand why resources and time would be put into developing an academy for international signees from this part of the world in order to develop their talent and ease their cultural transition if they are ever lucky enough to come to the United States.
The first part of the equation for the development of players at the Dominican Academy is teaching its prospects a more "professional," advanced and refined style of baseball. Braves' international scouting director Johnny Almaraz's job is to identify international talent that merits a contract offer, but the academy's job is to take those players, who are generally still developing physically, and turn them into a more refined product. As Almaraz alluded to in the feature, many players who come to the academy haven't had much coaching and have played the majority of their baseball with shoddy equipment on poor fields in a more relaxed, free-flowing setting. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the vast majority of countries from where these players originate is massive, and most signees who come to the academy grew up in poverty, unable to afford nice baseball equipment. There isn't East Cobb Baseball or sophisticated, sponsored travel squads in these countries; players come to the academy largely without having been coached properly or having played real baseball games like amateurs and preps do in the United States.
Thus, players must be trained physically and taught proper technique and mechanics if they are to advance to play baseball stateside. While many American amateurs weight train and have adequate nutrition, most international signees are not afforded this luxury in their years of development. Most players at the academy range from 16 (this is the youngest age at which an international amateur may be signed per MLB rules) to 20 years old, so the academy can "make up lost time" in many cases by putting the players on weight-training regimens and improving their nutritional intake. Not only this, but these players from Latin American countries frequently have loud tools, but poor technique and mechanics. Players may be able to drive a baseball a country mile, but they may have no experience in learning proper swing mechanics or recognizing off-speed pitches. Thus, it's crucial that the coaches and instructors at the academy help these players transition from being raw athletes to specialized baseball players.
Furthermore, the young guys at the academy are also taught American culture and the English language, for they are both necessary to understand to some degree if the players are to ever make a stateside roster. The players live at the academy and attend daily classes in culture and language. Almaraz touches on this in the feature, but players learn all kinds of things in these cultural classes, from how to speak and read the English language to how to tip at a restaurant. Moving directly from one's native country to the United States would be a massive cultural shock, so the academy serves an important role in easing this transition for the players. I feel as if many people, including myself, tend to think of prospects and players in less of a humanistic sense and more in the sense of a baseball player. However, this learning process is crucial for the team's international signees' success as they climb up the organizational ladder.
Although the majority of the action at the Dominican Academy comes in the form of instruction, both baseball-specific and cultural, the guys do have an opportunity to play some baseball as well. The DSL, or Dominican Summer League, is a league of teams composed of players at team academies that compete against one another in a three month span lasting from June until August. The average schedule in the DSL consists of approximately 70 games in any given season. The DSL Braves compete in the San Pedro de Macorís Division of the league, along with the DSL Tigers, Blue Jays and Brewers, whose Dominican operations are also based in the city. For these games, coverage is often scarce and difficult to find, but the team's website usually includes a box score and a play-by-play of each game, for those who are interested in following the team.
It's important to note that many of the players who come through the Dominican Academy never even get a chance to play ball in the United States. Many of the players taken in by the academy are not highly-regarded prospects, and are given small bonuses in an attempt to find diamonds in the rough. Although unfortunate, this is simply reality, as there are a finite number of roster spots on stateside teams, and some players just don't have the ability to make it to the U.S.
This isn't to say, however, that there aren't success stories that originate in San Pedro de Macorís. Two current players on the Braves' roster, Teherán and Àvilan, began their professional careers at the academy after being signed as international amateurs. In addition to these players, the aforementioned Bethancourt, as well as other en vogue prospects such as Victor Reyes, from Venezuela, and Mauricio Cabrera, from the Dominican Republic, began as farmhands at the academy before making their debut stateside and rising up the ranks of the organization.
Players currently listed on the DSL roster who have garnered some attention based on their large signing bonuses and performance in the league include pitchers Félix Falcón, Luis Barrios, and Yeralf Torres, as well position players such as Ozhaino Albies, Kelvin Estevez and Ledernin Tejada. You won't find these players on top prospect lists or any real in-depth scouting reports on these guys, but they've all been players to whom the Braves have given substantial bonuses, and they've flashed their potential in the DSL. It's easier to gauge players' potential when they come over to the U.S. and begin to play in the Gulf Coast League or the Appalachian League, but those are some current names to keep your eyes on.
In summary, although it's often overlooked, the Braves' Dominican Academy plays a crucial role in the development of prospect talent for the organization. TC's prospect team will keep you posted throughout the summer on the DSL team as best we can, and we'll post news of any significant international signees as well. Although the rewards from developing a talented player are often many years out from their time at the Dominican Academy, the rewards can be immense.