Brewers may re-open Dominican camp
Milwaukee currently only club without Latin American academy
MILWAUKEE -- While the second installment of the Brewers' winter Latin development camp got under way Monday in the Dominican Republic, team officials were working on plans to re-establish a permanent academy there for the first time since 2003.Multiple members of the front office said they expect to recommend to ownership during Spring Training that the club re-open a facility in Latin America, part of an ongoing effort to get the most out of the team's dollars spent on scouting and developing international players. "I can't tell you if it's going to happen, because it will obviously require an investment of a sizeable nature," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said. "But it's certainly going to be our recommendation." After general manager Doug Melvin reorganized the Brewers' front office in late 2002 and early 2003, the decision was made to dismantle the team's permanent Dominican operation. A review of the program revealed that it had not produced a big league player in a decade. As a result, Milwaukee will be alone among the 30 Major League franchises without an entry in the 2009 Dominican Summer League, which is stocked with Latin American prospects as young as 16 and used to introduce those players to professional baseball. Only a small percentage of them -- Melvin believes the number is something like 20 percent -- ever advance to a Minor League affiliate in the U.S. "The thinking was that we would take a different approach," said Brewers director of player development Reid Nichols, who was hired by Melvin in November 2002 and oversees the team's development camps. "Instead of spending a lot of money on a lot of players, we would spend the same amount on fewer and higher-quality players and bring them right to the States." At the time, teams were also facing trouble securing enough visas for their foreign-born players because of changes implemented by U.S. agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. So, rather than fielding a whole team each summer in the Dominican Republic, the Brewers instead signed a small crop and sent them immediately to Maryvale Baseball Park, the team's year-round complex in Phoenix. Those players joined the team's entry in the Arizona Summer League. Visa restrictions have since eased, and it is unclear whether the Brewers' "less is more" approach to procuring Latin American talent has paid off. "What we thought might be a competitive advantage, wasn't," Ash said. "So we'll go back to the tried and true method of signing and developing players in their native land and then moving from the academy to the U.S. only those who have graduated." Plans under way It's already too late for the Brewers to enter a team in the 2009 Dominican Summer League, so officials instead are deliberately exploring their options and expect to make a presentation to principal owner Mark Attanasio in February or March. Melvin estimates that a Dominican academy would require an investment of $1-1.2 million per year. That includes lease payments, staffing and player expenses. One option was presented during the Winter Meetings last month by former Brewers closer Salomon Torres, who retired as an active player after saving 28 games for Milwaukee in 2008. Torres already leases facilities to the Rangers and Braves and owns land on which he is building a third complex that would include fields, batting cages, offices and dormitory-style housing for players and staff. Ash said the Brewers will also consider existing facilities that have been or will be vacated by other teams, and have discussed with other entrepreneurs the idea of building a new camp. Melvin had a conversation as recently as Tuesday with Torres about his new complex. Melvin said Torres would require a lease commitment of 6-7 years, typical for other such facilities. MLB.com sent an e-mail to Torres last week asking for comment, but he was not immediately available. Since the Rays joined the Dodgers at a facility in Campo Las Palmas in 2006 and the Orioles signed a long-term lease at a new facility in Boca Chica in 2007, the Brewers are alone without a presence in the Dominican Republic. The Diamondbacks and Reds share an entry in the Dominican Summer League, while the A's, Blue Jays, Nationals, White Sox and Yankees field two teams apiece. Eight other franchises also have a presence in Venezuela and fielded teams in that nation's summer league in 2008, including three of Milwaukee's National League Central rivals: the Astros, Cardinals and Pirates. On the other hand, the Astros announced last month that they are pulling out of Venezuela after 20 successful seasons there. The team plans to send prospects to the Gulf Coast League in the U.S. instead. Is less really more?
The Astros, though, will maintain their presence in the Dominican Republic. The Brewers took a more extreme approach in 2003, when they closed their academy and focused instead on top prospects. The process began with a handful of statement signings that Ash, in a September 2005 report on Baseball America's Web site, said would "send a signal that our organization will be a player in that marketplace."In September the previous year, the Brewers had signed right-hander Roque Mercedes for what Ash called, "significant dollars." In 2005, Baseball America reported that the Brewers gave right-hander Rolando Pascual, considered the top unsigned talent in the Dominican Republic at the time, a $710,000 signing bonus. Months later the team signed another right-hander, Wily Peralta, for $450,000. All of those players are slowly working through the Minor League chain, though Pascual and Peralta were both slowed in 2008 by arm injuries. The new system has presented its own challenges, according to Nichols. Chief among them is the shock of introducing a 16-year-old player from a small town in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela to extreme wealth (Pascual's bonus, for example, was nearly 200 times the average annual salary for a citizen of the Dominican Republic), uprooting him from his home and then dropping him in a new culture in the U.S., all the while expecting him to develop into a Major League Baseball player. Melvin believes that age restrictions in the low-level U.S. Minor League would help ease that transition. But with no restrictions, the Brewers' super-young entry in the Arizona Summer League has routinely finished last, including a 7-20 season in 2008. "Probably the biggest factor there is the confidence factor," Melvin said. "It's like taking high school kids and throwing them into a college program. Some of them just aren't prepared for it." Re-establishing a permanent base in the Dominican Republic would allow the Brewers to more cautiously introduce Latin American players to the pro game for two or three years. Those players certainly still would face long odds, like any other Minor Leaguer, but would begin facing those challenges closer to home. "I think our experiment was a good one, it had merit," Nichols said. "But we really can't afford to wait six or seven years for these kids to develop, and that's how long it's taking. If we can let them first have a couple of years down there, then bring them over here, they'll have a little more discipline under their belt." In the meantime, new scouting director Bruce Seid said the Brewers will continue to employ six scouts dedicated to Latin America. The group is headed by Latin American Coordinator Fernando Arango, and has signed three players -- all Dominicans -- since Seid was named scouting director on Nov. 10. Those Brewers prospects will by default begin their professional careers in the U.S. If the academy plans move forward, they could be among the last to do so.
A temporary presenceWhile plans to find a permanent home in the Dominican Republic continue to develop, 18-20 Latin American prospects from Milwaukee's Minor League system gathered at an academy just north of San Pedro beginning Monday for the team's eight-week winter development camp. Most of the players hail from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, all are first-, second- or third-year players and all have a chance to be at one of the Brewers' full-season affiliates -- Class A or higher -- in 2009. This marks the second straight season that the Brewers have hosted a development camp at the Carp Baseball Academy, a modest facility built by the Hiroshima Carp that produced Alfonso Soriano. Overseeing the program is Rene Gonzalez, who will enter his second season as the manager at rookie-level Helena in 2009. Nichols was scheduled to make the trip for the start of the program before leaving to tour facilities that could house the Brewers on a permanent basis. Class A Brevard County athletic trainer Tommy Craig will oversee conditioning at the start of the eight-week course, a sort of preseason Spring Training that will prepare players for their report date in Phoenix. Like the Brewers' two-part, stateside winter development camp, which resumes on Jan. 18 at Maryvale Baseball Park, conditioning will dominate the early part of the Latin American program. "We noticed a couple of years ago that there were players from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere that weren't really doing what they needed to do in the offseason to be ready for Spring Training," Nichols said. "For whatever reason, players weren't taking responsibility for being ready. "This program is going to benefit pitchers, mainly. We'll get them stretched out, get the arm strength and trunk strength going." Players will not exactly train in the lap of luxury. The Carp built the facility in 1990 to help develop talent to bring to Japan, but that team is in the process of leaving. The on-site dormitories that the Brewers rented last year are no longer staffed, so program participants instead will stay at a hotel 20 minutes away on the country's southern coast. The Brewers are renting two fields, four bullpens and batting cages. Sessions will also be held about community service and "learning to be an independent individual," Ash said in January 2008, when the team re-introduced the program. Talks about a new academy will continue. "We may not do it, but we're thinking that way," Nichols said. "If we do it, I'm sure we'll do it the right way."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.