Dominican league giving prospects a chance
New entity helps players prepare emotionally and physically
Ulisses Cabrera had heard enough of the wisecracks.
The eye-rolls became annoying. The whispered jabs at his beloved Dominican Republic, its players and its baseball system were not only embarrassing -- they were unbearable. What bothered Cabrera most was that much of the criticism was based on the truth.
He decided to do something about it. In November, Cabrera -- along with Brian Mejia and Roberto Morales, his colleagues in the Pa'lante Management and Consulting Firm -- launched the Dominican Prospect League (DPL), a once-a-week league designed to give unsigned prospects on the island a platform to show off their skills in games for scouts.
Historically, players in Latin America are signed by scouts after workouts. However, the process can sometimes lead to problems in evaluation or compensation, as well as other signing issues.
That's not how the DPL works. The league is pushing transparency in its goal to help organizations while developing players both mentally and physically for the grind that comes with being a professional ballplayer.
The DPL's most ambitious goal is to repair the image of the baseball community in the Dominican Republic in the wake of recent scandals involving bonus-skimming, age and identity fraud, and steroid use.
"There is still skepticism and lack of trust. The main challenge is getting people to understand that this is not a gimmick," Cabrera said. "It's been five years in the works, and we've analyzed this thing from every which way, and we know the time to implement it was now."
The DPL's plan includes background and age checks on all players. There also are plans for a system that will provide drug testing, psychological evaluations, and money-management and culture-assimilation seminars.
"Everybody knows about the scandals in the D.R., and we just want to make teams feel comfortable," said Mejia. "Nobody wants to make a mistake of signing a kid for $1 million or $500,000 and find out he can't get a visa or has other problems. We all know that baseball in Latin America is a business that is escalating in value, and it has to be cleaned up. We feel we are part of the solution."
The four-team league is funded primarily through sponsorships and is not directly affiliated with Major League Baseball. Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations, characterized MLB as an "interested observer" in the DPL.
"The league is well run and organized, and the concept is a good one," Melendez said. "Does it provide help to club people? They will tell you yes. You are watching live games instead of just tryouts, and that provides a good opportunity to scout."
The DPL is not without some big league affiliation. Cleveland manager Manny Acta and Mark Newman, senior vice president of baseball operations for the Yankees, sit on its advisory board.
"The D.R. takes a lot of hits because a lot people try to ... compare our culture to theirs," Newman said. "Many of these kids grow up in extreme poverty, and it's not like they are playing at USC or LSU or some marvelous travel team that showcases them. What Ulisses and Brian are doing is injecting organization, facilities and better uniforms. I think it's been tremendous."
The DPL is also a business. It does not require the players to be represented by Cabrera's agency, although Pa'lante does represent 10 of the league's top prospects, and those players serve as a major source of income for Pa'lante. In addition, prospects pledge a percentage of their signing bonuses to help fund the DPL, which is being set up as a non-profit.
The model appears to be working. According to the founders, seven players from the DPL already have signed deals with clubs. On Monday the Rangers signed catcher Jorge Alfaro, who plays for the Bani team, to a $1.3 million deal.
Ultimately, the DPL is about baseball.
The four teams play each Wednesday at various Major League academies and are managed by the top trainers, or buscones, in the country. Amaury Nina leads the team in San Cristobal, and Astin Jacobo manages in San Pedro de Macoris. Josue Herrera manages in Santo Domingo, Enrique Soto in Bani. The DPL also has three other scouts who scour the island for players. Cabrera, a former farmhand for the Texas Rangers, and Mejia, a former scout for the Reds, look for players as well.
"I'm not going to say we have all of the top prospects in the Dominican, because that's not true," Mejia said. "But with the success we had this year and the groundwork we put down, I think we can in the future, and every year is going to get better and better."
The first half of DPL play is complete and will start again with nine dates starting Wednesday. The DPL All-Star Game and skills competition for the best prospects in the league is scheduled for Jan. 23.
For the most part, the founders said, the league runs smoothly despite occasional scheduling conflicts and minor issues with trainers.
"Change in any society is difficult, and change in the D.R. is no different than anywhere else," Cabrera said. "In my opinion, just because a player is from Latin America and has less education or finances is not justification for that person to be treated a certain way. It's not just at amateur level, it's in all levels. At some point you have to say 'Uncle' and make changes happen."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.