Dominican Prospect League brings hope
All-Star Workout Day gives young players chance to show skills
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- It's 11:57 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and it's starting to sprinkle.
The trio of flags snapping in the wind represent the Dominican Republic, the United States and the Mets. They not only signal the entrance into New York's baseball academy here, they symbolize the path many Dominican youth must take to fulfill their Major League Baseball dreams.
Shortstop Wendell Rijo is one of those big league dreamers. Born and raised in the eastern city of La Romana and the son of Dodgers scout Rafael Rijo, the infielder knows that the road to the Major Leagues is not an easy one. He's only 16, but he says he's been training "for years," and he understands how the signing game works. If Rijo impresses big league scouts with his tools, he has a good chance to sign with a Major League club and enter one of their academies on the island. If he's lucky, in two years, he'll leave the academy and head to the United States to begin his Minor League journey.
But first things first; Rijo has three minutes to get out of the dugout and onto the field. It's the All-Star Workout Day for the Dominican Prospect League, and Rijo, along with 43 other DPL players, must show the 100 Major League scouts and officials scattered across the outfield -- many with clipboards and stopwatches in hand -- that he not only has the skills to be a Major Leaguer in the future, but he also has the game.
If Rijo failed to impress on Workout Day -- which he didn't -- he would get another chance in the second annual Dominican Prospect League All-Star Game held at Estadio Cibao in the northern city of Santiago the next day.
If Rijo, who is generously listed as 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, makes it to the Major Leagues, he says he'll credit the DPL for helping him get there, because he knows he doesn't have the type of body that wows scouts in tryouts. Former Minor League player Ulises Cabrera and former Major League scout Brian Mejia, who created the Dominican Prospect League three years ago, say they are the grateful ones. They are thankful for players like Rijo and the more than 500 players who have passed through their league during the past three seasons.
"This is not just a baseball league," said Cabrera, a Vanderbilt graduate who received his MBA from Pepperdine University. "We start with baseball because baseball is the center of the wheel here. These are the future stars of the game, and if you can infuse these young men with a set of values and work ethic, they become the next role models. The guys who played here and signed last year can set the tone and this group can follow them. They start doing the right thing."
The original DPL format featured four teams representing different regions squaring off against each other once a week at various Major League Baseball academies. It has since evolved into four teams in two areas: the Boca Chica Circuit near the island's capital of Santo Domingo, and the Cibao Circuit near Santiago. An estimated 80-100 players rotate in and out of the Boca Chica Circuit games on Wednesdays, and a similar number participate in the Cibao Circuit on Saturdays.
The goals of the league are to provide teams with an effective vehicle to evaluate talent, develop and prepare young Dominican players, improve the quality of instruction given by their trainers, and organize the major stakeholders in baseball in Latin America.
The league's most ambitious goal is to repair the image of the entire Dominican baseball community.
The league's most obvious goal is to put players in game situations in front of scouts so they can be signed by Major League clubs. Since the DPL started play in October 2009, Cabrera estimates close to 200 players that have participated in the league have signed with Major League clubs for an estimated total of $35 million. He also estimates that 60 percent of the players signed for an average of $60,000.
The DPL, funded primarily through sponsorships and private donations, receives a percentage of the signing bonuses when one of its players signs with a big league team. Mejia and Cabrera also represent 15 players in the DPL.
"We created this thing in part because we felt long-term that the baseball industry could not survive in a non-baseball playing environment, which is exactly what a tryout is," Cabrera said. "It's not rocket science. We are just playing baseball games here, but there is a big benefit to playing games."
Tuesday's DPL All-Star Workout Day was, for all intents and purposes, a showcase. The day's events featured players taking batting practice, infield practice and timed 60-yard dashes. But unlike most events in Dominican Republic, the DPL showcase also featured a home run derby.
And unlike all showcases in the United States, hundreds of baseball officials littered the infield and outfield areas directly behind the players for most of the afternoon to get the best view possible.
"I give credit to the DPL, because they were the first people to start this event and that was well-needed in the Dominican," said Johnny Martinez, who scouts for the MLB Scouting Bureau. "Not only do the kids get to play on teams, but it gives the opportunity to scouts to some see the kids in game situations instead of just tryouts. It's also easy for us to come to one place to see this much talent at one time."
Omar Minaya, recently named senior vice president of baseball operations for the Padres, also attended the DPL Workout Day. Minaya, the first Dominican-born general manager in the history of Major League Baseball, began his career in the 1980s as a scout for the Texas Rangers and is well-versed in the island's baseball history.
"In the States, we have things like the Area Code Games and all of these things are showcases," Minaya said. "This league is similar. It's an evolution of the teams and trainers coming together. A league like this it brings everybody together, which makes the information better and the evaluations better."
In addition to this week's events, the DPL will take two teams to Arizona and Florida for showcases and games in March and hold another All-Star Workout Day and All-Star Game in May, several weeks before Major League Baseball's international signing period begins on July 2. The league kicked off the year with a round-robin event called the Louisville Slugger Tournament Series.
The long-term plan for the future of the DPL includes education and health initiatives, along with programs designed to help its players manage their finances. Although it is not directly affiliated with Major League Baseball, the DPL does have big league connections. Indians manager Manny Acta and Mark Newman, the senior vice president of baseball operations for the Yankees, sit on the board of directors. The DPL still uses Major League academies for games and practices.
"The DPL is a way to close the gap on the flawed system that exists, and there's a lot of progress being made," Acta said. "Now with these programs they have, they have an opportunity to see the guys a little bit more than run the 60 yards, batting practice and throwing."
The immediate future for Rijo includes more DPL games and dispelling the notion that he is undersized with his performances in games.
He's the first to admit that there is still work to be done, but he appears to be off to a good start. Rijo hit a game-winning single on a full count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to propel the White Team to a 5-4 victory against the Blue Team in Wednesday's All-Star Game.
"All my life, people have been talking about my size and how I'm not big enough to be a prospect but come watch me play," Rijo said. "I play big, like I'm 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3. Come watch me play this game."