Talent ready as international signing period nears
Prospects from Venezuela, Dominican, other nations can sign beginning Monday
It's been nearly two decades since Carlos Guillen signed his first professional contract, but the former big leaguer remembers the day that changed his life like it was yesterday.
It was Sept. 19, 1992. Guillen, then 16, and his father sat nervously in the living room of their Venezuelan home listening to Houston scout Andres Reiner describe the benefits of signing with the Astros. Guillen would get to play the field and he'd never have to pitch again, Reiner said. Players like Guillen's childhood friend Bobby Abreu had already come aboard, Reiner explained, and the deal came with good money, a $7,000 bonus.
Thirty minutes later, a series of handshakes began a journey that ended only four months ago when Guillen retired from the game after 14 years in the Major Leagues.
"You never forget those moments," Guillen said. "I was anxious but Andres was like a father to me so he made it easy. It will always be a special time."
Guillen, who now owns and operates the Carlos Guillen Baseball Academy in his home country, is still living his dream. Only now, the player-turned-trainer is reliving the experience through the eyes of top Venezuelan 16-year old prospects like right-handed pitcher Jose Mujica and outfielder Alexander Palma, who train at his facility and are eyeing professional careers of their own.
Players stateside have the First-Year Player Draft, held sometime during first two weeks of June each year. For the top 16 year-olds on the international market like Mujica and Palma, there is only one date that matters: July 2, the first day of the international signing period.
"These kids have the opportunity to become professional baseball players and that in itself is exciting," said Kim Ng, senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. "It is also a way for clubs to funnel more talent into the systems. Scouting and player development is the way that the clubs are going and the international market has grown and grown. It's a great time for the game."
Like Mujica and Palma, the Dominican Republic's outfielder Gustavo Cabrera and Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto -- the top two players on MLB.com's Top 20 International Prospects List -- are known commodities on the international market and are among the players who have garnered interest from big league clubs.
The status of outfielder Jairo Beras, ranked No. 3, remains in question as Major League Baseball reviews the prospect's documents since the beginning of March to determine his age before the league will approve a deal with the Rangers but other top prospects like infielders Amaurys Minier, Wendell Rijo and Luis Torrens are all expected to come to terms with teams when the signing period begins.
Shortstops Richard Urena and Frandy De La Rosa have also caught the attention of scouts.
It is difficult to determine the final destinations for players, because agreements cannot be finalized until July 2. However, there is speculation that the Blue Jays, Rockies, D-backs, Yankees, Nationals, Cardinals, Rays and some other big-market clubs could be busy signing players next week.
One thing is certain: All teams will operate under new guidelines and nobody is sure how the teams, as well as the trainers, who generally receive a cut of the signing bonuses, will respond to the new rules.
In accordance with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the international system will operate with money pools and penalties for teams that exceed their pools. For the 2012-13 signing period, every team will have the same pool of $2.9 million. Starting in 2013-14, the pools will be based on the prior season's winning percentages, with a range of approximately $1.7 million to $4.8 million.
It's a significant change when one considers the Rangers signed prospect Ronald Guzman for $3.45 million last July, and Nomar Mazara for a record-setting $4.95 million a few hours later.
"We are here to service the clubs and provide opportunities and do things that make sense to the clubs," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "All of the new systems and policies put in place in the negotiations were designed to benefit the game. Whenever you have something like that, you will get support. We are all here to help the game and keep it flourishing.
Guillen is among the group that has taken issue with the new guidelines.
"Personally, I feel it's an injustice because I feel Latin kids are not being paid what similar prospects in the U.S. are making," Guillen said. "Baseball is growing around the world. It's growing in Latin America. There is no guarantee any amateur will make it to the Major Leagues but kids that are drafted in the U.S. make more money to start their careers. I don't like it."
Other changes leading up to Monday have stirred less debate.
Scouting remains paramount on the international market but tryouts are no longer the only way for clubs to evaluate talent. Showcases that feature games and leagues like the Dominican Prospect League (DPL) and International Prospect League (IPL) are becoming commonplace. It's also been a landmark year for MLB in its efforts to develop the game in Latin America.
In February, MLB held the two-day Venezuela-Dominican Republic Showcase, which featured 25 prospects from each country. The prospects displayed their skills in front of more than 200 big league scouts in a series of drills. The teams played a six-inning game on the first day of the event and a doubleheader on the second day.
MLB held similar showcases in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic last year, but February's showcase was the first to combine players from the two countries on the same field.
In March, the league created the MLB Prospect League for players eligible to sign professional contracts on July 2 and for older players who are already eligible. An All-Star team of MLB Prospect League players squared off against the 18-and-under Canadian National Junior Team at the end of league play.
"We have been watching these kids since October and there is a body of work," Araujo said. "As July 2 approaches, you can't help but get excited about them beginning the process of living out their dreams. Fans can follow their careers and start to think about where he fits in and his future. It's fundamental to be able to follow players from an early part of their careers and we are able to create that now."
The latest push dates back to last summer when MLB created a tournament called El Torneo Supremo (The Supreme Tournament).
"One of the great things and most challenging aspects of international work is that it is changing all of the time," Ng said. "People ask, 'What is your ultimate goal?' I don't know the ultimate goal. I will say that in terms of trying to provide more opportunities for scouts to see players in a neutral environment, it is a great accomplishment. What will be I can't tell you. There are endless possibilities. We can expand the league, the frequency of games. There are many things we can do. The most important thing is to see how successful it has been so far and have people understand that MLB has a great presence and we really want to create opportunities."
On Monday, a group of players in Latin America and the Caribbean will get an opportunity that they will never forget and one former ballplayer in Venezuela will get a chance to revisit his youth.
"It's going to be a special moment," Guillen said. "It's the start of their careers. It's a new beginning."