One of the most interesting developments in the world of Latin American baseball scouting has to be the emergence of the Dominican Prospect League. I discovered the web site in about February, and to be honest, the organization seems to be doing a lot in terms of raising the standards of scouting and player development in the Dominican Republic.
For those who aren't aware, scouting in the Dominican Republic or any other Latin American country for that matter, comes with a considerable amount of risk. There are benefits to the practice of course. For starters, since players in Latin America aren't exposed to the draft (except Puerto Rican players, who are), teams can establish strong baseball connections and even academies in countries which can give them an inside-edge to the players they want to sign and develop in the minors. Furthermore, players from Latin America can sign as early as 16-years-old, so that gives organizations lots of time to expose these raw athletes to instruction and professional playing time. Lastly, while some players command large signing bonuses, for the most part, the prices on Latin American players vary, and organizations can acquire maybe three to four athletic (but raw) players for the price that a first or supplemental round pick would cost in the Rule 4 draft.
However, there still remains glaring negatives to scouting and signing players from Latin America. As with the recent example of Fausto Carmona (who is now Roberto Hernandez Heredia), identity issues are a huge problem in Latin America. Because of shaky governments and infrastructure, birth records are very spotty in most Latin countries, and it has been common place for players and their managers to lie about their name, age and identity in order to acquire larger signing bonuses (after all, a 16 year old player is going to command a bigger bonus than an 18 year old because that 16 year old has two more years of development). The Giants have fallen victim to this a couple of times as well, with the biggest example being former top pitching prospect Merkin Valdez, who originally went by the name Manny Mateo when he was in the Braves' system. However, the Mateo name was false, and Valdez actually was a couple of years older than his stated age (the Giants still kept him in their system though despite the false claims).
While the identity issues have been a big concern, another problem with prospects signing from Latin America has been their struggles with issues back home. Of course, as a baseball fan and human being, one has to feel for their situation, and understands the pressure that they probably feel with so many people relying on them back home for money and support (if you haven't watched the movie "Sugar," you should; it will give you a good perspective of the challenges for these Latin prospects). That being said, sometimes the influences go beyond them sending home money that they should be saving for themselves. As Angel Villalona and Alfredo Simon have showed in the past couple of years, their huge statuses as baseball players in their home countries have gotten them into legal trouble as well. Both Villalona and Simon were involved in murder cases in the past couple of years. While Simon has still remained stateside, Villalona has been stuck in the DR, unable to reacquire a visa.
But, probably the biggest reason why a lot of teams don't invest too heavily in Latin America is simply the fact that the prospects are either huge booms or busts. After all, it's hard to project how a player will develop at 16 years old. Will he get stronger? Will he be able to handle a professional environment? Can he handle the language and cultural transition? Will he be able to handle the pressure of being paid six figures or more as a teenager? There are so many risk factors that are working against these prospects before they even pitch a single inning or take a professional at-bats.
Hence, that is why I don't understand why Major League Baseball wants to regulate scouting in Latin America. It is such a huge risk to begin with, and I believe that risk downgrades any kind of upside any Big Market team (Red Sox, Yankees) would have in terms of "dominating" a certain Latin area. Sure, they may dominate and be able to outspend on players in comparison to other organizations, but considering the success rate of players and their high volatility, is scouting in Latin America any better in terms of building a successful organization than the draft or spending on Free Agents? Probably not. If a team wants to spend their money in Latin American scouting, they should be free to do so as much as possible. However, their spending will also be hurt in another area, which likely will be in the draft or free agency, so that will balance things out for other teams who may get outspent in Latin America. They can have their advantage in the draft or in free agency in terms of building a competitive team.
But, back to the DPL, from what it seems like, this seems to be a great resource and organization not just for the prospects in the DR, but scouts as well. First off, we have seen what the "travel" circuit is like for high school amateurs, and it seems like the DPL is trying to replicate that: the DPL consists of teams with the "top" talent 18 and under in the DR and they not only play games against one another in "showcases" for scouts in the DR, but they also travel around Latin America and even to the states to participate in showcases against American high school competition. The whole spirit of the DPL "showcases" seems to be similar to what we see from events like the "Area Code" games, which only increases the profiles of these Latin prospects, while also giving more scouts more viewing time of these prospects in action.
So far, the DPL has been very successful in terms of getting their players signed to good bonuses. Texas Rangers first base/outfielder prospect, Ronald Guzman, signed a $3.5 million signing bonus last Winter. Adalberto Mondesi, the son of Raul Mondesi, is a shortstop whom the Royals signed for $2 million. And the Jays and international director of scouting Marco Paddy have really been active with the DPL as they have signed prospects such as shortstops Dawel Lugo (who signed for $1.3 million) and Ronniel Demorizi (who signed for $105,000). Guzman, Mondesi and Lugo were all ranked in the Top 20 of the Minor League Baseball Analysts' 2011-2012 Top International Prospects list.
As for the Giants, they have already established connections with the DPL, as they signed outfielder Carlos Valdez last Winter to a $325,000 signing bonus. Valdez is a five-tool type of player who has a solid, athletic frame, but still a lot of room for development. Thanks to the DPL, there is ample video and information on Valdez via their Web site, which makes it a lot easier for me and other Giants fans to get excited about Valdez's potential.
So what do I think about the Dominican Prospect League overall? To be honest, I think this is really good for baseball in Latin America, and I'm hoping more and more countries follow suit (Venezuela seems like the next destination for another organization like this one). It allows more exposure to these talented Latin prospects who often go under the radar and unrecognized until they hit the mid minors. Furthermore, for people who are really into prospects (such as me), the DPL also gives us an idea of who to be watching out for in the Dominican Summer League as well as other Rookie Leagues. It still doesn't compare to the exposure high school and college prospects get here in the states (thanks to sites like Perfect Game), but it is a heck of a lot better than what we were getting a few years ago before the DPL was really established.
The only negative I think we could see is for organizations, as the increased hype and visibility of these prospects will only result in higher signing bonuses for these players. With more videos on profiles out there on these prospects, courtesy of the DPL, more and more organizations will be exposed to these prospects which will increase the competition when it comes to bidding for their playing rights. Before the DPL, it would mostly be one team scouting a player, and thus, they would have a lot of control when it came to the negotiation of signing bonuses (e.g. "Nobody else knows about you, so you have to play for our price or don't play at all." method). Now, with the DPL showcases, site and videos on these prospects, players and their managers will have a lot more freedom in the negotiation process. Teams who scout a player more will have more leverage of course (a player is likely to sign with a team that scouts them the most and shows the most interest), but they won't have that complete or absolute leverage like before.
It will be interesting to see how the DPL continues to develop as the years progress. Without a doubt, how their alums pan out as professionals will be the biggest factor in terms of whether the DPL continues to develop or starts to fade. If the success rate of players who played in the DPL is high, undoubtedly the organization will gain more reputability, which only mean more talent coming their way, as well as higher signing bonuses for their prospects. If the the success rate is low, the organization could take a hit, and all the exposure will undoubtedly fade when teams start to pull their checkbooks away from their players. (I mean, who would want to spend on players from an organization that doesn't produce successful Major Leaguers?) So, these next five years will be crucial, and the progress of top DPL alums like Guzman, Mondesi and Lugo could boost or hinder the viability of the organization for the future.
Nonetheless, I really love the idea of the DPL and I think it's going to be setting in motion a lot of good things for prospects and scouts in Latin America. There are a lot of talented players in Latin America and the more talent teams (and especially the Giants, who have been very active in Latin America the past seven or so years) acquire from this area, the better baseball will be here, both internationally and domestically.