Jays make aggressive play for Latin players

September 24, 2010, 3:30 PM

THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays once ruled in Latin America, using their people and resources to regularly sign or trade for the best and brightest the talent-rich region had to offer.

Players like Alfredo Griffin, Tony Fernandez, George Bell, Damaso Garcia and Manny Lee were key pieces in the foundation of the franchise’s glory years, with Roberto Alomar, Juan Guzman, Carlos Delgado and Alex Rios, among others, picking up from them down the road.

It was a remarkably productive pipeline, one that was pivotal in the Blue Jays’ transformation from lowly expansion club to back-to-back World Series champion. But that critical connection was severed during the eight-year regime of former general manager J.P. Ricciardi, primarily for financial reasons.

Now, in a return to the organization’s roots, successor Alex Anthopoulos and president Paul Beeston have made it a priority to re-establish the link. And they’ve been aggressive in making it happen.

“It was clearly one of our core strategies to be big in Latin America right from 1977 right until the time that I left (in 1997),” says Beeston. “There was just a different philosophy that was being used by the previous regime and we kind of moved back to looking at players around the world and believing that we have to stockpile our organization.”

The decision to withdraw from Latin America under Ricciardi was driven by the lack of resources that plagued the club during the start of his reign. There is no substitute for connections, relationships and deep, deep pockets in baseball’s wild west, and with tight restraints on his budget, he chose to save his bullets for the draft, focusing on lower-risk picks that better control costs and don’t take as long to develop in the minors.

For a team on a budget it was a defensible approach, but it essentially shut off its access to the world’s most significant talent pool outside North America. Competing against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East, that simply wasn’t going to work.

Consider that under Ricciardi’s watch, the division Goliaths incorporated or used as trade chips such players as Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Melky Cabrera and Jose Tabata. Over the same time period, the Blue Jays didn’t produce a single big-leaguer signed and developed from Latin America, and the only legitimate prospect from the area remaining from his time is pitcher Henderson Alvarez, a Venezuelan signed in 2006 who pitched at single-A Dunedin this season.

That gap illustrates itself at the big-league level. Opening day rosters across the majors featured 195 Latin Americans, or 23.4 per cent of the 833 players in the majors, with the Blue Jays featuring just five of them, all obtained from outside the organization. They’ll close out the year with four, including home run leader Jose Bautista, acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh in 2008.

Work on restoring the Blue Jays name in a place they once dominated quietly began in the middle of last year, with Beeston back on board — before Ricciardi was fired — and really got going shortly after Anthopoulos was promoted last September.

Assistant GM Tony LaCava and director of Latin America operations Marco Paddy were tasked with laying the foundation for a complex and multi-faceted program that will dramatically alter the organization from top to bottom — and avoiding the many potential pitfalls that could derail its success.

Beeston put his faith in Anthopoulos and won him both the backing of ownership at Rogers Communications Inc., and the money to deliver.

The first fruits of their labour appeared in the spring when the Blue Jays were surprise finalists in the bidding for Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, and again soon after when they landed compatriot Adeiny Hechavarria for US$10 million, a shortstop the New York Yankees were also after.

They then ruffled feathers in July with the signings of two Venezuelan teenagers: pitcher Adonis Cardona for a record $2.8 million, and third baseman Gabriel Cenas for $700,000.

“In the past we didn’t have the resources to do it, not to this degree,” says LaCava. “We want to compete for players all over the world, and there isn’t anybody that’s not in play for us and that starts from the top.

“The one thing we haven’t done yet — and next year we’re making an even bigger commitment — is we’re going to add significantly to the staffing in Latin America. As much as we did with the (scout) staffing here, we’re going to try to the same type of stuff there and get more people on the ground, more eyes on the players. We’ve got a chance to take it to another level.”

There is a perception that any team can go to Latin America, open up a chequebook and dig up the next Miguel Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, Johan Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez.

If only it were that simple.

“That’s pretty naive,” says Paddy. “For a lot of reasons.”

A 43-year-old native of Panama who was lured over to the Blue Jays in September 2006 to head up their Latin America operations, Paddy had to punch above his weight until Anthopoulos took over. It didn’t matter how good a network he had, or how strong a relationship he built, without the money to back it up, he had no shot at the area’s best and brightest.

“It’s a very, very limited chance of getting the player (without big money),” says Paddy. “That’s important — people have to recognize that you’re aggressive, you have to be very visible and you have to do a good job with the players you have signed because they go home and spread the word.

“It’s important to keep that presence, people know who we are, people know that we want to sign players, people know that we take care of our players.”

The vast majority of Latin players in the Blue Jays farm system now were signed once Paddy took over. He maintained most of what little staff they had in place upon his arrival, and slowly worked to build up the network.

Evaluating players in the region is far tougher than rating North Americans, as Latin kids rarely play organized games in leagues with coaching and strategy. Most are seen playing streetball under the guidance of buscones, or trainers, who also serve as agents in negotiations.

The brightest prospects first become available once they turn 16 and reach eligibility for the international signing period, which begins July 2. Others who go unsigned are fair game once they turn 17. Sometimes, a scout might get only a couple of looks at a player before a decision needs to be made and there are significant risks.

Age manipulation and the use of performance-enhancing drugs are not uncommon, so doing your homework is paramount.

“In the States you can watch them play multiple times, you can see batting practice, you can see workouts, you get to interact with the player, you see him in game-type situations, you see him in good, medium and fair competition,” says Paddy. “Over there, very seldom do they play games, and the distinctive part of Latin America, you can’t sit there and go through a process.

“If a kid is 17 and you really like him and he’s got ability and you’ve got a chance to sign him, you better pull the trigger because if you don’t someone else will. It’s an open market, you can come in and bid 30 minutes after I did, offer $5,000 more, and get the player for that difference.”

That’s why the work evaluating Latin players really starts when they are 14 or 15 and involves getting to know their families, their background, their goals, their dreams. Is money the main factor? Is the player interested in education? Every piece of info can help close the deal.

“It all starts with me when I come into the players’ homes and they understand that there is someone that cares of their kids, and will do whatever it takes that not only is his development in place, but he’s taken care of,” says Paddy.

“In most cases money dictates if you’re going to get that player or not, but in some cases your reputation, what you’ve done with other kids play a big role.”

The Blue Jays began looking for a new academy in the Dominican Republic early last year and moved in this past spring. Put up by a private builder and leased by the club, it is state of the art in every way, and among the top-five such facilities in the region.

It is there that the vast majority of Latin American players the Blue Jays will sign in the coming months and years will get their feet wet in professional baseball, and start the process of getting ready for the move to North America.

Thirty-five players, seven coaches, a strength and conditioning guru and a trainer call it home. It’s a base for building the future.

“In most cases, these kids live better there than they do at home,” says Paddy.

There are three programs the players can go through over the course of the season, two instructional leagues and a Dominican Summer League. During down time, they take classes in English and personal and cultural development.

Those who choose to can continue their education. Seven players currently at the academy take weekend classes aiming to complete their high-school degrees.

“You’re building baseball players but you have to get these kids prepared for when they come to the States, for when they start moving up the organization,” says Paddy. “We’re firm believers that you can’t change a person’s culture. But you can help them adopt new things once they come to the States.”

Few of them will ever reach the majors, but many will play in the minors. At the start of this season, 3,370 of the 7,026 minor-leaguers under contract — or 48 per cent — were born outside the U.S., the vast majority from Latin America.

While the work of the academy will go a long way toward putting the Blue Jays’ prospects in a position to succeed, it will be up to the coaches on the other side to pick up the ball and continue the growth.

Right now, the Blue Jays have Jeff Roemer, their Latin America operations assistant, and Gulf Coast League hitting coach Danny Solano acting as cultural facilitators of sorts, helping the team’s Latin players with all their needs.

They are also looking at adding Latin coaches at each of their low-level minor-league affiliates, something Bautista and many others feel is crucial.

“You need to have the proper people in place that actually want to do what they’re doing for the right reasons, that is to develop baseball players, not just to have a job or to find their way into the business or climb up the ladder,” says Bautista. “You need to find someone who really wants to help the player who is going into the shock of changing his life and career.”

Players aren’t the only ones who can use the guidance. American coaches need it, too.

“You really need help when you’re trying to get them in the cages or you’re trying to get them to do something,” says Dwayne Murphy, the Blue Jays hitting coach. “A lot of times they acknowledge you Yes, yes, yes,’ and they really don’t understand what you’re saying, so to me it’s important that you have somebody around that can reiterate what you’re talking about to help them.”

The goal is to have such people in place only in the lower levels of the minors, so that once the player begins advancing, the crutches are removed and they grow more independent. The handling of Adeiny Hechavarria is an example of that, as he got his feet wet in single-A Dunedin, Fla., and once he began adjusting to life in North America, he was bumped up to double-A New Hampshire where baseball became more of the focus.

The entire process remains a work in progress, one that will get lots of attention this off-season. Anthopoulos has been putting the entire Blue Jays franchise through tremendous change, and Latin America’s turn is coming.

“We have some things in place now, but we’re not done,” says Anthopoulos. “We’ve made some fundamental changes but we’re not anywhere close to where we want to be or need to be. I think it’s going to take a few years to really get the program set up the way we want to.”

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