Anybody who cares about the world of baseball outside of the U.S. has read the work of Ben Badler. Baseball America’s international expert has done more to bring clarity and understanding to formerly obscure corners of the baseball universe than any other writer.
Ben was covering Shohei Otani when he was in High School and has been following the career of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for a half decade already. Ben’s work is must-read material for anybody who cares about the future of baseball. And it’s a great privilege to have him join us today for a chat on the Giants’ international arena of development.
MCC: The international arena is many ways the most obscure area of amateur scouting and development for a whole host of reasons. I wonder if we can start with some broad context questions. I suspect most fans have some very basic understanding of how amateur baseball works in the US -- Little League, travel teams, showcase circuit, high school ball, etc. In broad strokes, what is the world of youth baseball like for kids in, say, the Dominican Republic? How are they trained, how are they spotted, etc.? Aside from signing at least two critical years earlier, what are the major differences between scouting international players and domestic players?
BB: There’s a vast ecosystem that has developed to identify, develop and then ultimately get players from the Dominican Republic signed with major league teams. Like you said, youth baseball in the Dominican Republic is different than in the United States. You do have some kids who grow up playing organized baseball as little kids, but a lot of them do not. A lot of times, a lower-level coach or trainer will identify a player in his little league or his area who might be eventually become a prospect of interest to major league teams. But that person might not have the skills or resources to spend years training and developing him, and to then show him to major league teams and negotiate his contract. So he will contact a bigger trainer with more resources (basically, someone whose name or nickname you’re used to seeing in Baseball America) to come see his player. From there, the player might join the program of that higher-level trainer. That would typically happen around 14 or 13 years old, but with the increasing speed of the international market where kids are committing to teams sometimes at 14 years old, now trainers are bringing kids into their programs even younger to make sure they have enough time to develop them and get them ready to showcase and sign. The trainers in many cases take care of basically everything for the players—equipment, coaching, contract negotiation, food, travel, sometimes housing and a lot of other expenses that come up along the process for the player and sometimes his family as well.
MCC: For most MLB organizations, how closely connected are the domestic and international scouting/development departments? How much oversight does a FO [Front Office] extend over the international groups?
BB: In general, teams have a scouting director in the U.S. whose job is to oversee the draft and manage all of the team’s amateur scouts in that country. Then they have an international scouting director running his own department of scouts spread across the world, primarily in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and they’re responsible for international signings. For the most part, the domestic and international scouting departments operate independently. A club might send a scout who isn’t specifically an international scout—such as a scouting director or a pro scout—for an occasional scouting trip to the Dominican Republic, or to an international scouting event in the United States like when the Dominican Prospect League comes to Chicago or Florida.
The amount of front office oversight and influence from those above the international director level varies by organization. Some oversight and influence is a good thing. You want staff development. You want your scouts to keep up to date with the latest trends and information in the game. You want your front office to help make sure your decision-making process is sound and thorough both domestically and internationally. And with all the new data available to teams now through things like bat sensors, Trackman, Flightscope or even just video, there’s a lot of information to manage, so having people in the front office who can support the international decision-makers better incorporate that data into their process can be helpful.
But you also want to have an international scouting director you trust and give him the autonomy to make decisions. Sometimes that’s from the owner. Look at the Orioles. I know one club that for a while wasn’t able to sign anyone for more than $100,000 until higher-ups above the international scouting director saw the player. That’s a great way to miss out on players. Then you also have situations where high-ranking, influential club officials—be it a vice president of scouting, assistant GM, a special assistant, someone like that—who isn’t heavily involved in international scouting but wants to put his stamp on international signings and makes bad decisions based on limited looks at a player. I remember one time speaking to a trainer of a player who was about to sign for a fairly significant bonus.
The trainer was in disbelief. He said: Ben, I can’t believe they signed this guy. He can’t hit a breaking ball. At all. But one of the top front-office guys from this team came in, saw him have the day of his life, he hammered a bunch of fastballs, this guy had the authority so he offered a bunch of money and we got the deal done there. I don’t understand what they’re doing.
It turned out, the trainer who worked with this kid basically every day for two or three years knew him a little better than the front office guy who saw him and got overexcited and overconfident in his quick look at the player. That one has always stuck out to me, but I’ve heard of other examples of this type of thing happening in other organizations, and I think it’s a too common area where front offices make mistakes and get in their own way. Oversight is important, but find an international scouting director you trust, give him the money he needs, give him the support to help him do his job, but at the end of the day, let him be in charge of making signing decisions.
MCC: And then, just to give us some perspective, what is your view of how well the Giants have utilized their international development department lately? From one fans’ POV, it doesn’t seem like they’ve done a great job getting talent out of that theatre over this century, but I don’t have a great feel for what an “average” teams international development would look like?
BB: I think it’s getting better. Over the last decade, they missed on a lot of position players they gave big money and have struggled just in general to produce Latin American position prospects. They did sign a lot of promising Latin American pitching prospects for cheap prices, many of whom are no longer with the organization. To me, that’s a signal of a team that has scouts on the ground who work hard. Scouting is some combination of skill and luck, but you can maximize your opportunities to be lucky if you’re out at more games and more workouts than your competition. I think that’s especially true for arms, given the history and nature of young international pitching prospects. The last few years I think it’s hard to judge much of what the Giants did because they were in the penalty in 2016 and 2017, but I’m a big fan of their 2018 class.
MCC: And lastly (on the context issues), a couple of years ago the Giants opened a new, state-of-the-art facility in the DR (the Felipe Alou Academy), which Club VP Brian Sabean said was an overdo measure to try to catch up to some of their competition in the area. What are the real world impacts of improving facilities in that DSL? Are there competitive advantages that can be gained from this sort of upgrade?
BB: Until MLB just recently changed this rule, teams were not even allowed to have a player at their facilities until the player turned 16 or was within six months of becoming eligible to sign. So, facilities were basically useless when it came to evaluating or recruiting top prospects. Facilities can help to a small degree in recruiting players, but really money is the biggest factor there. The biggest impact they make is on development. The good ones have better food, better weight room, better medical and recovery equipment for team trainers, better dorms for players to be comfortable to rest and recover. The bad ones don’t have air conditioning. The internet always breaks. This creates more headaches for your development staff. There are a lot of these little things that in isolation seem small, but those small things compound over time.
MCC: On to players! You have a decently long history of watching the Giants’ biggest signing from this year’s J2 class — Marco Luciano. Can you tell us a little bit of your history with Luciano — how long you’ve been watching him, how long ago he caught your eye etc — and what your overall impressions of him are?
BB: I first saw Luciano when he was 15 years old at a Dominican Prospect League event in San Cristobal in January 2017, so it was 18 months out from him being eligible to sign. He had an athletic frame, a sound swing and he hit well in the game I saw that day. Since then I was able to see him a few more times. The biggest showcase for him came with the DPL in Illinois, where he and Noelvi Marte (who signed with the Mariners) stuck out as the two best players at the event, with Luciano putting on a huge show in BP with over-the-fence power to all fields and he performed well in games as well. I saw him again in the fall at the MLB Dominican national showcase in San Pedro de Macoris.
Then on that same trip, I watched him play in a National Prospect League game with his trainer’s team in Santo Domingo. He hit an opposite-field home run in that game; it was pretty incredible to see a 16-year-old kid swinging a wood bat go oppo in a game like that. The last in-person look I got on Luciano was in February, when he participated in the MLB international showcase in Santo Domingo. When it came time to rank the 2018 class, after putting Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa at No. 1, I went back and forth between Luciano and Venezuelan catcher Diego Cartaya (who signed with the Dodgers) as the top 16-year-old class and ultimately went with Luciano at No. 2 and Cartaya at 3. I’m a big fan of Luciano. It’s a powerful, explosive swing with good balance, good path that generates such easy power. Given the way he’s built, I think that power is only going to tick up over the next few years. He’s fairly athletic too, and while there are questions about whether he stays at shortstop or ends up going to third base or possibly right field, he always fielded his position cleanly when I saw him at shortstop. If everything clicks, it’s a potential middle-of-the-order bat.
MCC: There have been a lot of really elite prospects who’ve moved very quickly out of the IFA market the last few years. Without overloading Luciano with the burden of expectations, what tier of recent prospects do you think he might equate to?
BB: The track record of players ranked as Baseball America top five international prospects in a given class is very strong. That’s not because I’m all that bright. It’s because these are the players who stick out as the consensus top players in the industry. Now I don’t think Luciano is as polished as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Wander Franco, who were the top 16-year-old international prospects in our 2015 and 2017 rankings and are going bananas in the minors right now. But Luciano definitely fits in among the top tier of prospects in any year. He’s a big get for the Giants.
MCC: The last time we talked, you told me you were also a pretty big fan of Jairo Pomares. Tell us a little about his background and what you like about him?
BB: Pomares was one of the very few players ranked in our Top 50 international prospects who I didn’t get the opportunity to see myself in person, just on video. But the core of our rankings and reports are based on conversations with scouts who are seeing these players throughout the year and can build more significant history on them. The feedback I kept getting on Pomares was positive, especially on his bat. I consistently heard good things about his swing (you can probably see why on the video we have) and about his ability to hit in games, which matches his track record in the Cuban junior leagues. I’m curious to see how he looks defensively next year because there was a split opinion on whether he would end up in center field or a corner, but he has a lot of promising attributes as a hitter.
MCC: Would you imagine that both Luciano and Pomares skip the DSL and debut in the AZL next summer?
BB: Each organization does it a little differently with their first-year assignments for international signings. Some have a blanket policy of starting everyone in the DSL. Others want to push their top signings as fast as possible and always skip them over the DSL because they think it will expedite their development. Then from a practical standpoint, the DSL starts earlier than the AZL, so some clubs will have their July 2 signings open in the DSL, then come over to the AZL once it begins just to get them more at-bats. With Cuban players, they have a separate issue. Many of them stay in the DSL their first year strictly so that when they get paid, they get paid in the Dominican Republic and won’t be subject to U.S. income tax, which saves them a substantial amount of money. Based on talent, yes, I think both Luciano and Pomares are ready to go to the AZL next year. But a lot of other factors go into those decisions.
[MCC note: The Giants have some mixed history here, but by and large they have sent million dollar international signings straight to US leagues. Though the ill-fated Gustavo Cabrera was an exception, Angel Villalona, Rafael Rodriguez, and Lucius Fox, all made their pro debuts in the US. I would expect Luciano, at least, will follow that route].
MCC: The last of the big $$ signings for the Giants was the OF Luis Matos. How does he compare to Pomares in your opinion?
BB: Scouts who liked Matos liked his hitting ability. I did hear from a lot of scouts who said he consistently performed well when they saw him in games. But for me, he’s definitely a tier or two below Pomares.
MCC: J2 signings don’t make their pro debut until the following season, but while they’re waiting for things to begin officially, there’s the Tricky League. Can you give us a brief history of the Tricky League?
BB: Like you said, these kids sign on July 2, but they can’t play in the DSL right away. So teams have instructional league in the U.S., Dominican instructional league and some type of winter development program, but they want to get these kids into games as soon they can (especially when we’re talking about five-plus years ago, when a lot of kids were not playing in regular games as amateurs). So teams work together to have a very loose, informal league called the Tricky League, where their July 2 signings play games against each other. It’s for development but also for scouting as well, since teams will bring in amateur players to participate as well and evaluate them in game action. I think it’s especially helpful to have the Tricky League now because these players are reaching agreements to sign so early, at which point a lot of them basically shut it down from playing games for 12 to 18 months (sometimes even longer), or at least have very limited game exposure in that time. It’s not good. So teams can use the Tricky League to get these kids back to playing in games again.
MCC: In the DSL, Luis Toribio was one of the star performers for the Giants’ team and made Baseball America’s Classification All Star team for the DSL. What can you tell us about Toribio’s debut?
BB: Toribio had a great debut for the Giants. The Giants really liked Toribio’s offensive ability as an amateur, but for him to show that much home run power already in the DSL is impressive and surprising given that he wasn’t a big power hitter when they signed him. There’s a lot to be encouraged about from him at the plate.
MCC: And lastly, moving over to the US camp for a moment: how do you interpret Alexander Canario’s domestic debut? He was bad, then he was very good, and then he wasn’t so good again, all the while piling up a lot of strikeouts. What are we to make of this year in Canario’s development?
BB: I’m not sure. I had a lot of positive reports on Canario last year in the DSL and coming into the season, but he did have a very up-and-down year in the AZL. I do think he’s a better hitter than the overall numbers might indicate, and he showed it in spurts, but I thought he would have better overall numbers than he ended up with. I still like him a lot though; that bat speed, power, athleticism, speed and arm strength are all there, and I think the attributes are there for him to be a good hitter.
Again, we can’t thank Ben enough for taking the time to join us and talk some international ball. If you’re not already following @BenBadler then you need to get over to Twitter and hit the follow button now. I would also highly recommend a Baseball America subscription to those who have the wherewithal — their work is still the gold standard of prospect news.