12/02/10 12:24 PM EST
Cubs in search of next Dominican superstar
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
The teen looks like a young Raul Ibanez physically, except in his face, which gives away his age. He has come to the Cubs' academy here for an invitation-only tryout, along with a couple Cuban prospects, including a quick-footed catcher. The players are given Cubs uniforms, and the outfielder wears No. 44. Two men, who are his buscones, or agents, sit on plastic chairs in the shade on the palm tree-lined side of the field to watch and give advice.
There are more players from the Dominican Republic in the Major Leagues than there are from Japan or Venezuela or Puerto Rico. But finding the next superstar on the island is tricky.
"Everybody in the country has a friend or a nephew who can play, or a waiter knows somebody who will be the next Sammy Sosa, the next Manny Ramirez," said Reynaldo Peralta, who is the business administrator for the Cubs' academy.
"They may know [Starlin] Castro -- he grew up in their neighborhood -- and they think, 'Why not my kid?'" Peralta said.
Castro, who is coming off a stellar rookie season in which he hit .300 for the Cubs, was signed by the team's Latin America coordinator, Jose Serra. He had gone to a game to see some players, including the shortstop, whose skill level clearly stood out among the rest. Castro's buscones wanted $60,000; Serra was able to negotiate for $45,000. That's a significant lifestyle raise in a country which relies on sugar cane production and, some would say, ballplayers to survive.
The Cubs have divided the Dominican into four regions and have a scout for each one who reports to Serra, who also oversees the 64 players currently taking part in an instructional league at the academy. Workouts begin at 6:20 a.m. with conditioning, followed by breakfast in the cramped dining room, then early work at 7:30 a.m. They play a game every day, usually against another team nearby (the White Sox, Reds, Orioles, Twins and D-backs are in the complex). The two-story building can sleep 60, but it's tight. There are four bunkbeds in each room. The Cubs' Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez helped acquire the weight room equipment. The two will step up their offseason training and baseball activities at the academy in January to prepare for the season.
The facility is eight years old and already outdated. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has visited the site and was expected back in January, hoping to finalize details to buy land for a new complex that will house 100 players and have a few perks, such as more than one television.
"That's a dream for us, long term," said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs' player development director. "I never dreamed it would be this big."
Serra played for Fleita when he managed in the Orioles' Minor League organization. They think alike.
"He's not my boss," Serra said of Fleita. "He's like my father. He's like another member of my family."
The players train at the academy Monday through Friday, with a game Saturday, then a day off. They get three meals a day, and definitely benefit from regular nourishment. In January, the Cubs will not only provide English classes, which are now part of the afternoon schedule, but also someone to teach the players how to prepare for life in the United States.
"Baseball will continue to be the main part of the program," Serra said, "but they have to know more than 'My name is Joe.' They have to be able to communicate off the field as well as on the field."
For the 16-year-old outfielder, being part of the academy and the Cubs is a dream. He and the other candidates are timed in a 60-yard dash, then do throwing drills, then take batting practice. While hitting, Serra calls out situations -- runner on first, runner on third -- then tells him to swing freely, or libre. If batting practice is any indication, this kid will not only find the gaps at Wrigley Field, but also provide the bleacher fans plenty of souvenirs. He's got some pop.
There's a glitch in the schedule. The Cubs were to play the Pirates, but their opponent is on a bus for an away game. Instead, the Cubs decide to hold an intrasquad game. It's perfect. Now, Fleita, who is in the Dominican as part of a Cubs fans' tour, can see everyone in camp and also have the tryouts play in a game.
Two years ago, the Cubs were the first to see reliever Esmailin Caridad in a tryout after he had returned to the Dominican from playing in Japan. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry happened to be at the academy at that time, watched the right-hander, and signed him.
"That's the most fun part of this job," Fleita said. "You never know what you're going to see."
Serra has been watching the teen outfielder since January. When the game begins, he leads off. The pitcher isn't much help. He feeds the outfielder offspeed pitches, and he eventually flies out to right-center. He strikes out in his next at-bat, is safe on a throwing error the next inning, and then draws the first of two walks. A pinch-runner is inserted at first both times. The Cubs want to see him swing the bat, and the outfielder stays in the batter's box to get another turn. He strikes out both times.
In the field, it's obvious he's spent more time hitting fastballs than catching fly balls. He misjudges two balls in left in the six-inning game, but also makes a nice running catch to his right. He finishes with a single that drops in shallow right.
He probably saw more changeups in his at-bats than ever before. But he hustled, showed good instincts, worked the count, and the sound the ball made coming off his bat in batting practice lingers in the coaching staffs' heads.
The game is over, and Fleita meets briefly with the coaches over a quick lunch of chicken, rice and beans to talk about the prospects. They like the catcher and some feel the outfielder is rough. But the swing is real.
At the White Sox complex across the street, four teams are preparing to play two games as part of the Dominican Prospects League. Buscones place their top players in the DPL, and they play games every Wednesday to give Major League scouts the much-needed opportunity to see the prospects in game situations. The players, mostly 15, 16 and 17 years old, look as if they're part of a well-financed suburban youth league with sparkling clean uniforms.
Among the scouts seated in the shade behind home plate is Pablo Cruz, who once played for the Pirates. He scouted and signed Ramirez, the Cubs' third baseman, when he was 16 years old. Cruz had seen Ramirez in a Little League game. He was a shortstop then, but Cruz switched him to third base.
"He was a little heavy [to play short]," Cruz said, laughing.
Ramirez and Cruz, who is in his 70s and lives in the Dominican, stay in touch. They worked long and hard on Ramirez's hitting; the third baseman still calls when he needs help.
"If I sign a player, I try to be their father," Cruz said.
Now, Cruz's grandson plays on the same Little League team as Ramirez's son, Aramis Jr., known as A.J.
"He runs better than his father," Cruz said, laughing again.
The Cubs tend to avoid signing players from the DPL. The showcase is a great opportunity for many of the Major League teams, but Serra likes his network. The DPL tends to drive up the prices for the players.
Cruz would like to see the Dominican government more involved in sponsoring youth leagues, to take advantage of the talent there, to help develop baseball players. His father was a farmer and raised corn.
"It's the same thing with baseball," Cruz said. "We need to take care of the children. We need to plant them, take care of them. If we take care of the children, we'll be all right."
The Cubs did not want to identify the tryout candidates. They're still deciding, still negotiating. But, who knows? One day, the team may call up a right-handed-hitting Dominican outfielder to the big leagues, who will be able to talk about that day when he first put on a Cubs uniform.
Right now, he needs to grow, just like the sugar cane on the island.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.