The Pirates' Dominican Academy, which opened in 2008.

Are the Pirates the Top Team in Latin America?

The Pittsburgh Pirates will enter the 2014 season with Starling Marte as their starting left-fielder. By mid-season, Gregory Polanco could join the team as the starting right-fielder. Alen Hanson and Joely Rodriguez are both slated to begin the 2014 season in Altoona, and both could arrive in the majors as early as mid-2015. All four players were signed out of the Dominican Republic. The total cost for all four players was under $400,000, which is less than one league minimum player in the majors.

It’s hard to believe that not too long ago the Pirates had almost no focus in the Dominican Republic. On Wednesday afternoon, Pirates owner Bob Nutting referred to the old program as “inadequate”, referring not only to the facility, but also to the commitment in scouting and signing bonuses in the area.

“We’ve completely refocused, and I believe we have the premiere program in Latin America now,” Nutting said.

The Pirates' Dominican Academy, which opened in 2008.

The Pirates’ Dominican Academy, which opened in 2008.

It all started when Nutting invested $5 M in the Dominican Academy, which immediately became a model for other teams when they were building their own academy.

“There’s a number of facilities down there — and in my talking after going down there, reaching out — there’s a number of people who have recreated the facility that we have as they’ve went and toured all of these to build their own,” Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle said. “We seem to be on the cutting edge in front of the line as far as what people want.”

The facility in the Dominican is very similar to Pirate City. There is a school for all of the players that focuses on the personal and educational side, and there is a staff that focuses on the development and strengthening of each player. One of the most successful aspects of the Dominican Academy so far has been the ability for the Pirates to sign small kids, and put them through a program to add weight and muscle to help bring out their abilities. We’re starting to see prime evidence of that with Gregory Polanco, who was just a tall, skinny, and somewhat awkward kid when he was signed, and is now very muscular and about as well rounded of a prospect as you could ask for.

Hurdle went down to the Dominican for five days over the winter and toured the facility. He came away impressed not only with the facility, but even with the staff working at the facility.

“I was so impressed by the five days we spent down there,” Hurdle said. “The passion the people that work for us have. The people at the cafeteria. The people that work the grounds. The clubhouse staff. And then to watch the players come in and embrace this opportunity and get competitive. We’re getting better players. You’re seeing some of those players, this is another wave coming up that have gone through our academy, graduated through our academy.”

One of the big reasons for success in the Dominican has been the ability to add muscle to skinny players, using weight rooms like the one pictured.

One of the big reasons for success in the Dominican has been the ability to add muscle to skinny players, using weight rooms like the one pictured.

That passion should be there. It should have always been there. This is Roberto Clemente’s organization. Over 40 years after his tragic passing, he’s still an icon in Latin America. He’s what every player aspires to become. The fact that the Pirates let that advantage and let their mark on Latin America slip away, even for a short time, can only be described as shameful. But they’re starting to get all of that back now.

“I’ve heard from guys in Puerto Rico, I’ve heard from guys who went to Mexico, I’ve heard from guys that went to Venezuela with all of the Latin ties that the Pirates used to have, those are being re-created and re-ignited as well,” Hurdle said, noting that this was especially the case in the Dominican.

But it’s not just about building an academy. You need players to put in that academy. You need a commitment to spending at the international level, and you need good scouts who can find good players, especially when the Pirates can’t afford to out-bid other teams for their top guys. One of the first things Neal Huntington did when he took over was increase the annual budget to around $3 M. The team went over that on some occasions, usually when signing special players, such as the $3 M they spent on Luis Heredia, or the $1.05 M they spent on Harold Ramirez.

“The other piece that makes the Dominican Academy really work effectively is the people and the support team that we have,” Nutting said, citing Rene Gayo’s work and the commitment to development down in the Dominican. Hurdle also mentioned the work that Gayo and his scouts have done.

“Rene Gayo and then the other scouts that have been involved in that program have done a professional job and we’re making waves,” Hurdle said. “There’s no doubt we’re creating waves within our organization by the guys that are now moved up.”

Gayo and his crew have done an outstanding job finding talented players without having to pay big dollars for that talent. Aside from the four players who are currently in big league camp, there have been other success stories. Harold Ramirez is a consensus choice as one of the top ten prospects in the system. Michael De La Cruz is being picked as one of the next international breakout prospects. Those two cost more than guys like Polanco, with Ramirez costing $1.05 M and De La Cruz coming in at $700,000. But those are much less than some of the top bonuses in the Dominican, and those two cases in particular are cases where the Pirates saw talent and value where other teams saw a player that wasn’t worth the money. Now? More people are seeing what the Pirates originally saw.

The Pirates clearly have a good program in the Dominican Republic, both in their acquisition of players, and their academy. All you need to do to see this is look at guys like Marte, Polanco, Hanson, and Rodriguez making their way through the system. However, Bob Nutting saying the Pirates have the premiere program comes with an asterisk, just like Clint Hurdle saying the Pirates are on the cutting edge in front of the line for what people want from a Dominican Academy. Those statements might be true, they might be close to being true, but you really need to hear from someone outside of the organization. So I turned to Ben Badler of Baseball America, who in my opinion is the go-to objective source for international prospects.

I asked Ben about the comments that Nutting made about the Pirates being the premiere program in Latin America to get his thoughts on the subject.

The Pirates have been one of baseball’s elite teams in Latin America over the last several years. They have one young rising star in Starling Marte who’s already done it in the big leagues, and another in Gregory Polanco who should join him this year and has an even higher ceiling. Not many teams can match that 1-2 punch of premium, impact talent from their international program, but there’s depth beyond them at all levels from a variety of countries, whether it’s Alen Hanson, Harold Ramirez, Luis Heredia or Michael de la Cruz, among others, plus Dilson Herrera, who was used to bring in Marlon Byrd from the Mets last year. You can debate whether they’re the No. 1 team in Latin America, but it’s clear they’re among the top five teams in Latin America based on the players they’ve signed in the last several years.
I also asked Ben about Hurdle’s comments on the quality of the Dominican academy, and whether other teams use it as a guide.
They made a serious commitment with their Dominican academy, and other teams do mention it as one of the best on the island. There is a wide level of variance in the quality of MLB teams’ academies in the Dominican Republic, but the relatively newer ones like the Pirates, Padres and some other clubs have are all considered to be first-rate facilities by everyone I talk to who has been to them. Ultimately what matters is signing the best players, but one of the major aspects of developing players, especially international ones, is taking away any off-field distractions or impediments that could take away from a player’s performance and development on the field. Having a top-shelf academy in the Dominican Republic for players to live and play can certainly help in that regard.
So even outside the organization, the Pirates are seen as one of the top programs in Latin America, with one of the best academies. That’s a huge leap from where they were about six years ago. And if the payoff is a wave of talent led by guys like Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, then the money spent on the Dominican academy and all of the money poured in to Latin America over the last six years has been worth every penny.
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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Possum

    Your next mission Mr. Williams is to go to the Dominican Academy and learn as much as you can about how it works, how the players respond to being there and what the Bucs are looking for in players they can sign and any other info you find relevant. By the way, take Mr. Drekker with you as I think he could use a couple days in the sun after the winter in N.J.

    This tape will self destruct in 5 seconds.

  • honusty

    Tim, Do the Pirates have any interest in Aledmys Diaz?

  • piraddict

    The Pirates should duplicate their Dominican facility in Australia where it could serve to develop top Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese talent in addition to Australians. Why pay top dollar to the Japanese leagues for developed talent if you can circumvent them by signing and developing young Asian or Australian talent directly? The amount of money that is spent n the developmental system is yet uncontrolled by MLB, unlike the money allocated directly to contracts. So the best way to beat the rest of the league is to be the first in to new mrkets and establish dominate position. I have previously suggested Colombia or Panama as potential expansion areas. And those are still valid. But Australia / Asia would be truly breaking new ground and might offer the greatest incremental return on investment.

    • Will Conner

      Forget Australia, Korea, Taiwan, and young Japanese talent. If you want something truly ground breaking, you set up the academy in India. I spent almost two and a half of the last four years living in India on the behalf of BNY Mellon and can tell you this is a country that could produce some top level talent. They are already learning the hand/eye coordination by playing cricket in the streets. Around six or seven every evening, the streets are no longer safe for motorists because they are likely to see their car hit by a cricket ball. Want to go to the park? Better keep your head on a swivel or you’ll get hit with a ball that some kid just blasted. Believe it or not, some of the kids actually recognized my Pittsburgh Pirates hat due to the million dollar arm signing. The country is a hot bed of talent waiting to be tapped… also think of all that extra revenue down the road when you have a country of a billion people following your team.

    • Ian Rothermund

      I like that idea a lot. My one comment would be that, regardless of how much they expand into different markets, as long as there’s a cap on international signing bonuses, that would equate to a lot more money going out while receiving the same amount of product. I believe that’s the law of diminishing returns. That being said, the cap on amateur acquisition costs is a joke whenever there’s no hard cap on the major league spending. I digress as it’s likely I’m preaching to the choir on P2.

      Second thing, could you give us a sense of the general popularity level of baseball in Australia?

  • jsn4219

    I was in the Dominican Republic in August with the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) as a coach on a baseball mission trip. Through some connections we were able to visit the facility in person. Everything said in this article is true, it is first-class. The staff/coaches were so accommodating ( I think it helped we were from Pittsburgh, and most of the kids had Pirates hats on haha) we got a tour of the entire complex, and even got invited up into the “scouts box” by Rene Gayo during a game against the Nationals DR team. (He joked with us when we were leaving before the end that we must have been leaving bc there was no Perogi race haha) I have a lot of pictures from the facility that I wish I could post in the comments…

    Just for comparision sake, we drove past the Mets facility on the way to one of our games, and it looked like a run down amusement park. The locals said the Pirates facility is where the kids all strive to get to.

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