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.
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.”
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.
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.