Phillies have landed Latin American quality, but economics make it hard to get top dogs

Posted: May 04, 2011

Second of two parts

BY ANY MEASURE, the Phillies have made real inroads into Latin America in the last 2 decades. They've spent to hire more scouts, to build and upgrade academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, to become a player once again in that baseball-mad region.

Just look at the Spanish prospects they signed since the turn of the millennium who have been impact players for them. There's, well, there's, um, er . . .

That's the elephant-in-the-clubhouse whenever the discussion of the Phillies' Latin American scouting effort comes up. They discovered a Panamanian second baseman named Carlos Ruiz in 1998. He's been converted into a top-shelf catcher. Since then?

Well, um, er . . . Probably lefthander Antonio Bastardo, who is still only 25 and came into this season with a total of 31 big-league appearances. But there are reasons for what seems, at first glance, to be a contradiction.

Sal Agostinelli has received high marks since taking over as international scouting director in 1998. And while the lack of Latin players signed and developed by the Phillies on their roster can't be overlooked, there are persuasive mitigating circumstances.

Senior adviser Dallas Green, an integral figure in the team's first push into Latin America 40 years ago, commended the work that's been done to this point.

"The only thing Sal hasn't hit on is the franchise kind of guy. And part of the reason, unfortunately, is because of the [domestic] draft going so high, we run out of money quicker than we normally would," Green said. "As a result, his budget probably doesn't allow him to get into the bidding wars that go on down there now."

He's right. The top-spending teams in Latin America - Mariners, Blue Jays, Royals, Cubs, Yankees - each will shell out more than $5 million this year signing Spanish players. The major league median is more than $2.5 million. The Phillies' budget is around $1 million annually, although they could make an exception this year because they don't have a first-round draft choice.

The reality, though, is that while a million bucks is a lot of money, it also ranks in the bottom quarter of what big-league teams spend to sign Latin players and simply isn't enough to get in on the bidding for the most-touted talent. The Twins gave infielder Miguel Sano from the Dominican Republic $3.15 million in 2009. The Yankees gave Dominican catcher Gary Sanchez $3 million the same year. In 2008, the Padres paid $2.2 million for righthander Adys Portillo.

"Sal's seen all the top players," said agent Rob Plummer, who represents Sano. "It's not for his lack of effort that the Phillies aren't getting those players. Sal's very well respected in Latin America. My relationship with Sal is outstanding and I'll always give him the opportunity to scout my players."

Plummer also represents one of this year's top Latin prospects, Gary Sheffield clone Enrike Acosta from the Dominican, who is expected to command around $3 million. A contingent of Phillies baseball people is scheduled to fly in later this week to take a personal look at Acosta. Teams can begin signing foreign players on July 2.

Despite these restrictions, or maybe because of them, the Phillies have adopted a philosophy of trying to sign as many quality prospects as possible rather than risking it all on one player. And the results have been impressive.

Fourteen months ago, a Baseball America study revealed that the Yankees (12), Rockies (11), Phillies and Mets (10 each) had the most international players in their prospect handbook for that year.

"Perhaps most impressive are the Rockies and Phillies, neither of whom ever paid a bonus in excess of $1 million to a Latin American amateur," the article stated. "[The Phillies have] found plenty of talent without having to spend top-of-the-market dollars. [They] signed a pair of big-leaguers in [Carlos] Carrasco and Antonio Bastardo while also bringing aboard cost-effective players with upside like Mexican catcher Sebastian Valle for $30,000 and Dominican outfielder Domingo Santana [for $350,000], who has comparable skills to Yankees outfielder Kelvin de Leon but signed for one-third of the cost [$1.1 million in 2007]."

Another factor is that the Phillies have used some of their better Latin prospects as trade chips in recent years. Shortstop Jonathan Villar went to Houston as part of the package that fetched Roy Oswalt last July; he's now ranked the Astros' third-best prospect by Baseball America.

Carrasco was traded to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal in 2009. He's now in the starting rotation for the first-place Indians.

Not to mention Carlos Silva (to Twins for Eric Milton), Ezequiel Astacio (to Astros for Billy Wagner), Alfredo Simon (to Giants for Felix Rodriguez), Elizardo Ramirez (to Reds for Cory Lidle), Robinson Tejeda (to Rangers for David Dellucci), Anderson Machado (to Reds for Todd Jones).

They've done that while keeping Ruiz and Bastardo, having three more of their own Latin players (Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Harold Garcia) on the 40-man roster this spring and needing to protect Valle and Leandro Castro next spring or risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.

And if you think trying to envision how players in the United States will look in several years is hard, the degree of difficulty goes up dramatically in Latin America.

"It's such an inexact science, far more than even the domestic draft if you're taking high school players," said Astros general manager Ed Wade, who held the same position with the Phillies when Agostinelli was promoted. "Because you're taking guys who probably didn't play a lot of organized baseball. They went to a lot of tryouts. And they ran and they threw and they hit, but they didn't really know the game. You project bodies out of the draft, kids from the U.S. Well, down there, you're trying to project with proper nutrition, with work being done on their physical skills."

Wade laughingly noted that Agostinelli's nickname is "The Raging Bull."

Said former Phillies assistant GM for scouting and player development Mike Arbuckle, now a senior adviser with the Royals: "A lot of people questioned me on that move. 'How are you going to take a little Italian-American guy from New York and put him there?' But in Latin America, there's a certain amount of 'We'll get to it manana.' Sal is Type A [personality] with the ability to make a decision quick and pull the trigger. I thought we'd get ahead of some clubs because of his aggressive nature.

"Very few times did he have the most dollars to spend and even that was curtailed as the major league payroll rose. But Sal has done an excellent job, especially with the resources he's had to work with."

Further complicating the scene in the Latin countries is the difficulty in determining actual ages, and sometimes even the real identities, of the players they're interested in signing.

For Agostinelli, it's all part of the process.

"At first we had a co-op team in the Dominican. That was right before I took over. Then we had an academy in La Vega and we needed to upgrade it, which we did. And we went to a really nice academy in [Guanamara]," he said.

"We kind of had a transitional phase because there were a lot of clubs there. We saw the advent of more Latin American players coming into the systems and we realized we needed to get involved. It was a new phase for everyone [in 1998]. Several teams were really active down there. We started with weights, bringing some weights down. Little by little, the academies down there began functioning just like spring-training facilities. That's how nice they've gotten." *

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