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Cardinals look to Dominican for top-level talent

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  • Cardinals look to Dominican for top-level talent

    From the Springfield News-Leader...

    A base among the best

    Cardinal scouts looking to attract top-flight Dominican talent.

    Kary Booher

    His track record includes the discovery of the New York Mets' sensational shortstop, Jose Reyes, and a 17-year-old that he stumbled upon last year in the Dominican Republic is said to be even better than Reyes at the same age.

    Now look who is on the St. Louis Cardinals' payroll.

    Wooed from the Mets, Juan Mercado is now the scouting supervisor for Latin America operations and he has the front office eagerly awaiting his next great discoveries.

    "Juan has an eye for talent that few people have," gushed Jeff Luhnow, St. Louis' scouting director.

    He also has this: street cred, important in the Caribbean's unpredictable third-world countries and more so now for the Cardinals, whose hirings of Mercado and Moises Rodriguez as director of international operations reaffirmed St. Louis' commitment in Latin America.

    The Cardinals opened a Dominican academy in 2005, as 29 of 30 major league teams search the island for talent.

    But Luhnow anticipates that Mercado and Rodriguez, both 34, will strengthen the club's scouting and relationship-building. That is essential as MLB teams compete for, say, a 16-year-old talent and where one of the more lucrative lines of work is that of a baseball agent showcasing teenage prospects.

    St. Louis' international scouting department now has 10 scouts fanned out in Nicaragua, Panama, Columbia and even the Dutch Antilles and Asia. But three scouts have been dispatched to the Dominican and Venezuela.

    The Dominican long has been strip-mined for talent. For instance, MLB's 2008 opening-day rosters included 239 foreign-born players, 88 from the Dominican, the most from any country outside the United States.

    The Cardinals have two homegrown players from Latin America on their big-league roster: Albert Pujols from the Dominican and Yadier Molina from Puerto Rico.

    However, both were secured in the amateur draft, which covers high school seniors and college players in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Pujols attended Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City.

    The last two known Cardinals to have been signed directly out of the Dominican were Manny Aybar and Jose Jimenez, used primarily as relievers in the 1990s, according to the Cardinals' media relations staff.

    Dual hiring

    When told the Cardinals had wooed Rodriguez away from MLB's central offices in New York, where he handled international baseball operations, Cleveland Indians Latin America scouting director Lino Diaz couldn't help himself.

    "Oh my God. I know Moises. That's a tremendous hire," Diaz said. "Very good person. He'll definitely help their organization. Moises has very good communications skills, and I'm sure he'll hire the right people to sign and develop players."

    Luhnow is banking heavily on Mercado, too.

    Mercado already is known in the scouting world for discovering the Mets' Reyes, an All-Star shortstop who became the first infielder to register three consecutive seasons of 60 or more stolen bases since the modern stolen-base rule went into effect in 1898.

    Mercado also was in on the signing of former Mets farmhand Carlos Gomez, 22, now the center fielder for the Minnesota Twins. Gomez was the key part of the trade that brought Twins staff ace Johan Santana to the Mets.

    Mercado also was a key figure last year in finding Juan Lagares, who now at 19 already is rated by Baseball America among the Mets' top 30 prospects -- and he hadn't played above the Low-A South Atlantic League before this season.

    "He's a great talent evaluator," the Cardinals' Rodriguez said of Mercado. "He's got great contacts, and it shows because he was in on both of those (Reyes and Gomez) signings."

    Lay of the land

    By hiring Mercado, Luhnow senses the Cardinals will have better leverage when it comes to shepherding players to the academy.

    The academy is said to be plush: The Cardinals provide housing, a cafeteria, locker rooms, batting cages, a classroom for English classes and a regulation-size field, plus a half-field where position players take infield practice.

    But if the Cardinals are to quench their thirst for Dominican talent, they need an expert on the ground like Mercado. He is the type of scout that the Indians' Diaz and Chicago Cubs' Oneri Fleita have turned to in strengthening ties on the island.

    Baseball has always allowed the Dominican to be an open market, primarily because it is a third-world country in which record-keeping and the educational system are lacking. An estimated 42.2 percent of the country lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. government statistics.

    Players may be signed at age 16.

    The result is that the Dominican has become a feeding frenzy for baseball agents also eager to capitalize on the next great find.

    And although Major League Baseball has tightened its control on the island, requiring that prospects understand contract terms before signing, contract demands can be interesting.

    The Indians signed pitcher Fausto Carmona, a 19-game winner last season for Cleveland, for a reported $10,000 when he was a teenager.

    Diaz said the typical cost for a quality Dominican signee now is between $50,000 and $75,000.

    "It's amazing," Diaz said. "It keeps going up. But the competition is getting better."

    The Cubs have been in the Dominican since 1996 and, since, almost every club has an everyday presence on the island except the Milwaukee Brewers.

    The New York Yankees, long buyers on the big-league free agent market, now throw their weight around the D.R., too, having opened an academy.

    The influx of MLB teams has created such a demand that teams are dealing more often with agents, said Fleita, who has overseen the Cubs' Latin American operation the past decade.

    "It's a tough business," Fleita said. "You sign a lot of guys and you're just trying to get one or two (big-leaguers) out of it.

    "And I think you just have to be very lucky," Fleita added, explaining that clubs are asking players not only to become professional players but also eventually to adapt to U.S. culture once sent to the States.

    "Most have not had three meals a day. And on top of that, you know most have not finished their educations," Fleita said.

    Cardinals' view

    Rodriguez, the Cardinals' director of international operations, will craft St. Louis' policy in Latin America. He places an emphasis on Cardinals scouts building relationships with the agents.

    He said three full-time scouts are in the Dominican and three are in Venezuela.

    "(Agents) have a lot of power," Rodriguez said. "But as long as you have good coaches and a good reputation, it can be a positive for us.

    "It's kind of a mutual understanding that they're trying to find them a job and we're tying to fulfill our goals."

    "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
    Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
    -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy

  • #2
    Dominicana rules!
    Sometimes elections have positive consequences!


    • #3
      Joaquin Andujar!
      Sponsor of Alex Pieterangelo.

      ..."I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered." George Best


      • #4
        Good job, Luhnow.