By Rob Rains
Matt Slater remembers his first international scouting trip, going to the Dominican Republic in the fall of 1999 when he was working for the Dodgers.
“I went with our assistant general manager for workouts, just as we do now,” Slater said. “We worked out a player, Willy Aybar, who was a switch hitter with a good bat who we ended up signing and later traded to Tampa Bay.”
Slater, now a special assistant to the Cardinals’ general manager for player procurement who still makes several international scouting trips every year, brings up the story to illustrate a point about how much the international scouting world has changed in baseball in the last 20 years.
“At that workout, he asked if his younger brother could come hit in the cage for a little bit,” Slater said. “We said sure, but we didn’t even pay any attention to him.”
At the time, Willy Aybar was 16. His younger brother, Erick, who would go on to have a long career in the majors, was 15.
“In today’s world, we would have been scouting Erick,” Slater said. “Willy would have already been off the market.”
In the last couple of years, teams – including the Cardinals – have had to change their strategy when it comes to scouting international amateurs, especially in Latin America. Major league baseball allows teams to reach verbal agreements with players well in advance of turning 16, when they can sign a contract.
On Tuesday, the Cardinals and all other teams will announce the signings of several 16-year-old players, making those verbal agreements official.
It’s the price of doing business in that marketplace these days, no matter how much Slater and other scouting executives in the Cardinals’ organization would like to see the implementation of a different system, such as an international draft.
Scouting is already inherently an inexact science and trying to evaluate players when they are 13 and 14 years old, and accurately project how they will grow and develop years into the future, is almost impossible.
It’s very similar to college football and basketball coaches offering scholarships to players when they are in the seventh grade.
“I’ve scouted players that are 13 and maybe some that have yet to become teenagers,” Slater said. “I’ve scouted players that young. That’s what we have to do because other teams are pushing the envelope — that’s the way the system works.
“It’s still scouting, but it’s incredibly hard and the percentage of failure is much higher. You are projecting farther out into the future – 8 years and in some cases 10 years, trying to project what these kids are going to be.”
Like Slater, Moises Rodriguez has been involved in international scouting for years. Now an assistant general manager with the Cardinals, he was the team’s director of international operations from 2008 through 2017 and is still involved in scouting players in that changing marketplace.
“People are afraid of missing out on talent,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t want to miss out on the next big thing.”
Not only are teams verbally agreeing to contracts with players at an earlier age, Rodriguez and Luis Morales, the current director of international operations for the Cardinals, have seen more and more teams become involved in scouting and trying to sign those players.
“There is more competition,” Morales said. “It used to be that there were only 10 or 12 teams that were really competitive when it came to signing top international amateurs. Now you see everybody at events. Teams have become very aggressive compared to what it was like in the past.”
That competition is what is driving the market to reach those verbal deals, and take the player off the market, at earlier and earlier ages. A year before the 2020 class is announced teams already have deals in place with those players and there likely are unknown deals with players who can’t officially sign until 2021 as well.
None of the Cardinals executives interviewed for this story would offer specifics on the age of players they have reached verbal agreements with over the last couple of years, but it is known that the Cardinals have not been as aggressive in pursuing those early deals as some other teams.
“It’s crazy, but if we don’t evaluate them at 13 or 14 we are not going to get the players,” Slater said. “It’s the system that is in place now. … Teams are agreeing with them as young as they can just to get the possible talent, whether they are 13, 14 or 15. Players are off the market one or two years before they are eligible. It’s not right.”
Slater, Rodriguez and Morales all believe there is a growing opinion among other clubs that the system needs to be changed.
The best chance for that change will be when the next basic agreement is negotiated between the owners and players. The current agreement expires in December 2021.
“The process needs to be changed,” Slater said. “There’s no doubt it needs to be changed. It’s unrealistic for us to properly evaluate 12 and 13-year-olds. The fact that they are not eligible to sign until they are 16 is really irrelevant because MLB has basically told clubs it is OK to agree with these players at any age.”
It’s a system that also is resulting in teams spending millions and millions of dollars on players at least two, and sometimes four, years younger than the youngest players selected in the amateur draft.
“It’s challenging to grade tools on 14-year-old kids but that’s where we are as an industry,” Rodriguez said.
The Cardinals could not compete for the top international amateurs who signed in 2017 and 2018 as a penalty for exceeding their signing budget in 2016. They could not offer players more than a $300,000 signing bonuses but still landed several intriguing prospects, including third baseman Malcom Nunez out of Cuba, already considered one of the top prospects in the organization.
Those signing restrictions are now gone, and the Cardinals have $6.4 million to spend this year on international free agents.
Most of the players who officially will sign on Tuesday will be sent to the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic. Some will play on one of their two teams in the Dominican Summer League, but most will just train for the rest of this summer and begin playing next season.
There are currently three 16-year-old players on the rosters of their two DSL teams who won’t turn 17 until later this month or in August.
A change in the system, even to a draft, won’t affect that part of the process but will keep teams from having to commit large sums of money to players at such a young age.
“It’s challenging for you to get a handle on how they are going to grow, their mental maturity … their personalities are still developing at that age,” Rodriguez said. “If you are committing to a player when he is 14 or 15, you are doing so with even less scouting history. The quality of the competition always is a tricky dynamic.”
Adds Slater, “Think of your own kids. I have 15-year-old twins. They change every day. … We are signing the best players at that age, and hopefully they will turn out to be the best players when they are 16 and when they are 20, but that doesn’t always turn out to be the case. It’s the rules of acquisition we are playing under.”
Morales points out that baseball competition in Latin America is far different than in the United States when it comes to organization. He is a native of Venezuela, and went to high school and college in that country, and while they have team sports, it is not at the level seen in the U.S.
Most of the time when scouts want to see international players they now are going to organized showcases, where agents and trainers put together a team to play several games against other teams. The value of competition in true tournaments, such as the Under 15 world games and the Pan-Am Games, is important in trying to evaluate players, Morales said.
“We get info almost daily about events that are going on,” Morales said. “They are grouping players together at showcases; they are not conducting workouts, just games.”
The players in those showcases keep getting younger and younger, because the scouts and trainers know those are the players the teams want to see.
Changing the system of how teams can acquire those players won’t change the scouting process, but will allow teams to wait and see how those players develop before having to offer them six-figure, and in many cases, seven-figure signing bonuses.
“We’ve become more open to the draft concept, where you can’t actually commit to a player until he is 16,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what I would like us to consider as an industry. We’ve spoken about it internally and we would support some sort of change in the system to a draft-type process.”
Obviously, all of the details about how an international draft would be conducted remain to be worked out but Slater for one thinks the system will finally be changed.
“I’ve changed my view since working for the Dodgers 20 years ago,” Slater said. “I remember being at a meeting in 2001 and the topic came up and Sandy Alderson, who was running the meeting for the commissioner’s office would not bring it up (going to an international draft) for a vote because he said, ‘The train has already left the station. There’s going to be an international draft.
“That was 18 years ago. It hasn’t happened. But I think finally the train is going to leave the station.
“Any system that will prevent teams from having to make agreements with players of that age (13 to 15) would be better. A majority of clubs would welcome some sort of system that would allow us to come to a final evaluation at a later age.”
Until that happens, however, at least for the next three years the Cardinals and other teams will try to make the best decisions they can when evaluating which players to sign. And they will have scouts traveling all over the world while doing it.
Slater and another scout already have two trips planned to Japan and Korea later this year, where they also will be looking at professional players who might become available. They have a scout at an amateur showcase this week outside London. They sent a scout to Spain last summer, and will have one at the Pan-Am Games in Lima, Peru later this summer. Slater also will be at an event in Colombia in August.
All those trips are in addition to all of the work the international scouts on the ground are doing throughout Latin America.
“You never know where you are going to find a player,” Slater said.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains