First of a four-part series
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - The two Phillies scouts weaved their Hyundai through this city's notorious traffic. They passed three sets of guards armed with automatic weapons to reach an active air force base. They entered a ramshackle baseball stadium, tucked between the vinyl-sided hangars and thrumming of helicopters.
There was a problem. Thirteen teenagers formed a line at the edge of the stadium, but the player the scouts wanted to see was not among them.
"Why isn't he here?" asked Sal Agostinelli, the brazen Phillies director of international scouting. Carlos Salas, a 6-foot-5 Venezuelan who relocated his family to become Agostinelli's top lieutenant in the talent-rich Dominican Republic, felt disrespected. He had arranged this tryout for his boss, who must see the high-priority targets.
"This happens all the time," Agostinelli said. "They want us to see a kid, then they don't show."
They proceeded with the workout because this was not the time to test relationships in an arena where they are vital. The Phillies, in recent years, have invested more money into their international operations. Agostinelli and Salas are the men most responsible for finding the right players on which to spend it.
Money matters most here, especially when everyone wants a cut for shepherding a prospect to a major-league team. But this is a place - perhaps the last one - where baseball's endless fascination with analytics has no reach, where the men on the ground must trust their bonds with the local scouts and buscones, or street agents.
The teenagers recited their names, positions, and birth dates to the two men from the Phillies who held clipboards with legal pads. One player wore a Kansas Jayhawks hat. Another had braces on his teeth. A lanky outfielder tugged on a Yale skeet and trap T-shirt.
Agostinelli found a spot on the worn wooden bleachers down the first-base line. He watched a few of the tryout players fumble grounders with wild throws to first base that smacked the concrete dugout. He shook his head.
"Hey," Salas asked, "do you like any of these guys?"
"None," Agostinelli said. "A waste of time."
A slender Nicaraguan began his batting practice with a loud crack. Agostinelli perked up. A man yelled from across the field. Even better: The player the Phillies wanted to see would be here in 40 minutes.
Support and resources
The Phillies, since 1997, have produced 32 major-league Latino players, all of whom signed for bonuses less than $1 million. The success rate is slightly above average, although many teams have spent more money internationally than the Phillies.
They have paid more than $1 million for an international amateur just twice: In 1997, Korean pitcher Seung Lee signed for $1.2 million and, in 2015, when Dominican outfielder Jhailyn Ortiz signed for $4 million. They were late to the cash grab in Latin America, but Agostinelli said the new leadership of Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak has pledged support and resources.
"Completely different," Agostinelli said.
The Phillies spent $9 million to construct a state-of-the-art Dominican complex that opened earlier this month. They will contend for the top foreign talent that can sign this July 2.
"We've always had to work under different parameters," Agostinelli said. "And it's actually made us better. . . . We make a lot of mistakes. But we make less mistakes because I'm not compulsive. I'd rather lose a kid than sign a kid that I'm not sure about."
Home Countries of Foreign Major League Players
That is why Agostinelli is proud of the international pipeline the Phillies have created when, at times, they were at a financial disadvantage. The Phillies acquired three-fifths of their current infield for less than $250,000: Cesar Hernandez ($49,000), Freddy Galvis ($90,000), and Maikel Franco ($100,000). Hector Neris, a potential closer, signed for $17,000. Another intriguing reliever, Edubray Ramos, signed for nothing. The lower levels of the Phillies system are teeming with hard-throwing pitchers who signed for small bonuses.
Last season, 26 percent of major-league players were born in a foreign country. No country has produced more foreign big-league talent than the Dominican.
BP can fool
At the dysfunctional workout, Agostinelli preached patience. The bargains are harder and harder to spot here as teams deploy more scouts. But they exist. So the Phillies scouts watched for a hint.
A few of the Dominican teenagers lined up behind shortstop for ground balls.
"He'll be a second baseman," Agostinelli said of the first one. "Can't throw."
Batting practice started. It devolved into a home run hitting contest, and Agostinelli grumbled.
The Nicaraguan stepped to the plate. There was no batting cage. Home plate had either been stolen or buried under the dirt. A bunch of the discarded tryout participants scaled the left-field fence to sit on top of it.
Agostinelli liked the kid's swing. Salas said he had an offer on the table from another team.
"You want to see him in games, right?" Salas said.
"I'd take this kid right now," Agostinelli said.
But he remembered his principles; batting practice can fool. If a six-figure offer is possible, Agostinelli likes his people to see a kid for at least 40 at-bats in game-type situations. That limits mistakes.
"Drop your hands before you spin," Agostinelli yelled to the Nicaraguan. He rapped a line drive to left field.
"There you go," Agostinelli said. He was encouraged. There was one more workout with some pitchers scheduled later, at another field, and Agostinelli invited the Nicaraguan hitter and his buscon for a better look.
'We're on this guy'
Finally, their main target appeared with two black bats in his hand. Stuck in traffic, he said. The hulking Dominican teenager looked the part of a big-leaguer, complete with a brand-name shirt, wristband, glove, and spikes.
He planted his feet in the batter's box and sprayed line drives to all fields.
"Wow," Agostinelli said. "He has a good approach."
"I've seen him enough to know he can hit," Salas said.
"Look at his head," Agostinelli said. "It doesn't move."
Agostinelli stood. "Oh my god," he said. The hitter took six more swings. Other teams were interested, with a potential bonus totaling more than $1 million.
"OK," Agostinelli said. "We're on this guy."
The scouts returned to the car. Agostinelli, a stocky former catcher fluent in Spanish with an Italian spunk forged in the Bronx, was thrilled. He dialed another Phillies scout and gushed about the Dominican prospect.
"I want you to come down here and see him," Agostinelli said on the phone, from the passenger seat. "Are you in Mexico? When can you come down here?"
Salas drove. He stopped at a gas station while Agostinelli breathlessly chatted on the phone.
"Hold on," Agostinelli shouted. "Do they have Diet Cokes here?" He hung up, darted to the shack with some pesos, and emerged with sodas. Nothing could stop him now. He saw the player Salas had recommended, and it could not have gone better. Plus, they may have identified a new target.
When they arrived at the second tryout, the Nicaraguan hitter was already there and ready to hit live pitching. He ran a 60-yard dash in 6.6 seconds, a little better than average. Agostinelli nodded.
Then, another problem. The auditioning pitcher could not throw a strike. A pitch drilled the Nicaraguan hitter's right arm.
"This is a disaster," Agostinelli said.
The batter paused for a few minutes. His right arm was bruised. He wanted to keep hitting; this could be his only chance to show the Phillies his potential. They changed pitchers. The next one could not find the strike zone either. When the Nicaraguan swung at the infrequent decent pitches, the promise from batting practice had evaporated.
"Too many moving parts," Agostinelli said.
Everything they liked before, they started to pick apart. They noted the kid's toughness. But the swing had flaws. They would keep tabs on him.
Projecting these teenagers is a challenge. In America, scouts can delay decisions about amateur players until they are closer to 18. Here, players with less education and formal training, are scouted by enterprising buscones as early as 13. Those street agents, who can sway players' decisions, showcase them to major-league scouts. Questions about a player's age are persistent. There are more uncontrollable variables here than anywhere else.
But the successes are sweeter.
"I'm just hoping we can keep it going," Agostinelli said. "You can be successful, but you're going to make mistakes. When you're not spending a lot of money, it's like, 'Oh man, they got guys to the big leagues.' We're still going to get guys to the big leagues, but you have to live with bigger mistakes because we're taking bigger chances. If you don't take bigger chances, you're never going to hit on the right guys."
Agostinelli and Salas shuffled to the Hyundai. They navigated a dirt path, past a field with even younger players practicing. The scouts were done for the day. The next chase awaited.
Part 2, coming Tuesday: The Phillies, in the last five years, have raised their international profile by dedicating more dollars to scouting and signing bonuses for teenagers. With a $9 million palatial training complex in the Dominican Republic as the latest proof of their wealth here, the Phillies have contemplated a simple question: What if happiness and player development are reciprocal?