Brewers buying in on idea of international talent
Prized third-base prospect Lara coveted by club in next signing period
MILWAUKEE -- Citing Major League Baseball's rules governing Latin American signings, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said he could not comment on a report of a preliminary agreement with Yirver Gilbert Lara, one of the top prospects in the next international signing period that begins on July 2.
Scout.com's Kiley McDaniel reported last week that Milwaukee will sign Lara, who is a 16-year-old third baseman from the Dominican Republic, for a $3.2 million bonus. Melvin and other Brewers officials are aware of that story, but said they could not talk about specific players. Lara's trainer, Jaime Ramos, said the Brewers, Royals, Yankees and Twins are among the teams still competing for his player.
"I read that [about Milwaukee] but there is nothing concrete and there are still a lot of teams interested in him," Ramos said from the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. "We still have to go to the United States and visit some teams. I don't have 100-percent agreement with anyone. Maybe in March or April, I'll make a deal."
If the Brewers wind up finalizing an agreement, and Lara's bonus is indeed $3.2 million, it would obliterate Milwaukee's previous record for an amateur international signee. The mark was just set last year, when Dominican 16-year-olds Franly Mallen and Nicolas Pierre received $800,000 apiece.
Whether or not Lara joins those prospects in Milwaukee's prospect chain, the mere negotiations signal that the Brewers intend to be more prominent players in the international marketplace.
"It's definitely an area we've identified that we need to get better in, across the board," said senior director of baseball operations Tom Flanagan, who for decades has worked in Milwaukee's amateur scouting department.
Three factors are fueling the Brewers' spending: Infrastructure, baseball's new system of international spending, and two promotions within Milwaukee's own front office.
A change of plans
It began with infrastructure. In November 2011, Melvin and other top club officials traveled to Ramon Santana, a municipality just northeast of San Pedro de Macoris along the Dominican Republic's southern shore. They attended the grand re-opening of an academy with baseball fields, batting cages, bullpens, a clubhouse and weight room, plus 13 rooms of housing, classrooms and a cafeteria. It is owned and operated by former Brewers closer Salomon Torres, who runs similar facilities for the Braves and Tigers.
The investment represented a further departure from the Brewers' philosophy between late 2003 to early '09, during which Milwaukee experimented as the only Major League team without a permanent academy outside of the U.S. Instead of spending on a complex, the Brewers opted instead to direct funds toward fewer, higher-cost and presumably higher-level prospects who would be imported directly to the U.S.
In practice, it was unsuccessful. The Brewers found that those players struggled with the sudden adjustment, both in terms of baseball and of culture, and the decision was made to re-open an academy that could host and educate a greater number of prospects. In 2009, the Brewers rejoined the Dominican Summer League by sharing a team with the Orioles. In 2010, Milwaukee made a more permanent return by opening a complex and entering a standalone DSL team. After the 2011 season, those players moved to Torres' larger and more modern complex.
The result has been good for player procurement as well as player development, Flanagan said.
"Now, we have the ability, under the rules, to bring players in for a number of days and try them out," Flanagan said. "Our staff can get to know them on the field and off, and our scouts can see them in game conditions. That's really helped."
Flanagan believes that the system of bonus pools has also helped. Under the new rules, instituted in July 2012 as part of baseball's current Collective Bargaining Agreement, MLB assigned each team a signing bonus pool for Latin American players and instituted penalties, some of them severe, for teams that exceed its pool.
There are exceptions within the guidelines, and "bonus slots" within those pools can be traded from a team that does not intend to use its entire total to a team that wants to spend up to 50 percent more, but the general idea was to prevent some teams from spending dramatically more than others.
By virtue of last season's finish, the Brewers will have the 12th-largest bonus pool for the 2014-15 signing period, but will not know the precise figure until April. The Padres were in that position last year, and had about $2.5 million to spend before they faced penalties.
"I think the new system lets all the teams at least have a chance with [the elite] players," Flanagan said.
A pair of front office promotions also precipitated change. In October 2012, days after the end of a disappointing Brewers season, the team elevated Manny Batista to director of Latin America scouting and Eduardo Brizuela to director of Latin America operations.
The Brewers' previous Latin American scouting director, Fernando Arango, was generally said to be more adverse to the feeding frenzy that surrounds top prospects each July 2. Batista, generally, is considered more willing to recommend big-money signings, especially for up-the-middle players. Notably, Mallen is a shortstop and Pierre is a center fielder.
Both of those players will be eligible to debut in the Dominican Summer League this year. The Brewers are also very high on Venezuelan right-hander Yosmer Leal, who turns 18 on Feb. 26, and is entering his second season. He will probably remain in the DSL, but center fielder Carlos Belonis, who was born in New York but signed in the Dominican for $550,000 in 2011, is expected to move stateside to the Rookie League Arizona Brewers after missing much of last season with a wrist injury.
The Brewers' top Latin American prospect is Orlando Arcia, who is 19 and part of Venezuela's rich tradition of shortstops. Arcia, ranked as the Brewers' No. 6 prospect by MLB.com, missed the entire 2012 season after breaking his ankle. But he held his own in 2013 as an 18-year-old in the Class A Midwest League, batting .259 with a .314 on-base percentage, 20 stolen bases and only 40 strikeouts in 442 at-bats. He is a terrific defensive shortstop, but the Brewers see offensive potential, amateur scouting director Bruce Seid said.
A new name for the list?
It will be months before Brewers officials can confirm a deal with Lara. In his Scout.com video piece, McDaniel said that Lara "has the loose, handsy, fluid swing that scouts are looking for with the plus bat speed and raw power to project as a future All-Star."
Batista, Brizuela and other Brewers scouts saw Lara at MLB's third annual Amateur Prospect League International Showcase in the Dominican Republic in late January. The two-day event included pro-style workouts and scrimmages, the latter being key, Flanagan said, because scouts were finding that prospects were coached to simply excel in workouts. According to Scout.com, Lara tripled and homered in the game portion of the event.
He would join what the Brewers believe is their improving pool of Latin American prospects.
"To some degree, we have improved our level of talent, though we definitely have a ways to go," Flanagan said. "Part of it is changing the perception, showing that we're going to be in on players in terms of scouting. Whether you sign them, you never know, but we're at least going to be 'in' on more guys in an effort to bring talent into the system."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. MLB.com national reporter Jesse Sanchez contributed to this report from the Dominican Republic. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.