Asking Puerto Ricans for their thoughts on how their young players are drafted by Major League Baseball as part of the June first-year player draft is a little like polling them about their political status with the United States: It’s complicated.
When considering their place somewhere between the spectrum of U.S. statehood or independence, Puerto Ricans have generally voted for the status quo (a U.S. commonwealth). But that could have been because those referendums, the biggest ones held in 1998 and again most recently in 2012 (empty ballots notwithstanding), were non-binding -- meaning that in political status, as with their place in Major League Baseball, Puerto Ricans really have no right to self-determination. The United States and Major League Baseball hold the cards.
Yes, it is complicated indeed.
Just as the island’s current political affiliation shapes the past, present and future of the estimated eight million Puerto Ricans (nearly four million of them living on the island), so does being bound to a stateside draft shape Puerto Rico’s participation in Major League Baseball -- for better or worse.
As the island puts its best prospects forward for the 2015 class, most Caribbean-based scouts agree that baseball will not see a Puerto Rican player in the first round like in 2012 when Carlos Correa was drafted No. 1 or 2011 when Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez went eighth and ninth, respectively. But scouts who live and watch players daily say the lack of first-round prospects for 2015 does not mean Puerto Rican baseball is in crisis nor is it hurting for talent.
Quite the opposite.
“It’s cyclical,” said Joey Solá, a scout with the Houston Astros who works with young players on the island. “And that happens in the states too. For this year, there isn’t even a clear No. 1 in the United States. And even though Puerto Rico doesn’t have a player for the first round, this year is different because we have six or seven pitching prospects, all of whom throw in the 80-mph range and have good technique. And that is different for the island, since we mostly send position players.”
Solá estimates that 15 or 20 Puerto Rican high schoolers will get drafted this year, many of them from four or five specialized baseball high schools around the island, including one run by the New York Yankees right fielder Carlos Beltrán.
Neither Solá, nor his scouting counterpart with the Colorado Rockies, Jorge Posada Sr., nor former Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodríguez, now a special adviser to the Cleveland Indians, blame the draft for any dip in representation by Puerto Ricans -- not on Major League Baseball rosters and not in the draft.
“No region can expect star players every year,” said Rodriguez, who is managing Puerto Rico’s national team for the upcoming Pan American Games in Toronto as well as the new Premier12 tournament. “Some years international signings are good, some years they are down. There isn’t always a specific reason. Saying it is cyclical is a cliché, but that is what it is.”
Of the half-dozen pitching prospects headed into this draft class, Solá singled out right-hander Alexis Díaz, brother of pitcher Edwin Diaz, who was drafted 98th overall in 2012 by the Seattle Mariners. The younger Díaz, of Caguas Military and Sports Academy, is in a group that includes José Espada, Jovani Moran, Michael Rivera, Edrick Agosto, Jesús Ortiz and Reynaldo Rivera.
“Edwin was one of the top Seattle prospects, so they will remember his bloodline,” said Edwin Rodríguez coach of a Big League (15 to 18 year-old) franchise team in Caguas, Puerto Rico, who helped shape 2012 No. 1 pick Correa and has the same name but no relation to the former Florida Marlins manager. “Alex has the ability to throw strikes and has a changeup and a curveball. He has a lot more polish than his brother did at this point.
“After that there are players who are very similar and top prospects in this class. They are not the kind that blow you away, but they have the tools and the performance you would expect from players at this age,” Rodríguez told ESPN.
Puerto Rico has not traditionally fielded a big group of pitchers for a draft class. Rodríguez said players grow up idolizing great Puerto Rican catchers, such as the Molina brothers (José and Yadier) or Carlos Delgado, or great second basemen, such as Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, or outfielders, such as Yankee legend Bernie Williams, and aspire to be like them.
“Our superstars have been position players. For years, everybody wanted to be a shortstop or a center fielder but nobody wanted to be a pitcher,” Rodriguez said. “But pitching is almost 50 percent of a club roster. I remember that same year as Carlos Correa I had [José] Orlando Berríos and he [Berríos] was playing at shortstop or outfield and I told him he was going to be a pitcher and he was offended.”
Berríos ended up being selected 32nd by the Twins in 2012, the highest ever for a pitcher from Puerto Rico.
Rodríguez stressed that the proliferation of Dominican pitchers doesn’t mean that kids from the next Caribbean island over are born with a special talent.
“It’s a combination of a lot of other things,” he said, stressing that placement in MLB academies is more limiting than the choices kids have in Puerto Rico. “I walk around and our kids are playing other sports like volleyball, soccer and basketball. In the Dominican Republic, someone tells them they are going to pitch. They don’t have options.”
Finding and developing teen talent is a challenge no matter what country you’re in, said former Colorado Rockies scout Jorge Posada Sr., who runs an annual “Tournament of Excellence” showcase competition in Caguas.
“The biggest problem in Puerto Rico is lack of dedication,” Posada said. “In Puerto Rico there is less of a need to play baseball. But the draft also makes it tough. You have kids here who are 16 and 17 competing against kids in the states who are already in junior college. So we just try our best to give them a good start, help them develop the tools, bodies, arms and the rest will come.”
But what about the big elephant-in-the-room question? Isn’t asking Caribbean scouts to find Puerto Ricans for the stateside draft a little like asking the goat to guard the lettuce?
As a scout, there is much more incentive to discover (and hone) young talent in neighboring Dominican Republic, Venezuela and now Cuba, and sign them to the club the scout works for. There’s much less impetus to develop or find hidden gems in Puerto Rico and then serve them up to a new player draft for rival clubs.
"The only incentive a scout in Puerto Rico has to find talent is the pride of wanting to pick the best for Puerto Rico," Big League Team Elite coach Rodríguez said."I have seen scouts who will say about a kid with good potential: 'I'm going to hide him.' But in Puerto Rico that is not possible."
The island is too small to hide a player and they all head into the draft, Rodríguez said. He added that the draft most affects Puerto Rican players in their bank accounts.
“Dominicans can talk to all teams, and depending upon how much money they are offered, they can pick,” “People say that the most important thing is to get drafted, but if you are not in the draft you have the power of negotiation. A team picks me and makes an offer. In the states, you have kids who love college and will take that option. You would never have a Puerto Rican kid who [would get drafted] and say, no, I’m going to college. Teams know that. We [Puerto Rico high school players] definitely get penalized moneywise.”
Solá supports Puerto Rico’s presence in the stateside draft, but agrees that there should also be an international draft “under the same rules, the same draft bonus pool and the same money slots.”
“There is no solution that is going to be fair for everyone, but an international draft would be beneficial for small-market teams,” Solá said.
Major League Baseball and the MLBPA did not agree on an international draft in 2013 but could broach the subject again in 2017. In the meantime, MLB implemented the system of a signing bonus pool with penalties for exceeding thresholds, designed to level the competitive field for international youngsters and those subject to the stateside draft.
Still, Posada stresses that drafting teenagers -- whether internationally or stateside -- makes for a lot of variables. He said that because fewer Puerto Rican players go to four-year colleges, they can’t take full advantage of the draft. (A player is draft-eligible right after high school, after his junior year of four-year college or at any point in his junior college career.)
Posada was a huge fan of MLB’s draft-and-follow rule, which ended in 2007, but essentially gave Puerto Rican players a developmental safety net because the signing club held rights to the draftee for at least six months while the player attended junior college.
Like Posada, Big League coach Rodríguez said that having Puerto Ricans going into the draft out of high school and putting them in a competitive pool against stateside college kids is a disadvantage.
“Without the [stateside] draft, Puerto Rico would have to make huge changes in how we develop players,” said Puerto Rico national team coach Rodríguez, who embraces the draft because he doesn’t see Puerto Rico’s situation changing anytime soon. “Kids in the Dominican academies are already professionals in high school. They get up at 6 thinking about baseball, lifting weights and going to batting practice. Players here in Puerto Rico, they are students first, their development is not the same, the hours on the field are not the same.”
ESPN.com deputy editor Gabrielle Paese is the former sports editor at the now-defunct San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico.