Scouting in Dominican blossoming

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A.J. Preller knew that if he wanted to get a full understanding of what the Texas Rangers needed to succeed in the Dominican Republic, he had to speak the language.

So Preller, who came over to the Rangers' front office from the Los Angeles Dodgers' following the 2004 season, signed up for a two-week Berlitz language course in Spanish.

"That got me some of the basics and then I had CDs and religiously, when I was on a plane, train, car or had any kind of free time, I listened to those tapes," Preller said. "It helped to spend a lot of time in Spanish-speaking countries too. You start to pick it up a lot quicker. I really wanted to learn it, so I wasn't limiting myself to just the basic level. I wanted to have conversations."

Those around Preller say he's proficient with the language, though the 34-year-old stresses he wants to get a lot better. But Preller's desire to immerse himself in the language shows not only his dedication, but how much he wanted to be a part of setting up a baseball academy for Texas in the Dominican Republic.

Almost as soon as he arrived in November of 2004, general manager John Hart and then-assistant GM Jon Daniels told him the club was committed to improving its scouting and development on an international scale. And the Dominican Republic was an important market to find talent and help the club in the future.

"I was excited," said Preller, who is now the senior director of player personnel and racks up frequent flier miles every week as a world traveler. "They gave a direction that they wanted to be a force down there. It was kind of exciting to see where we were at and where we needed to go."

Preller was thinking about the Dominican even as an intern for the Philadelphia Phillies for class credit while at Cornell (where he met Daniels). Preller wrote a paper on international baseball, stressing the importance of the Dominican Republic, and talked to a gaggle of folks as part of his research.

So Preller went down, looked at various academies, scouted out locations and helped get things off the ground. But it wasn't so much the facility that consumed Preller's attention. He wanted the right people and set about forming a scouting and development staff that could identify top talent and then mold it into viable players who could help the club at the big league level.

"You want to have a nice facility and one that is secure, but it's more about getting the right guys and teaching them," said Mike Daly, the club's director of international scouting. "A.J. is a tireless worker and a creative guy. He had a big-picture idea of what he wanted the Dominican program to be. The seed was planted seven years ago and now it's blossomed."

The Rangers have altered academy locations and are now in a temporary facility in Boca Chica, in the Santo Domingo province of the Dominican Republic. The club is looking for a new home.

"It's a 24/7 baseball environment," said Jayce Tingler, the coordinator of instruction for the minor leaguers in Arizona and the Dominican Republic. He managed in the Dominican Summer League in 2008 and 2009. "We have a chance to teach them, get them game experience, help them learn English and make them stronger.

"You are dealing with very good athletes. In the States, you'll have very good athletes and they play seven-on-seven football in the summer, or have an AAU coach and they play basketball. Down there, baseball is the No. 1 sport. To me, that helps."

The Rangers' coaches take those teenagers and teach them the fundamentals, from how to take the best route on a fly ball to going from first to third. A normal day starts with workouts at 6 or 6:30 a.m., followed by 10:30 a.m. games. The players will lift weights in the afternoons, take an English course and then have a variety of different baseball activities at night. That's usually watching the Rangers' game on the satellite and learning from the different situations that crop up in the games.

"We teach them the Ranger way," Tingler said. "It's how we are on and off the field, how we respect the game. It's playing hard. Look at what we do at the big league level. We have a manager that's sharp and has lots of energy and his team plays with energy and plays the game hard. That's what we try to model into our new players."

It helps when those players cannot only see the big leaguers on television, but talk to some at the complex. Nelson Cruz, Julio Borbon, Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus are just some who have visited the academy to discuss game preparation and life in the major leagues.

The academy has helped prepare a host of players who are either with the big league club now or working their way through the Rangers system. That includes Alexi Ogando, who worked with the coaching staff to convert from an outfielder to a pitcher that throws in the mid-90s and, after getting into the U.S. following visa issues, is now a mainstay on the big club. Martin Perez, one of the club's top pitching prospects, also came through the academy. Jurickson Profar, one of the club's top overall prospects, spent plenty of time at the academy, as well.

"Elvis came down and was showing him things about how he receives ground balls and what he's looking for," Preller said. "That's invaluable. They are going to get more from that than watching it on film. All of that helps."

It's not just players in the Dominican Republic who benefit from the academy, either.
The Rangers bring athletes from Venezuela and even Australia to work, as well.

"Some teams have separate academies, but we like everyone together and we think it helps to have the coaches right there, able to evaluate and teach everyone," Preller said.

For it all to work, management and ownership have to be willing to spend money. The Rangers have done that. They've increased their budget for signing bonuses, allowing them to ink top players. They have hired a staff that has shown an ability to find and develop talent. And they've allowed all of those players to work together to build some relationships and learn from each other.

"We're proud of what we've done and we want to keep getting better," Daly said. "We value our scouts and the work they've done. All these guys went down there and took the challenge to work hard and get the job done. And we are seeing the results. We treat it like a seventh affiliate and it feels that way to us."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.