Catcher Montero is top available prospect

Since 1965, major-league teams have relied on the amateur draft to find players who they hope will become stars in the near future.

But the richest and cheapest source of talent can be found in the international market, especially in Latin America, and not in North American schools.

That is why July 2, when teams are eligible to sign international players who will turn 17 years old before September, is such an important date. And this year's harvest of talent might be the best yet.

"This year more organizations conserved part of their budget to go after the ballplayers that will be available in the international market."
-- Dodgers scout Ezequiel Sepulveda

"There's talent all over the place this year. I think that at least three players could get millionaire bonuses to become professional," said former major-leaguer Junior Noboa, now the Arizona Diamondbacks' scouting director in Latin America.

Although major-league organizations invest millions of dollars searching for players in faraway places such as Australia and Asia, the best available talent resides in Dominican Republic and Venezuela once again.

"Last year I searched Colombia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Venezuela and Dominican Republic looking for players," said Felix Francisco, the Latin American scouting supervisor for the San Diego Padres. "By far this year's best players will be in Dominicana and Venezuela, as it has been all of these years."

Puerto Rico, which participates in the amateur draft as part of the North American school system, and Cuba, which prohibited professionalism 40 years ago, are not among the scouts' options.

Last year the New York Mets found within 24 hours two of the best available prospects: Dominican outfielder Fernando Martinez and Venezuelan veteran pitcher Deoly Guerra, who got $1.4 million and $600,000 in signing bonuses, respectively.

"This year more organizations conserved part of their budget to go after the ballplayers that will be available in the international market. In the past, they used to spend all the money in the North American draft," said Dodgers scout Ezequiel Sepulveda, who is president of the Dominican Republic Scouts Association.

ESPNdeportes.com polled at least a dozen Latin American scouts who agreed that Venezuelan catcher Jesus Montero is the most coveted international prospect available.

Montero, 16, is a right-handed hitter with tremendous power who could be converted to first base in the pros. Most scouts believe Montero will get a signing bonus in the $1 million to $2 million range.

Dominicans Engel Bletre (OF), Angel Villalona (3B), Moises Tejeda (SS), Francisco Pena and Esmeily Gonzalez (SS); Venezuelan pitchers Larry Suarez and Euclides Viloria and Australian Jason Smit are the other players who could get better offers.

"One never knows what each organization is thinking, but as far as San Diego, we think Montero, Beltre, Villalona and Tejeda are the best of the group," said Francisco.

Hottest prospects
1. Jesus Montero, C, Venezuela (16 years old)
He can hit with power to all fields. He has powerful arms, though he will probably end up playing first base.

2. Engel Beltre, OF, Dominicana (16)
A left-handed hitter with extra-base power. He has a powerful throwing arm and plays great defense in the outfield. There's a rumor that he has a verbal agreement with the Boston Red Sox.

3. Angel Villalona, 3B, Dominicana (16)
A five-tool player (hits for average, hits for power, has speed, fields well and has a good arm). Villalona is 6-foot-2 and weighs 200 pounds.

4. Moises Tejeda, SS, Dominicana (16)
He could be the most athletic of them all. He's a stunning pitcher, a great runner and a good hitter.

5. Larry Suarez, RHP, Venezuela (17)
A tall pitcher (6-3) with an explosive fastball. The right-hander hasn't had a big show this year. He is believed to have a preliminary agreement with the Chicago Cubs.

6. Euclides Viloria, LHP, Venezuela (16)
Sort of like Johan Santana but with less power. Viloria has a great combination of pitches, with a curveball and a changeup, and his fastball varies between 88 and 91 mph.

7. Esmeily Gonzalez, SS, Dominicana (16)
A great player who can hit from both sides of the plate. Because of his size, good defense and powerful arm, he's compared to Rafael Furcal.

8. Carlos Triunfel, SS, Dominicana (16)
Somewhat similar to Miguel Tejada when he was signed. He has great power and knows how to hit. Scouts say "he bounces the ball off the bat."

9. Balbino Fuenmayor, 3B, Venezuela (16)
An athlete. He's 6-3, has soft hands, but above all things is a great hitter. He has a very good temperament and a willingness to learn.

10. Jason Smit, SS, Australia (16)
Smit is a very disciplined and intelligent player. He's got unlimited power but doesn't fan bad pitches and defensively makes all the ordinary plays.

11. Francisco Pena, C, Dominicana (16)
The son of ex-catcher Tony Pena is considered a great prospect because of his bat. There are rumors that he has shortened his list of favorite teams to the Yankees, Mets and Braves.

Other prospects: Dominicana (Freddy Galvis, SS; Ramon Mota, OF; Jose Toussaint, SS; Moises Montero) and Venezuela (Font Wilmont, RHP; Ricardo Ferrer, RHP; Danny Salazar, RHP; Joel Romero, RHP; Fabian Jedron, LHP).

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.