The St. Louis Cardinals will soon have one less competitor with in-country facilities in Venezuela as the Houston Astros announced this week plans to close their Venezuelan academy.
Though under the ownership of Drayton McLane, the Astros have reportedly cut back on scouting and player development, this news was still a surprise to me. Houston was the first MLB organization to enter that market 20 years ago and as a result mined premier talent such as Bobby Abreu and Johan Santana.
That initiative was started under the leadership of the well-respected scouting and development executive Andres Reiner, who is now planning a similar long-term investment initiative in Brazil on behalf of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Speaking to MLB.com, Houston officials seemed to go out of their way to explain that the changes have nothing to do with the on-going political unrest in Venezuela, or the economy. Instead, they want to deploy their resources to try to get players to the majors sooner.
The Astros will continue to scout players in the country going forward. As did the Cardinals two years ago, the Astros are adding a Gulf Coast League club, but in their case, it is trading one off for the other, not an incremental addition.
The Astros aren’t alone. In 2008, the 12-year-old Venezuelan Summer League ran with just eight teams, including Houston. Other organizations that had previously participated but no longer field VSL teams include Boston, Cincinnati, Florida, San Diego and Baltimore.
The Cardinals are heading in the opposite direction, increasing their commitment in and to Venezuela. Not two weeks ago, I was trying to reach Cardinals Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez only to find he was out investigating an untapped territory in the country.
Rodriguez explains. “It’s a very large country so you need more than one scout there as the regions you need to cover are so vast. You can’t just do it with one or two guys.”
The Cardinals deploy three scouts in the country along with the assistance of Latin American cross-checker Juan Mercado.
Rodriguez is clearly bullish on the country. “Venezuela has really made some strides in the last ten years in the area of player production. The last time I checked, Venezuela had over 1000 players in the minor leagues under contract to major league clubs. That is a pretty significant number. They are really producing players,” he explained recently in an October subscriber-only interview I ran on Scout.com.
Rodriguez went on to note that the corresponding number of players under contract from the Dominican Republic is only about 1600-1800, making the difference much smaller than most, including me, would have guessed.
The Cardinals are planning to move their Venezuelan academy into a new leased facility with a target opening date of mid-2009.
“Our plan is to build an academy in Venezuela, operate in the same manner as we do in the Dominican Republic and our goal is to produce players. We feel there is talent to be had there,” Rodriguez said.
The Cardinals believe that having in-country facilities should at least give them “a slight edge” when trying to sign 16-year-olds. Some players or their parents might have concerns about youngsters having to head overseas to Dominican academies instead of being able to train in Venezuela.
“Venezuela is not a country you can ignore, in my opinion,” Rodriguez summarized.
Links to the October Rodriguez interviews on Scout.com (subscriber-only):