It's a sunny morning in mid-March on the backfields of the Rangers' Spring Training complex in Surprise, Ariz., and outfield prospect Gustavo Cabrera is running for his life.
His face is tight and his head bobs back and forth as he churns his legs down a path he has taken too many times to count. But he is relaxed. His shoulders are loose, and his hands are so wide open that they sometimes slap the side of his thighs as he makes his way toward the clipboard-holding scouts waiting for him at the finish line.
The White Tank Mountains that hovered over Cabrera's broad back at the start of the sprint are out of the picture, and the only sound that can be heard during the run are Cabrera's rhythmic exhalations and the chatty teenagers waiting to run next.
Once upon a time, the end of 60-yard dashes would be marked by stopwatches clicking in unison, a few claps from the gallery and a trip to the batting cage. But in today's digital age, Cabrera's smile and a few nods from the scouts let everyone know the race is over and that it's time to head to the field so he can show off his other tools in a game.
Welcome to the life of 16-year-old Cabrera of the Dominican Republic, ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's list of Top 20 International Prospects. For the six-foot, 190-pound Cabrera and young prospects like him across Latin America, it's a life that starts with a dream, continues with a sprint and sometimes ends with a marathon of a career in the Major Leagues.
"I don't feel any pressure," Cabrera said. "Will my life change? I hope it does. I have been working hard to live my dream and get to the Major Leagues one day."
The goal for such teenage prospects is to sign with a big league club when the international signing period begins on July 2 and enter a big league academy in the Dominican Republic. After two years, the organization that runs the academy will decide if the prospect is ready to start playing in the Minor Leagues in the U.S., although it's not uncommon for an international prospect to begin his pro career in the U.S. at 17.
Cabrera, who began working out with a private trainer at the age of 14, has dazzled scouts with his bat speed, hitting mechanics, range on defense and raw power in games and showcases during the past year.
"I don't think about my future as much as I think about my family at home who believe in me," Cabrera said. "The future will be what it will be. I already know it's going to be a good one, God willing."
In addition to Cabrera, scouts have raved about the defensive prowess of Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto, No. 2 on the list, and the all-around skills of No. 3 Jairo Beras, arguably the most recognizable name on the international market.
Beras already has a deal in place with the Rangers for $4.5 million, but Major League Baseball's department of investigations is trying to determine whether he is 16, the age he presented to MLB earlier this year, or 17 and eligible to sign now, as the Rangers claim.
There are 10 infielders, seven outfielders, two pitchers and one catcher on the Top 20 list. Six are from Venezuela; the rest are from the Dominican Republic.
"The crop this year, overall, is solid," said Rene Gayo, director of Latin American scouting for the Pirates. "There are a lot of interesting players out there. I don't think there are any legendary prospects when you compare this year to the past years, but there are some players you would like to have. That doesn't change."
But some things have changed on the international market.
In accordance with the new Basic Agreement, the international system will dictate that each team can spend up to $2.9 million for the 2012-13 signing period, and there are penalties for exceeding that number. It's quite a change when you consider that last year, the Rangers set a record for the highest international amateur bonus when they paid Nomar Mazara $4.95 million, in addition to signing Ronald Guzman for $3.45 million.
What's more, tryouts are no longer the only way for scouts to evaluate talent in Latin America. Such leagues as the Dominican Prospect League (DPL) and International Prospect League (IPL) have emerged to provide opportunities for organizations to watch prospects play in games in addition to traditional showcases.
Cabrera and 11 others on the Top 20 International list played in the DPL this season, and many toured Spring Training sites in Florida and Arizona for games as part of the league's travel squad.
"It is still the same process, but scouts have more looks at players than they did three years ago," said former big league scout Brian Mejia, president of the DPL. "Players are getting exposed, for better or worse, and that's good, because it allows scouts to make better decisions, and when scouts make good decisions on the right players for the right money, it makes the industry healthier."
Major League Baseball's efforts in the Dominican Republic gained traction last summer with the creation of El Torneo Supremo ("The Supreme Tournament"), and those efforts continue to gain momentum.
In February, MLB staged the two-day Venezuela-Dominican Republic Showcase at the Mets' academy in the Dominican, with 25 prospects from each country participating in a series of drills, plus two games.
MLB had similar showcases in Venezuela and the Dominican in 2011, but February's showcase was the first to combine players from the two countries. Fifteen players on the Top 20 International list participated.
Last month, MLB launched a league designed to provide a neutral ground so big league organizations could evaluate the top unsigned amateur players in the Dominican Republic. In addition to featuring players who will be eligible to sign on July 2, the league features games for older players who are already eligible.
"You are not going to develop a player six months prior to signing, but what we can do is help prepare them to become professionals on and off the field," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "We offer education, and also have the stadium component.We get to expose them to us as an office and dispel the misnomers of 'the big, bad MLB.'"
There is no fee to participate in the league, which includes an outreach program that features instructional clinics for younger players.
But some things will never change.
"A signing bonus does not make a ballplayer," Gayo said. "The thing that drives up a bonus is competition, availability, the notoriety and everyone being there at the same time, but as long as you are out there working, you will find players that people don't know about. When it's all said and done, it's about getting players that will go play."
The race to July 2 is on. Cabrera is already off and running.