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Prospects show skills at showcase in Dominican

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- It's two minutes before he steps into the batter's box at Estadio Quisqueya for a round of batting practice that could determine where he spends the next 10 months, and Luis Bautista looks nothing like the other teenage ballplayers gathered around the on-deck circle.

While the other prospects sport sharp new blue jerseys with white mesh sleeves and "MLB" in large letters stitched across the front of their chests, Bautista wears a mostly untucked blue T-shirt that probably used to be darker several washes ago. Bautista's pants are gray with blue stripes down the sides, while everyone else is wearing sleek pearly white ones.

The "DP" above the brim of Bautista's cap stands for Don Papito, a local sponsor famous across the island for its eggs. The three letters on the caps of the boys standing in the same group are for Major League Baseball and its new way of getting players in the Dominican Republic in front of teams from the United States: showcases.

"What is your name, son?" an official asks. "OK, Bautista. You're next."

Since Sunday, some of the top teenage talents in the world have been competing against each other in the first-ever tournament to feature USA Baseball's 15-and-under team, the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School and two teams from MLB's Amateur Prospect League, consisting of players who will be eligible to sign with Major League clubs next July 2. Some of these Dominican teens will end up at MLB academies by this time next year. Some of the American and Puerto Rican players could one day be selected in the First-Year Player Draft.

The goal to make it to the big leagues is the same, even though their paths to get there are quite different, which explains why Bautista snuck into the stadium in the first place.

He steps to the plate and is late on his first few swings. He lines a few balls into foul territory near the first-base line and completely misses a pitch. He hits a slow ground ball that doesn't make it out of the infield. The display isn't exactly what the 15-year-old expected when he and his trainer showed up at the stadium before the players and officials arrived, but he's not discouraged. Bautista showed off his defensive prowess and throwing arm from shortstop in front of a scout earlier in the day when the grounds crew was still raking the field and watering the grass.

A closer look reveals that Bautista has new black Mizuno cleats, shiny new Easton batting gloves and a personalized batting helmet, all signs that he's clearly not just some random kid who walked in off the street into a major showcase, even though that's exactly what he did.

"Everyone wants to get more involved with our program," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "The trainers, who are the resource to develop young players in the Dominican Republic, are starting to come around and we are getting a lot of support from them. They want to get their players invited to our events and sometimes [they] just show up."

In February, MLB held a two-day Venezuela-Dominican Republic Showcase, which featured 25 prospects from each country. The prospects displayed their skills in front of more than 200 big league scouts in a series of drills. The teams played a six-inning game on the first day of the event and a doubleheader on the second day.

A month later, the MLB Amateur Prospect League was created for players eligible to sign professional contracts this past July and for older players who were already eligible. An All-Star team of MLB Prospect League players squared off against the 18-and-under Canadian National Junior Team at the end of league play.

This latest event is an international one, with eight games in four days in one of the most historic stadiums in all of Latin America. Think Area Code Games, Caribbean-style.

"We are just building on what we have done in the past. We want to expand and involve different countries and countries that we know take different routes to live out their dream as professional baseball players," Araujo said. "We thought it would be a good idea to get everyone in one setting, have our scouts come so they can evaluate them and also create an atmosphere where you see a player's makeup and continue to gather information on players."

According to Araujo, MLB's Amateur Prospects League attracts prospects who also play in the Dominican Prospect League (DPL), International Prospect League (IPL) and the newly formed National Prospect League (NPL) because MLB provides a neutral environment and boasts the best facilities, which increases the chances of a player signing with a club.

Overall, 126 players have signed with Major League clubs since this year's international signing period began on July 2. Including Puerto Rico Baseball High School and Academy's Carlos Correa, who was selected by Houston with the first overall pick, 25 players from Puerto Rico were selected in the First-Year Player Draft. Additionally, four players were signed out of an MLB showcase in Puerto Rico a week after the Draft.

"This is a good opportunity and great exposure for our kids and our academy," said PRBAHS coach Carlos Berroa. "Baseball is baseball and if you [have] tools, you want to show them off in front of scouts. The more scouts that see you, the better chance you have to get to your goal. It doesn't matter if the avenue comes internationally or by playing in the United States, it's all about being exposed."

Seven of the 20 players on the Puerto Rico roster are 17 years old, and there are a few pitchers on MLB's prospects teams who are at least 16 and already eligible to sign with Major League teams. Only the roster for USA Baseball is made up entirely of players ages 15 and under.

"We are honored to be here and to represent the United States is exciting every time," USA Baseball manager Tom Muesborn said. "We are hoping we can play to the level that we are capable of playing at. They are a talented group. We saw some real good things in the trials and in practice and we hope that carries over."

It's too late for Bautista to suit up for this week's tournament and outside of a few innings every now and then, don't expect to find him watching from the stands. The young infielder has to work on his hitting before his next tryout, a fact he can't sneak past anyone no matter how early he shows up to the park.