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MLB to create Puerto Rican training program

Major League Baseball and the Department of Recreation and Sports of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are joining forces to create an after-school baseball program designed to help develop high school players on the island.

The nine-month program for players in grades 9 to 11 will feature three hours of instruction, three days a week, starting May 6 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. The program will eventually expand to four regions on the island, with 35-50 players expected to participate at each region.

Tryouts are scheduled for April 22-24.

"In Puerto Rico, there are academies like the Carlos Beltran Academy and the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, but overall, there is not a high school baseball program," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "There are some players that cannot afford the academies, or have the opportunity, and we want to help that group with their development by getting them quality instruction in the hopes that they will grow."

It's already been a banner year for baseball in Puerto Rico. Last June, Carlos Correa, who attended the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, made history as the first Puerto Rican player selected with the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Correa and Jesmuel Valentin, who was selected by Dodgers with the 51st pick, were among the four players taken in the First-Year Player Draft from PRBAHS. Overall, 25 players from the island were drafted, and four additional Puerto Rican players were signed after a showcase put together by Major League Baseball not long after the Draft.

What's more, the Puerto Rico Winter League, which has struggled in recent years, resumed play with six teams last fall, and the island's World Baseball Classic team came within one victory of winning the championship trophy.

"There's a lot of excitement, because a lot has happened in Puerto Rico in the last several months," Araujo said. "When you think about Correa and World Baseball Classic, you can feel the momentum, and it seems to be growing. This program is something we have been planning, and the timing is just right."

Overall, the number of Puerto Ricans in the Major Leagues has declined since the commonwealth became subject to the First-Year Player Draft in 1989, but there were 13 players from Puerto Rico on Opening Day 25-man rosters this season, compared to 11 players last year.

"Today is a big day for baseball in Puerto Rico," said Ramon Orta, the island's secretary of recreation and sports. "Baseball is one of our main sports, and it's important we provide different opportunities for the kids that want to develop their talents and follow in the footsteps of greats like Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar and Orlando Cepeda. This is the first step, a big step to helping the kids."

In addition to the after-school program, Major League Baseball, through a partnership with the Puerto Rico Scouts Association, will now operate the annual "Torneo de Excelencia," the biggest high school tournament on the island. Orientation for the tournament begins on April 29 and play continues through May 4.

"These programs will help increase the opportunities for Puerto Ricans to get into Major League Baseball," Orta said. "But just as important, it will help them develop into good people for the country. It helps them develop as human beings."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB.