CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Diego Cartaya was at the Dodgers academy in the Dominican Republic, far away from his home in Maracay, Venezuela, when his cellphone buzzed and the tragic news appeared on his screen.The stunned teenage catcher immediately texted his childhood friend Daniel Flores. There was no response. It was
CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Diego Cartaya was at the Dodgers academy in the Dominican Republic, far away from his home in Maracay, Venezuela, when his cellphone buzzed and the tragic news appeared on his screen.
The stunned teenage catcher immediately texted his childhood friend Daniel Flores. There was no response. It was true.
Flores, a top catching prospect in the Red Sox organization who was less than one year older than Cartaya, died from cancer in early November, not long after his diagnosis. The news shocked the baseball world.
"We played together and we were at the same tryouts because the catchers were always together," Cartaya, 16, said in Spanish. "It's so sad, and it's a reminder that you have to live your life and do what you enjoy. For me, that's baseball and taking advantage of the opportunities to help my family. You can be here today and gone tomorrow."
The lessons learned from life, death and a home country in crisis have helped shape the young Cartaya, and he remains focused on his goal to sign with a Major League team when the international signing period begins on July 2. Cartaya is one of 51 prospects participating in Major League Baseball's two-day showcase for players from Venezuela this week at Estadio Once de Noviembre.
The event is being held in Colombia because of the economic crisis and political unrest in Venezuela.
"Venezuela is the second largest producer of international talent for us, second only to the Dominican Republic," said Joel Araujo, MLB's senior manager of international talent development. "It's a nation with a rich baseball tradition and a great passion for the game. This showcase is important because it provides these young Venezuelan players with an opportunity to be seen by all club evaluators in one setting."
There have been 389 prospects from Venezuela signed during the current international signing period that started last July, and 261 that signed during the previous signing period. During the last five years, there have been 1,221 players from Venezuela to sign with big league teams, second only to the Dominican Republic (1,971) among countries outside of the United States during that span.
Including the rosters in the Major Leagues and Minor Leagues, there are 1,335 players from Venezuela under contract compared to 2,130 players from the Dominican Republic. Overall, there have been 376 players from Venezuela to play in the Major Leagues and 708 from the Dominican Republic.
"Anytime you can see the Venezuelan kids outside of their country, I think it's important to go because of the accessibility issues that arise sometimes," one high-ranking National League official said. "Think about it, there are 1,300 Venezuelans between the Majors and the Minor Leagues. There are 2,000 Dominicans between the Majors and Minors. The gap is not that big. If you want to succeed in baseball, you are going to need to compete for the Venezuelan players and put them in your system."
Tuesday's event began with a timed 60-yard run followed by infield and outfield practice. The prospects also took several rounds of batting practice and played in a game. The showcase concludes Wednesday with rounds of batting practice and two more games.
As for Cartaya, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound teenager showed off his strong arm and good footwork during the workout. The right-handed hitter focused on driving the ball to center field and the opposite field instead trying to hit home runs during batting practice, which earned him praise from evaluators watching from the bleachers. Scouts like Cartaya's makeup, defense, hit tool and power potential.
The top prospects from this week's showcase and the showcase for Venezuelan teens last November in Aruba will participate in MLB's International Prospect Showcase with the top teens from across the Caribbean and Latin America next month in the Dominican Republic. Cartaya hopes to be there.
"This is a good event and it's great to get all of these players together in one place," one NL international director said. "But this is only part of the job. If you are seeing these kids for the first time, you are behind and have to catch up."
Scouting players in Venezuela has become more complex in recent years, but it's not impossible. The Astros, Rays, Phillies, Rockies, Cubs and Tigers still have a strong presence on the ground and almost every team still scours the country in search of the next great player.
"You have to fish where the fish are and you still have to go there to get players," one baseball official said. "You can't just tell your general manager that you are going to stop scouting in Venezuela when so many players are coming out of there. There's too much talent and love of the game there."
The numbers could continue to grow. There are an estimated 3 million youth-league players in the country, with participants starting as young as age 4. There has also been a boost in attendance in the Venezuelan Winter League.
"Baseball is the No. 1 sport, but it is still entertainment and a form of distraction," the official said. "It offers a neutral site where people of different political affiliations can root for the same team or against another. It's also a sport that can help these kids make their dreams come true."
[Jesse Sanchez](mailto:[email protected]) is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB.