The search for the next great international prospect takes scouts to all corners of Latin America -- from the highways in bustling cities like Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to winding dirt roads in small fishing villages like La Sabana, Venezuela.:: 2018 International Signing Period ::The path takes them through places
The search for the next great international prospect takes scouts to all corners of Latin America -- from the highways in bustling cities like Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to winding dirt roads in small fishing villages like La Sabana, Venezuela.
:: 2018 International Signing Period ::
The path takes them through places like Mexico, Central America, and backroads across the Caribbean. There, they watch teenage prospects in tryouts, test them in private workouts and, if the scouts are lucky, they get to pit the teens against other top prospects in games.
And while each team has their own method and strategy, scouting 15-year-olds and projecting them as Major Leaguers several years in advance is an inexact science.
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Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., the top prospect in baseball, was about 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds soaking wet when the international scouts came calling in Venezuela. He was athletic and had the family baseball pedigree, but there were doubts about his future -- and those reservations helped keep 29 teams from signing him when he became eligible on July 2, 2014.
Acuna Jr. is one of the most dynamic players in the game, and he's on track to be the best player in a family full of big leaguers. It's impossible to know how great Acuna will be, but it's already certain that he has the opposing international scouting directors who missed him shaking their heads every time he steps on the field.
"I had him on a platter and ready to sign, but I started getting picky," one National League executive said. "He was athletic and he had tools, but I thought his swing was too long. I made a mistake, but that's how it is. You get a couple of looks at a kid and you have to make a decision. I have learned from that experience, though."
Acuna Jr.'s size discouraged some scouts, but there are numerous reasons why so many teams could have overlooked him. Maybe he didn't throw, hit or run well during a workout with a team because he was tired or he simply had a bad day. Maybe an area scout didn't "pound the table" hard enough to sign him or the local scouts didn't see him perform well in games.
There's also a lot of second-guessing that comes with investing thousands -- and sometimes millions -- of dollars into 16-year-old prospects. So it's not uncommon for decisionmakers to have some doubt, especially when each team has a limited amount of money to spend on the international market -- and particularly if a player lacks an obvious "wow" factor.
Acuna was a decent prospect, but he didn't wow anyone. His $100,000 signing bonus was his biggest offer and almost double what the Royals, who finished second, wanted to pay. The D-backs also showed some interest. But a lot of teams never even saw Acuna -- and those that did, soon forgot about him.
Perhaps, the teams that missed on Acuna speak to a greater issue in international scouting. International scouts are often forced to emphasize a young prospect's "present tools," meaning current skills, over how those skills will project in the future. Acuna is an example of a prospect who developed tools and improved over time with physical growth, hard work and experience.
"We blew it. I heard some rumors there were some makeup issues and something about the family," one American League international director said. "We were obviously wrong. He was a $100,000 player and nobody expected him to be this good."
Acuna didn't rank among MLB Pipeline's Top 30 International Prospects list in 2014, and the players who did make the list highlight why signing and developing 16-year-olds is a tough task.
Nobody on the list has advanced past Class A, except for Franklin Perez, who ranked No. 21 and signed with the Astros for $1,000,000. Perez, now pitching at the Double-A level for the Tigers, is the club's top-ranked prospect, and was acquired from Houston as part of the Justin Verlander trade. Dermis Garcia, the No. 1 international prospect that year and the Yankees' current No. 20 prospect, signed with New York for $3 million. He spent last season at Class A.
"The truth is, the bonus doesn't make the player -- and it doesn't matter what a team gives you, you work hard and that's what they want," Acuna Jr., 20, said. "You have to work hard every day."
You can argue that international scout Rolando Petit, who signed Acuna out of La Sabana, worked his entire life to land the phenom. While Acuna might be every team's greatest international miss, it's Petit's greatest hit.
"I always told myself as a scout that I have to visit players in La Sabana because I knew they loved baseball there," said Petit, 51, who worked 26 years with the Braves, starting in 1991. "I got to know a lot of people and made a lot friends over the years. When I saw Ronald at 14 1/2, I already knew his mother and father, uncles, grandfather and grandmother. I knew the Escobars from the beginning."
Petit, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, was 12 years old the first time he visited Acuna's hometown. He had heard about the town's beautiful beaches, bountiful fishing and love of baseball from his childhood buddy, Ivan Escobar, who had family there.
The Escobar family name is ubiquitous in La Sabana, with links through both of Acuna's parents. Acuna's family includes Jose Escobar, who reached the big leagues with the Indians in 1991, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, former Angels and Blue Jays pitcher Kelvim Escobar, former big league pitcher Edwin Escobar and Jose Campos, who reached the Majors in 2016.
Ivan's brother, Angel Escobar, was the first player from La Sabana to play in the Major Leagues, when he suited up for the Giants in 1988. Another brother, Oscar, played in the Minors with the Blue Jays and Pirates. His brother Miguel Escobar is not only Ronald Acuna Sr.'s cousin, he's also his godfather.
The Escobar family is so big and has so many professional baseball ties, it can field two full teams for its annual baseball game every December.
"It's a very small town and we all know each other," Kelvim Escobar said from Venezuela. "You come here, and you are going to see kids running on the beach and training like we did. This is what we do here. We breathe baseball."
Petit once scouted Acuna Sr., but the outfielder signed with the Mets for $15,000 before he could close the deal. Years later, Petit asked for a second opinion on an interesting, but undersized, infielder. But that prospect, Jose Altuve, soon signed with the Astros for $15,000. Petit's own misses reinforced a valuable lesson in international scouting.
"If you like a player, sign the player -- because you never know if he will make it to the big leagues," Petit said. "I missed on Ronald Sr., and I knew him. I missed on Altuve, but that's baseball. Sometimes, you have to go for it -- especially if the player checks all of the boxes. Ronald Jr. could hit, he was athletic, and I knew everything about him. The passion was there. That smiling face you see now is the same face he had back then."
Petit was part of the international staff that signed Martin Prado, Elvis Andrus, Gregor Blanco, Luis Avilan, Jesus Sucre, Ozzie Albies, Jose Peraza, and Julio Teheran. Under the guidance of top international scout Johnny Almaraz from 2007-14, the Braves established themselves as one of the most respected and productive teams on the international market. Almaraz, who approved all of the international signings, joined the Phillies as director of amateur scouting in October of '14.
"In the United States, you start watching high school kids at 15 and later sign them at 18. But, in Latin America, you have to watch at 14 and a year and half later at 16, you have to make the call on them," Petit said. "Ronald [Jr.] was not big, but he had a good arm and could hit the ball. You [could] see bat control early. What else can you ask for? We did [our] due diligence about family. But, in this case, I knew everything."
Acuna Jr.'s little brother Luisangel will be eligible to sign with a Major League club on July 2, but there's no chance the Braves or Petit will be involved in the signing.
The Braves can't sign a player for more than a $300,000 bonus during the upcoming period, after exceeding their bonus pools. Luisangel is expected to command a much higher fee.
Petit was among the scouts who did not have his contract renewed when the Braves revamped their international department and resource allocation because of signing restrictions brought on by infractions on the international and domestic markets.
There may also be additional Acunas in the Major League pipeline. Acuna Sr.'s youngest sons, Bryan, 12, and Kenny, 7, also play ball -- and they're already carrying on La Sabana's baseball tradition.
"You can't imagine how proud my family is. There was a parade for Ronald when he got called up," Acuna Sr. said. "This is something you have to live and experience, because when I get asked about it, I don't have the words. All I can say is, everyone is proud."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.