Matthew Lugo has a chance to be the latest in a long line of baseball greats from Puerto Rico when he’s selected in next week’s MLB Draft. The shortstop -- a nephew of former Major League All-Star Carlos Beltrán -- leads this year’s class of players from the island.
There have been 22 players selected out of Puerto Rico in each of the past two Drafts, and this year’s group could be even bigger.
“It would be an honor to get my name called in the Draft, because it’s something I have been working very hard for all of these years,” Lugo, 18, said. “We play good baseball in Puerto Rico, and I know we have had a lot of great players. It feels good to have the talent to represent my island the way they did.”
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Lugo, who has committed to the University of Miami, is the highest-ranked prospect (No. 38) from Puerto Rico in this year’s class. He is an advanced hitter with lots of upside and he has the advantage of having Beltran as one of his personal coaches.
“Matthew is a good and humble kid with tremendous ability, but the thing that impresses me most is his discipline and focus,” said Beltran, who serves as a special adviser to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “To be so young and be so focused is good. He’s aware of all the sacrifices you have to make to be a good player, and I think he has the right mentality to face the difficulties that come in pro ball.”
Lugo’s Draft class carries historical significance, too, representing the 30th anniversary since Puerto Ricans were able to enter the MLB Draft, which changed how talent is acquired on the island. Prior to 1989, prospects from Puerto Rico signed as international free agents, like players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
The list of Puerto Ricans to play in the Majors prior to the Draft includes names like Hall of Famers Ivan Rodriguez and Roberto Alomar, as well as Bernie Williams, Juan Gonzalez and Jorge Posada. The current crop of big league stars from Puerto Rico -- players like Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, José Berríos, Edwin Díaz, Eddie Rosario, Enrique Hernández, Yadier Molina and Francisco Lindor -- were all selected in the Draft and are now among the biggest names in the game.
"There were a lot of Puerto Ricans in the big leagues before the Draft, and then once the Draft happened, it kind of slowed down a little bit because now you have to compete against the guys here in the States,” said Lindor, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and selected in the first round by the Indians in 2011 out of Montverde High School in Florida. “But now I think it's back where there's a lot of us in the big leagues and the Minor Leagues, so I think it's mixed feelings, you know?”
Overall, there have been 648 players selected out of Puerto Rico since the Cubs made Ed Larregui the first Puerto Rican player chosen in the 1989 Draft. Since then, there have been 174 players born in Puerto Rico to play at least one Major League game.
Here’s the breakdown:
• There have been 12 first-round selections out of Puerto Rico, including Correa, who went first overall to the Astros in 2012, and first-round sandwich picks Berrios (Twins, 2012), Jesmuel Valentine (Dodgers, 2012) and Luis Atilano (Braves, 2003).
• There have been 13 selections from Puerto Rico in the second round, 13 in the third round and 16 in both the fourth and fifth rounds. There have been 97 players from the island selected in rounds six through 10.
Lugo could be selected during the first round or after the first round as a sandwich pick.
“If you’re good enough, somebody’s going to find you, somebody’s going to draft you,” said Pirates third-base coach Joey Cora, who could have signed out of high school in Puerto Rico and later was drafted in the first round by San Diego out of Vanderbilt in 1985. “At the end of the day, you’ve just got to go out there and play. I don’t think you can worry about whether you get drafted in this round or that round. Money-wise, that’s got implications. But at the end of the day, if you’re good enough, somebody’s going to see you, somebody’s going to draft you and you’re going to get the opportunity to play.”
Critics of Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the Draft believe the players there face obstacles to being chosen that those from the 50 states do not. They believe a lack of exposure, inadequate training opportunities and a shortage of educational support make for an unbalanced playing field with their counterparts from the States. Most high schools in Puerto Rico do not have baseball teams and their curricula are predominately in Spanish, which can create another set of challenges.
The focus now across the island is on helping the sport grow, with an emphasis on creating collegiate and professional opportunities. To promote baseball on the island, Major League Baseball created the Elite Program in 2013 to provide training and scouting opportunities for scouts from MLB clubs, colleges and universities. Close to 120 players from Puerto Rico have received college scholarships and 25 have been drafted by Major League clubs out of the program. In July, Alomar will partner with MLB for a showcase tournament for the top amateur talent on the island for second consecutive year.
Players like Lindor and Baez moved to Florida for high school to improve their options, but the rise of private baseball high school academies, like the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, where Correa played, and the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, which Lugo attended, are increasingly providing opportunities for potential draftees who want to stay home. Puerto Rican teens now have the option to try out for those schools along with other programs at the International Baseball Academy, Leadership Christian Academy, Christian Military Academy and El Shaddai Christian Academy to increase their chances of getting drafted or earning a college scholarship. Other options include the National Baseball Academy, Escuela Especializada en Baseball Manuel Cruz Maceira, Pro Baseball Academy and B-You Academy.
The academies play against each other in league games during the week, which allows MLB scouts to see the players and return stateside to watch college prospects play on the weekends.
Lugo’s school was defeated by Leadership Christian Academy in the finals in April.
“Before I was drafted, the mentality over there was you had to go to the high school in the States in order to get exposed and for scouts to see you and that way you will get drafted high,” Correa said. “I had the option to play high school in the States, but I wanted to prove to everybody that it could be done from Puerto Rico, and being the first pick overall opened everybody’s eyes. They saw it could be done.”
How the evolving landscape of baseball in Puerto Rico will impact the Draft in the next decade is still to be determined. What’s certain is that there is reason for optimism. There have been 131 players drafted out of Puerto Rico since Correa was picked seven years ago.
“The future is going to be even better, and we have some proof with players that have come from Puerto Rico’s different academies and programs,” Beltran said. “There is still work to be done. We want to keep helping players, get the most out of them and give them opportunities through college and professional ball. But it’s about having a long-term impact, not just short-term, and changing lives, developing good players and good citizens.”
When his name gets called, Lugo will be the latest example.
The 2019 Draft will take place on June 3-5, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB Network and MLB.com at 6 p.m. ET on Monday. MLB Network will broadcast the first 41 picks (Round 1 and Competitive Balance Round A), while MLB.com will stream all 78 picks on Day 1. MLB.com will also provide live pick-by-pick coverage of Rounds 3-10 on Day 2, beginning with a preview show at 12:30 p.m. ET. Then, Rounds 11-40 can be heard live on MLB.com on Day 3, beginning at noon ET.
Go to MLB.com/Draft to see the Top 200 Prospects list, mock drafts from MLB Pipeline analysts Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, the complete order of selection and more. And follow @MLBDraft on Twitter to see what Draft hopefuls, clubs and experts are saying.
Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.