MLB working to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico

January 14th, 2016

CAYEY, Puerto Rico -- When Kim Ng took over Major League Baseball's international operations four years ago, she took a special interest in Puerto Rico, where baseball had taken a dip in terms of youth participation and development of Major League talent.

It wasn't that baseball had fallen completely off the societal map, but there was no denying that the sport, over time, had taken a back seat among the youth growing up on the island. Some attribute that to Puerto Rican amateur players becoming subject to the MLB Draft in the early 1990s, which resulted in less of a financial incentive by teams to target and develop players within the country.

Others point to a natural evolution that has seen teens' interest turn to other sports and activities, such as soccer. Still others suggest the scouting efforts changed over time, as did the quality of the scouts scouring the island for talent.

Realistically, there is probably a little truth in each theory. Whatever the reason, the decline of Puerto Rican players in the big leagues was an undeniable fact as the 1990s became the 2000s, and it continued through the early millennium. Things are picking up, however, thanks in part to Major League Baseball taking a pointed interest in making sure young, talented Puerto Rican ballplayers have an outlet to hone their skills.

"Knowing the great history that it's had and the many players that have come from the island, it was really important for me that we allocate time, effort and human resources to the effort," said Ng, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations.

Ng is in Puerto Rico this week to observe the three-day MLB-sponsored showcase, designed to provide an informal audition for players who are eligible for the June Draft. The four-team showcase, made up of 160 players from several regions on the island, consisted of a pro-style workout and two doubleheaders. The event, held at Pedro Montañez Municipal Stadium in Cayey, has drawn more than 50 scouts from all 30 teams.

Teens display skills in Puerto Rico showcase

The showcase is not the only step MLB has taken to revive baseball in the area. It also started an after-school development program in four regions on the island, where children receive three hours of special baseball instruction three days per week. Several former Major Leaguers are now program instructors, including catcher Raul Casanova, who runs the operation, second baseman Jose Vidro and outfielder Hiram Bocachica.

"Since we started this, we have definitely seen an uptick in the number of players that have signed and are drafted over the last several years," Ng said. "In general, a coordinated effort with some of the groups on the island really helped to get them back on the map."

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa played a big role as well. Correa, the 2015 American League Rookie of the Year, made history in 2012 when he was the first Puerto Rican player to be selected first overall in the Draft. Ng doesn't shy away from the impact of that moment, calling it "huge" as an important step in Puerto Rico's reemergence into the baseball landscape.

"The day after he was drafted, his picture was on billboards, and people were dancing in the streets," Ng said.

By staying proactive in more remote areas in Puerto Rico, MLB hopes to eliminate the possibility of future Major League talent going undiscovered. The best way to do that? Give the game's scouts an easy way to see the best of what the country has to offer, all in one place. This is the third year MLB has sponsored a showcase in Puerto Rico.

"We try to give them a platform," said Joel Araujo, senior manager of international talent for MLB. "We've made an effort to give exposure and help rejuvenate the island. Every year we've seen an increase of scouts, which is interpreted as more interest on the island. Obviously the success of Correa and [Indians shortstop Francisco] Lindor has helped, too. We're happy with what we're seeing here. We have scouts, top evaluators here to see the best players from Puerto Rico."

That there is still so much untapped talent on the island has reinforced what MLB officials have long believed -- the interest in baseball hasn't gone away; it just needs a little more focused attention.

"We're doing a lot, but it's just kind of uncovering what already exists," Araujo said. "Puerto Ricans still love baseball and there's still a lot of talent here."