ARLINGTON -- Leody Taveras is a 17-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic, a switch-hitter with power, speed and a strong right arm. The Rangers signed him for $2.1 million on July 2 last year, and he is currently the No. 15 prospect in the organization, according to MLBPipeline.com.
He could one day surge to No. 2, a spot currently held by outfielder Nomar Mazara. Another native of the Dominican Republic and the Rangers' Minor League Player of the Year, Mazara is expected to start the season at Triple-A Round Rock.
But Mazara will be in big league camp during Spring Training and could make his Major League debut at some point this season, another big payoff for the Rangers' aggressive efforts in the international market.
International free agents are a significant part of the Rangers' scouting and player development strategy, which is why general manager Jon Daniels and many other front-office operatives are spending this week at the club's Dominican Republic academy in Boca Chica. Located in a beach town just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo, the academy is the home base for the Rangers' wide-ranging scouting and player development efforts all across Latin America, from Venezuela to Curaçao.
Daniels has been going down there every winter for 15 years, and this time he is taking his wife Robyn and three children with him.
"I wanted to show them a little bit of what we do down there," Daniels said.
The Rangers do quite a lot at Boca Chica. They hold tryouts for 15- and 16-year-old prospects who are eligible to be signed on July 2. Young Latin players who do sign with the Rangers begin their journey to the big leagues at the academy. The complex has living accommodations for up to 80 players where they not only learn about baseball, but also weight training, nutrition, how to speak English and other necessities for playing in the United States.
The Rangers, who operate one of the many academies in the DR, are looking to improve their facilities. Team owners Ray Davis and Neil Leibman are also making the trip with the primary goal of finding a spot to build a new Dominican academy. The club began renting the Boca Chica facility in 2011, but it was supposed to be only temporary.
"It's not up to our standard," Daniels said. "We moved in there thinking it would only be a few years; it has been longer than that. The facility is a little bit run down. It serves its function, but we would like to be better than that."
Taveras wasn't the only signing by the Rangers last summer. They also signed Cuban second baseman Andy Ibanez to a $1.6 million contract, Venezuelan outfielder Miguel Aparicio for $500,000 and Mexican pitcher Rodolfo Garcia for $200,000.
They join a farm system stocked with Latin American prospects. In addition to Mazara and Taveras, the Rangers' Top 30 also includes pitcher Yohander Mendez (No. 10, Venezuela), shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 13, Dominican Republic), pitcher Ariel Jurado (No. 17, Panama), shortstop Michael De Leon (No. 19, Dominican Republic), pitcher Jose Leclerc (No. 20, Dominican Republic), outfielder Jairo Beras (No. 23, Dominican Republic), Ronald Guzman (No. 24, Dominican Republic) and pitcher Frank Lopez (No. 25, Venezuela).
Other clubs have noticed the Rangers' success. A.J. Preller was responsible for rebuilding the Rangers' presence in Latin America before being hired as the Padres' general manager. Gil Kim took over as international director of scouting before being hired away by the Blue Jays. The Rangers hope to name a replacement in the next few weeks, although assistant general manager Thad Levine remains in charge of the Rangers' international efforts.
Even with recent bonus-pool restrictions being placed on the international free-agent market, the competition has become more intense with a greater influx of players from Cuba. Those 23 and over are not subject to the bonus-pool restrictions.
In 2012, the Cubs signed outfielder Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract. Three years later, infielder Hector Olivera received $62.5 million over six years, including a $28 million signing bonus, from the Dodgers. Yasmany Tomas signed for $68.5 million over six years with the D-backs. The talent hasn't stopped coming.
"If the guy is older than 23, he doesn't count against the cap," Daniels said. "It's kind of a loophole in the system. It's only money, no penalties. Unlike younger players or drafted player, there is no cap system. That's why you see some of the bigger numbers for the older Cuban players."
But the Rangers still intend to be aggressive in seeking younger talent, which is why the annual visit to the Dominican Republic is important to them.
"Everything is on an individual basis," Daniels said. "We never cared what country a guy is from or his background is. But there's no doubt with the political changes there are more Cubans coming out. If it's the right fit, we are interested, regardless of the country."