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New rules to overhaul int'l scouting landscape

August 24, 2018

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The scouting report, the official record and one of the most sacred documents in the international scouting world, spells out all the details.Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero showed up for his tryout with the Montreal Expos in 1993 here on the island on the back

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The scouting report, the official record and one of the most sacred documents in the international scouting world, spells out all the details.
Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero showed up for his tryout with the Montreal Expos in 1993 here on the island on the back of a motorcycle.
It was April. It was hot and the humidity was thick. Guerrero, then 18 years old and wearing mix-matched shoes, threw lasers from the outfield to third base all morning. He ran a timed 60-yard dash at a blazing speed and was limited at the plate because of a pulled groin. He signed for $2,500 and would go on to make baseball history.
More than 20 years later, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the husky teenage boy with the famous name and herculean power, signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for $3.9 million under a completely different set of circumstances. He's on the verge of a big league callup at 19, two years earlier than his father.
The next big international star will be discovered in different way.
It's been almost 50 years since legendary scout Epy Guerrero started the first baseball training camp on a dirt field in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, and changed the landscape of international scouting. In the decades that followed, growth promoted change. Errors forced corrections. Now, there's another transformation in the international scouting world and in the system that governs it.
"Countries outside of the United States remain an important source of Major League players and we want to do all we can to promote the health of the game in those countries," said Morgan Sword, who oversees all international signings as part of his duties as senior vice president of league economics and operations for Major League Baseball. "We hope to improve our system of player acquisition and create a better working relationship with the trainer community of Latin America."
Sword and his staff have been researching priorities and policies related to international player acquisition since the beginning of the year. Their work has already led to a series of new rules on tryouts. Among the notable changes include a team's ability to try out players at their facility starting 18 months prior to being eligible to sign. The previous rule stated prospects had to wait until they were 16 years old or six months from becoming eligible to sign.
Another significant change allows teams to provide transportation, room and board for a prospect and one family member or guardian at a hotel or team academy up to 18 months before the prospect becomes eligible to sign. The rule immediately impacts young top prospects in Venezuela seeking a stable place to train and be evaluated.
The most significant changes involve the biggest issue on the international market. As part of the effort to reduce the use of performance-enhancing drugs, MLB has assumed drug testing for international prospects. Additionally, the league has also enacted a series of rule changes and new initiatives through an optional program called the Partnership Program.
All players in the Partnership Program are subject to random drug testing, and trainers who choose to participate are subject to a background checks and must inform MLB of all players in their baseball programs. For their participation, trainers are rewarded with invitations to exclusive MLB-sponsored showcases. The first is scheduled for Sept. 18-20 in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, for prospects eligible to sign in 2019 and '20.
The Partnership Program also includes a teaching component that covers such topics as league rules, financial guidance, and other life skills. While clubs are responsible for educating prospects at their academies, the league hopes to improve on programs already in place.
There's also a new focus on aiding in the procurement of services such as transportation, medical, equipment, and administrative services at academies for all 30 clubs.
The changes come at an unprecedented time on the international market. Clubs have already combined to spend more than $120 million since the 2018-19 international signing period began July 2. The rise of Nationals star Juan Soto, Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and Guerrero Jr. along with other top prospects Eloy Jimenez, Victor Robles and Fernando Tatis Jr. reiterates why the international market remains an important part of the game.
And while most prospects sign with the team that offers the biggest bonus, teams are now employing new evaluation methods before an offer is even made.
When Vlad Jr. signed just three years ago, he participated in large showcases and prospect games like the JDB "Todos Estrellas" event held this week east of the capital city in San Antonio de Guerra. But those types of platforms were unheard of back when his father signed. Now, teams are using more video and tools like TrackMan -- the system that measures velocity, spin rate and exit speeds -- along with Statcast™, baseball swing analyzers and other technology to gather data and help with evaluations and projections.
Sample sizes can be an issue when using advanced technology on the international teens, so traditional methods and experienced evaluators are still an integral part of the process. That could be part of the reason more teams are employing more cross-checker scouts, many of whom are from the United States, to assist in international evaluations by comparing prospects.
Teams have had success on the international side using traditional scouting, an analytical approach and a combination of the two. It's all in an effort to find a competitive advantage.
Remember, the goal is to sign international prospects and turn them into contributors on the Major League and Minor League levels. But if that doesn't work out, they have also proven to be valuable pieces in trades. That part has not changed in years. What really separates this era from those in the past is the high demand for international talent, competition among teams, and rules of engagement.
"The international market has become so specialized and you have to make the right decisions, because along the way, a lot of money was spent, and a lot of money was wasted," one National League executive said. "I think what teams are doing is learning from their mistakes, reading the market and trying to minimize risk. I think we've gone from Latin America being viewed as some sort of isolated market, to now it being part of the overall talent acquisition operation."

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.