A look inside the Dominican Summer League

August 24th, 2018

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- The paved road off the Carretera Mella highway that leads into the 50-acre complex is lined with thick green brush on one side. There's an orange, red and brown brick wall with "Academia de Baseball de Los Chicago Cubs" outlined in the shape of the famous marquee outside of Wrigley Field on the other side.

Inside the complex, a security guard stands behind a large green metal gate that greets all visitors and features a sign with the famous Cubs logo. They "Fly The W" in the Dominican, too. The famous white "W" flag soars high above the complex alongside the flags for the United States, Dominican Republic and a white Cubs walking bear flag. But victories for the Dominican Summer League teams here and in academies across the country are not counted in the win-loss column.

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Games in the DSL are a teaching tool and the real measure of success for international prospects in this league is progress. The league is affectionately referred to as the "kindergarten of professional baseball," but these kids can play and there's a reason why scouts from opposing teams can be spotted in the stands taking notes and reporting back to their superiors. The players in this league have enough value to be considered secondary pieces in Major League trades.

"The Dominican Summer League is vital to the development of our Latin players, especially the kids we're signing at 16, 17 years old," said Louis Eljaua, special assistant to the president and general manager of the Cubs. "It's their first taste of pro ball. We try to accomplish a lot of things here at the academy, not just in the Dominican Summer League Season, but throughout the year. But this is probably the most important part of our year down here with the players, the academy, because it's an actual professional season."

Every club has at least one team in the 72-game regular season Dominican Summer League that starts in June and ends in late August. There are also playoffs. The Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians, Brewers, Phillies, Rangers, Rays, Red Sox, Royals and Tigers have so many players that they have two teams in the DSL.

Most players in the DSL are 17 to 22 years old. The best prospects graduate to the Arizona Rookie League or the Gulf Coast League in Florida then Spring Training, Extended Spring Training and lower level Minor League teams.

"The Summer League is about the games, for me, and I think a lot of organizations feel the same way," said Dave Keller, the Cubs field coordinator in the Dominican Republic. "It's not about the volume of work before the games. We want to see what these guys can do in the games because most of them don't train for the games, they train for the tryout to get signed. We want to see how they act and react to situations, what their instincts are like. That's where the teaching comes in."

Instruction for players in the Dominican Summer League also includes English classes and courses on life skills at their academies. The Cubs are among the teams to institute a mental skills program designed to help the prospects cope with the pressures of being a professional athlete.

"Whenever you're beginning to introduce different concepts from a baseball culture standpoint, there is a progression that has to take place," said Steve Merriman, the club's assistant pitching coordinator. "We can't expect these young guys, 16 to 21, to be at the same level a college player in the United States might be at 21 or 22. They have had their developmental time, some of them through high school, summer programs that are prevalent, and up to their college program. We are taking smaller steps, introducing certain pieces of their baseball knowledge and trying to lay that foundation for them to build on."

All DSL players -- most teams have around 80 -- live at their academies and their day usually starts at 5:30 a.m. with breakfast. There's just enough time to lift weights and get early batting and fielding practice before first pitch at 10:30 a.m. each day. After the games, the prospects eat lunch and go to class. They usually have dinner between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., followed by a little free time before bed. There are no DSL games Sunday.

"It's been a great experience," said right-handed pitcher Benjamin Rodriguez, 19, who signed with the Cubs last March and learned English in the months that followed. "They've been my favorite team ever since 2010 and I'm grateful for the experience because that's my wish, being a professional baseball player."

International prospects who sign during the most recent international signing period that began July 2 cannot play in the DSL until the following year and usually start their pro careers in the Tricky League, an informal league made up of recent signees. That's the reason why you won't see new Cubs like Richard Gallardo, who is ranked No. 5 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list, outfielder , who is ranked No. 18, or left-handed pitcher Joel Machado, who is ranked No. 29, in the DSL until next summer.

"I'd say 95 percent of [international prospects], maybe more, all go through the Dominican Summer League," Eljaua said. "It's a great base of what it is and what's expected to them, so that when they get to the States, they're not just getting there without any expectations about what it is to be a professional player. They get to the States, they're not lost puppies. The staff works really hard and we are fortunate to have the support from the front office and ownership."