O's DR academy strengthens commitment to international development

January 16th, 2024

SAN ANTONIO DE GUERRA, Dominican Republic -- During Mike Elias’ first week as the Orioles’ general manager in November 2018, he was presented with a blueprint. The document detailed a 22 1/2-acre piece of land in the Dominican Republic owned by developer Brian Mejía.

At the time, the area consisted of only dirt and trees. There weren’t even irrigation pipes under the ground. But the O’s had a long-term vision.

A little more than five years later, the site is now home to the state-of-the-art Orioles Dominican Academy.

Under a bright sun and clear blue skies on Tuesday morning in warm San Antonio de Guerra, the Orioles held the opening ceremony for the academy, which features three baseball fields as well as batting cages, pitching mounds, gym equipment, residential housing and more. It will serve as a home and training facility for international prospects coming through Baltimore’s system.

“We’ve done a lot in five years. We have the best record in the American League. We have the top Minor League system in all of baseball,” said Elias, whose O’s went 101-61 in 2023. “But this is the most important achievement our group has made in these five years.

“I think that this academy, and the Orioles’ presence in the Dominican Republic, is a big statement that it is impossible to excel in the Major Leagues without an excellent program in this country.”

In the years shortly before Elias’ arrival, Baltimore was uninvolved with the international market. That has changed under this front office. Samuel Basallo, the Orioles’ No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline, was signed out of the D.R. in January 2021, and the club has brought in multiple classes of top talent, including 19 more players on Monday’s International Signing Day.

The academy will become an important tool in Baltimore’s negotiations with international players, as the first-class modern facilities will be enticing to youngsters coming out of the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

“When we first came in, Mike Elias and I toured a bunch of woods and just a field,” Orioles vice president of international scouting and operations Koby Perez said. “Now that it’s done, it’s really a dream come true, and super beneficial to the Orioles, the players, the country of the Dominican Republic, the town of Guerra. In this project, there really are no losers. Everybody wins on this.”

The ceremony was well attended, and it began upon the arrival of Dominican Republic president Luis Abinader, who later received a customized Orioles jersey from manager Brandon Hyde. They were joined on stage by Elias, Mejía, D.R. Vice Minister of Sports Elvis Duarte, D.R. Commissioner of Baseball Junior Noboa and O’s executive vice president and chief operating officer Greg Bader.

In the crowd was Baltimore All-Star closer Félix Bautista, as well as the following former O’s players: Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Nelson Cruz, Melvin Mora, Hanser Alberto, Daniel Cabrera, Radhames Liz and Ubaldo Jiménez.

“It’s truly impressive, and it’s honestly a beautiful complex,” Bautista said via team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “When I stand here and look around, I think to myself, ‘Man, it’s a big difference from where I stayed when I was with the Orioles in their academy before.’ It really is impressive.”

How beneficial can it be for big league clubs to develop baseball players from Caribbean countries? Look no further than Bautista, a Santo Domingo, D.R., native who signed with Baltimore in August 2016. The 6-foot-8 right-hander is now a Mariano Rivera Award winner, receiving the honor in '23 (despite missing the final five weeks with a partial right UCL tear).

More international players are climbing the Orioles’ Minor League ranks, and waves of talent will continue to come into the organization in future years.

“This is part of the lifeblood of our team and the lifeblood of our organization,” Hyde said. “Giving them a great facility to train in is step one for a lot of our young players that we signed that are going to be Baltimore Orioles. To have them in this sort of facility, it’s incredible.”

The Orioles won’t waste any time putting their new D.R. academy to use. They’re holding a small camp for their latest class of international signees next week that will feature instruction from coaches throughout the system.

“We’re up and running Monday,” Perez said with a smile.

The vision from five years ago has come to fruition, and Baltimore’s international program is ready for its next big leap forward.

“It’s just unbelievable for me to see us actually be here right now and to look at it,” Elias said. “This isn’t just about excelling in baseball. This is going to change the lives of many young men here in this country.”