Three years ago I wrote about the Rockies' Latin America academy which had just opened in the Dominican Republic. This new facility was part of a revolution in international baseball in which teams were expanding their operations in Latin America and opening new baseball-only facilities. The Rockies were among the first teams to open this new generation of state of the art practice fields which incorporated a dorm-like atmosphere, with educational facilities and fields for advancing player's baseball skills.
Not only did the Rockies invest in a Latin baseball facility, but since the academy opened they've also begun spending more money on highly regarded Latin American prospects. Until recently the Rockies' most expensive Latin free agent was Rosell Herrera who was inked in 2010 for a $550,000 bonus. In the past three years the Rockies have exceeded that amount by signing Carlos Herrera for $1.2 million in 2013, then spending $1.3 million on Pedro Gonzalez in 2014, and $2 million on Daniel Montano in 2015.
This year's Asheville team includes several guys who were a part of the first wave of academy players graduating to full season ball in the United States.
Carlos Herrera is one of those exciting young players making their full season debut. The 19-year-old has been compared by some scouts to Asdrubal Cabrera and will be paired with Brendan Rodgers in the Tourists infield this season. Herrera spent a year and half in the DSL before earning a promotion to Boise last year. The Rockies must've been impressed with the Venezuelan, because his promotion to the United States from the academy was one of the quickest in memory.
"I wasn't surprised to be sent here so quickly," said Carlos through an interpreter about his early promotion. "I stayed working hard and thanks to God I'm here and playing real baseball."
Carlos explained how the academy not only helps players to learn English, but also more advanced mental adaptation techniques, such as handling themselves in pressure situations and how to focus.
"When I came to the United States it wasn't hard to adjust, because the Rockies taught me how to order food and communicate and the basic things," Herrera said about his transition. "When I got here I thought it would be hard, but I had a base and I just did it."
Herrera is still trying to get a feel for the advanced pitchers in Low-A, and is batting just .182 through 10 games. He's getting a chance to play several positions however, as he's started five games at shortstop and three games at second. Look for Carlos to heat up as the weather warms up and he begins to settle into a groove.
Hamlet Marte is another DSL player representing the Tourists this season. The 22-year-old is playing in full season ball for the first time in his career and is batting .313 through four games. At one time the Dominican held the DSL Rockies record for home runs in a season with seven. That same year, Marte was awarded the league MVP for being the most outstanding player in the DSL.
"When you start the system so young, you can't wait to get under the lights and play baseball," said the catching prospect. "So now I'm doing it earlier in the year and I'm so excited, it's awesome."
While Hamlet and Carlos are both interesting prospects, there is a whole stable of players developing out of the Rockies Latin America program and both players couldn't help but talk about one potential player we'll likely see in Grand Junction at some point this year - Pedro Gonzalez.
"Pedro is a really awesome guy as a person," said Herrera. "He's a friend. As a player he's got a lot of skills. He is now an outfielder, but when he was a shortstop he was really good. I don't understand why they changed him to the outfield, but he's pretty good in the outfield too."
Hamlet confided that Pedro may have outgrown the shortstop position, saying he had grown two inches this past summer.
"He's really tall, he's like 6-foot-6 now," said Marte about Gonzalez.
Pedro broke Hamlet's home run record this year blasting eight home runs in 63 games. The Dominican fell in love with his power after hitting six home runs in the first month of the season and his strikeout totals began to rise along with his number of fly ball outs. The right-handed batter struggled throughout the last half of the season posting an OPS that hovered around .500 for the final two months.
Overall Pedro finished with a .251/.318/.418 slash line which is pretty good for a 17-year-old making his professional debut. Add in the fact that the DSL is a notorious pitchers league and the season can be considered a promising success for a player of his age. Scouts will be watching Pedro's body to see how it fills out as he grows into it and whether he can maintain his plate discipline as his power develops.
While money spent on international free agents doesn't always pay off directly, neither does high draft picks in the June draft. Baseball is an inexact science and the more money teams invest in scouting, facilities, and players it pays off in in a stronger system. Carlos Gonzalez, Miguel Castro and Jorge De La Rosa are all examples of players signed in the international free agent system, and now, it's an exciting prospect that in the future the Rockies will be developing players of that caliber rather than just trading for them.