Dedication, money drive Rangers’ success in Latin America

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 05, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Friday: The business of baseball in the Dominican Republic isn’t perfect, with education often placed on the back burner.

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An older man in another country might have cringed to hear that he had lost a year of his life and actually wasn’t as young as he thought he was.

But as record-keeping goes in the Dominican Republic, and its citizens being laid-back by nature, the news didn’t come as a complete shocker to Jairo Beras early in 2012 when his agent informed him that he was born in 1994 and not 1995.

Scouts and officials with the Texas Rangers uncovered the discrepancy, digging up evidence and eventually a second birth certificate that showed Beras was a 17-year-old outfielder who was eligible to sign at once for $4.5 million before the spending limits in the new collective bargaining agreement kicked in.

“I didn’t think too much about it,” Beras said last week at the Rangers’ Dominican academy. “I just kept working hard. I felt like I could sign quicker and get to play baseball quicker. I’m fine with it. I just want to play baseball.”

Beras might not have cringed, but officials from many of the other teams in Major League Baseball did, as did officials in the Commissioner’s office.

In the end, an MLB investigation upheld the contract. The second birth certificate was validated. Beras, though, was suspended for one year for misrepresenting his age when he registered to play in an MLB showcase with a 1995 birthday before signing his contract.

Scouting in Latin America isn’t for anyone with weak knees or thin skin, and the Rangers have proven that in recent years by working tirelessly and spending big to land the elite talents.

They have drawn the ire of some of the teams they have beaten out for players, but to their critics they point to a dedicated staff and a willing ownership group for their successes.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “We are very competitive. We are in a group of teams that are the most competitive in this marketplace. I’m proud of what we do down here.

“I’m proud of our group, I’m proud of our people, I’m proud of our process, and hopefully the players that come out of our program will justify that. I think they already are.”

Those who make accusations about the Rangers’ alleged dirty play do so anonymously, which isn’t exactly playing on the up and up. Also, in a marketplace that was largely unregulated as recently as five to 10 years ago, the Rangers aren’t the only club to have their methods criticized.

Nonetheless, the Rangers have been portrayed by some as lavish spenders who hope they can simply get lucky by having one of their prospects hit. In addition to Beras’ deal, the Rangers dropped a record $4.95 million on outfielder Nomar Mazara and $3.45 million on first baseman Ronald Guzman in 2011.

Some have said that the Rangers don’t respect a handshake agreement between another club and a prospect ahead of the July 2 signing period, and then they poach that player for more money.

“It’s all BS,” Daniels said. “That’s from people anonymously throwing stones from glass houses. We just don’t engage in that.”

Said Don Welke, a senior special assistant to Daniels: “Let them say whatever they want to say. In the meantime, let us just get players.”

The Rangers hang their hat on outworking other clubs in what is true grass-roots scouting, and officials like assistant general manager A.J. Preller and former international scouting director Mike Daly have the airline miles and hotel points to prove it.

Lost in the dustup over Beras is the amount of work behind the thorough investigation they launched to beat the other 29 teams to the player.

The Rangers tracked down Beras’ father, a former Nicaraguan ballplayer named Harold Herdocia, as part of their due diligence in acquiring information on prospects they hope to sign. Herdocia piqued their curiosity when he explained that he had been in the Dominican Republic in March 1994, where he met Beras’ mother, and was in Nicaragua by 1995.

He had the travel documents to support his claim, which led the Rangers to check with the hospital where Beras was born. Daly and Paul Kruger, the coordinator of minor league and international operations, are credited with the discovery of a birth certificate showing that Beras had been born Dec. 25, 1994.

Beras was signed Feb. 28, 2012, based on the new information, which MLB and other clubs did not have. Once the Commissioner’s office completed its months-long investigation, officials from some clubs heaped praise on the Rangers for a work ethic that can’t be disputed.

“If other people say that, that’s good,” said Mike Daly, now the Rangers’ senior director of minor league operations. “It comes from the top. J.D. works. A.J. works. [Assistant GM] Thad [Levine] works. We work, and we try to be creative. I don’t know any different. It’s not anything that unique or special to us. It’s what we do. Everyone has the same mentality.”

But the Rangers’ advantages in Latin America — hard work and deep pockets — have been minimized as MLB tries to regulate corruption in the marketplace and level the playing field in the spirit of competitive balance.

The club wasn’t the only one openly against the CBA that went into effect in 2012 and put caps on how much teams could spend internationally. The worse a big-league team performs, the more money it receives in its signing pool.

MLB also now holds prospect showcases across Latin American and operates the Dominican-based Amateur Prospect League, which helps them with their investigations into every July 2-eligible player and to tell players and their families and agents what to expect from the signing process.

“The initial changes, I think some people perceived them as being a little harsh,” said Kim Ng, who oversees MLB’s international operations as its senior vice president of baseball operations. “The further into it you get, the more routine it becomes, and we’ve gotten a lot of cooperation on a lot of different fronts.”

But the MLB showcases, its prospect league, and three other similar leagues in the Dominican Republic also give clubs with a smaller footprint in the region the same access to prospects as the clubs that are deeply entrenched.

Now, all 30 teams have an academy in the Dominican Republic, and the Rangers have had to evolve by using new strategies and reaching deeper into more areas.

Last year, they busted past their spending cap, spreading some $8 million on players in addition to the $5 million to $10 million they spend each year on international operations. The club’s ownership was fully supportive.

The penalty was a 100 percent tax on the overage and not being allowed to sign any player from the upcoming class for more than $250,000.

So, the tryout camps the Rangers held last week didn’t feature any prominent prospects, whose independent trainers — known as buscones — take their elite players where the money is.

But they also know the Rangers will be armed with cash in 2015. In the meantime, they will continue to be creative and keep working to find players.

“It forces you to employ a different strategy,” said Daniels as he watched tryout participants play a six-inning game. “Last year we went about it one way, going past the allotted amount. What we try to do every year, no matter the circumstance and whether it’s international, big-league free agency or the draft, is look where the value is relative to where things are.

“Under the new rules, strategy has to play a bigger part in making choices within the boundaries. But in the end it still comes down to good people, good process and good evaluation.

“Up until two or three years ago, there weren’t showcases. There were only a handful of clubs that were having programs like this. In some ways, if you weren’t already in the market, the work’s being done for you. But you still have to understand the market, develop the players and have relationships.”

Jeff Wilson 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST

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