Padres’ ‘all-in’ Dominican push shaping franchise future
Padres invest big in Dominican Republic talent.
A young sun burns off the final hints of dew as Chris Kemp stands next to the the batting tunnels at the Padres’ Dominican Academy, a sprawling 15-acre baseball training ground carved into the emerald-green countryside.
The director of international scouting high-fives a player whose face is framed by the shy grin of a ticket-taker at a mall movie theater. He nonchalantly mentions, “We signed him for $1.7 (million).”
Walking up a sidewalk that divides one of two regulation diamonds and a well-appointed weight room, Kemp stops to introduce Gabriel Arias, described by CBSSports.com as a “glove-first shortstop.” The team traded $1.9 million for a signature from the Venezuelan teen sharpening his game amid sugarcane fields and crabby thicket at the edge of the milky blue Caribbean.
The future of the San Diego Padres – anchored in a dizzying international talent-grab within spitting distance of $80 million – is being built, brick by teenage brick, around an unprecedented philosophical shift.
Coming into 2016, the organization had yet to invest more than $5 million in international player acquisitions during a single signing period. Since last summer, the team has shelled out enough to buy every Del Mar resident a new Volkswagen Jetta – an outlay a Major League Baseball source says is among the top three in history.
Jaded fans of the Padres grumble about the big-league product, aiming angst at an opening-day payroll owners say will be less than $75 million as proof that 2017 simply signals more of the same.
Underneath it all, far from Petco Park, in the unrelenting sun, it’s clearly not more of the same. A never-before gamble on young talent is reshaping the organization. The team shed high-priced veterans like Matt Kemp, James Shields, Tyson Ross, Melvin Upton, Jon Jay and Derek Norris to bankroll a run at amateur depth.
These are suddenly the free-wheeling Padres, spenders away from the spotlight. This is an all-in show of confidence for A.J. Preller, the general manager with a reputation for scouring the globe for talent. At age 39, he owns more than 3 million in baseball-related frequent flyer miles to prove it.
Will it work? The answer demands patience from a city and fan base that has expended so much of it already. The Padres last trip to the postseason came in 2006, acrid futility topped only by the Mariners and Marlins.
The Padres’ rewrite extends beyond the sweeping move away from veterans. It’s also the breakneck briskness at which the transformation is unfolding, something player development director Sam Geaney referred to as “the pivot.”
Heading into 2016, ESPN.com senior baseball writer Keith Law ranked the Padres’ farm system 20th in baseball. Now, they’ve rocketed to third on Law’s list.
In the last eight months, the Padres have signed 45 players from outside the United States: 15 from Venezuela, 14 from the Dominican, six each from Cuba and Mexico, three from Colombia and one from Taiwan. Organization-wide, there are 65 native Dominicans under contract alone.
“It’s the speed at which it’s been done and the pace at which it’s happened,” Geaney said. “Even if it was over a two-year period, it would be stark and striking.”
Padres Special Assistant Moises Alou played 17 seasons for seven big-league teams. The six-time All Star and career .303 hitter finished third in National League MVP voting twice.
Alou, a Dominican native, gazed at the facility that GM Preller labeled “the Taj Mahal” of the country’s academies and insisted a flicker is poised to be fanned into long-term flame.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Alou said, “that we’ve got something going on right here.”
Kemp, rushing to another airport to barnstorm another country to analyze another group of players, stalled to throw his arms wide.
“Look what’s going on here, man,” Kemp said. “It almost gives you chills.”
Fowler: ‘We’re Counting On This’
Shaking free of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, a throbbing metro area jammed with nearly 3 million people, trades the din of vehicle horns for crowing roosters and bleating goats.
Onlookers calmly stand around a motorcyclist lying dead in makeshift median after a fresh accident. A stop at the nearest gas station, where prices can spike to $5 per gallon, reveals men patrolling the business with sawed-off shotguns.
City soon gives way to country along a route to the Padres’ training facility, nestled 30 miles southwest but infinitely more distant in the ways of chaos and crush.
Pockmarked roads begin to spider web through the undeveloped back country, where the whine of aging motorcycles groan under the weight of people and products. On a recent morning, a scooter sagged under a man and three children as it zig-zagged around a random pile of rocks waiting along a blind corner.
The place is so remote, places rarely claim fixed addresses. As recently as a year and a half ago, the Padres paid more than $260,000 annually to fuel generators that kept the facility humming as they waited for the power company to patch the area into the electrical grid.
Hardship near the academy underscores the financial strain in a country where more than 41 percent live below the poverty line, according to the most recent figures from the CIA’s World Factbook. Along those same roads, teenagers with deals that soar into the millions scramble to sink life-altering roots in the game.
“Part of the beauty of this country, due to its history and demographics, there’s this incredible, innate drive,” Geaney said. “There’s the classic stories of improving their families and rising out of poverty. It’s real.”
For all of the challenges, the locale – nearly two hours from the tangle of airport-accessible MLB academies in Boca Chica to the east – produces singular focus on baseball improvement. Rival teams aren’t peeking over your fences and there isn’t the lure of urban buzz.
The tools at a place that covers more than 11 football fields refines focus: The clubhouse, though not as well appointed as Petco, is 3,500 square feet larger than its big brother in San Diego.
“When you get here, there aren’t all the distractions,” Assistant General Manager Josh Stein said. “It’s all baseball.”
It took more than 15 months to cut the expansive complex from nature’s grip.
“It was a jungle,” International Operations Manager Cesar Rizik said. “There was a lot of hard work, a lot of groups, a lot of coordination. It was the first time a club was building something of this magnitude.”
The Padres fully comprehend what’s at stake. The upgraded academy that debuted in 2008 has been a results failure to date. The facility has yet to produce anything close to a full-season Padre, despite the initial $10.7 million price tag and operating and scouting-related expenses that Executive Chairman Ron Fowler said hover around $3.3 million a year.
So far, the beefed-up facility that Fowler characterized as previously underutilized has produced 47 big-league innings by pitcher Frank Garcés and 38 games worth of at-bats from outfielder Rymer Liriano.
The convergence of arguably the country’s most impressive academy and flood of fresh faces led Preller to recommend an investment in a second Arizona League team to expand playing opportunities across the organization.
The Padres also captured unique and almost historic timing, sliding under the wire of baseball’s new labor deal. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, teams that exceeded available spending pools by 5 percent or more during a period paid a 100 percent penalty. When the Padres locked down Cuban pitcher Adrian Morejon for $11 million, for example, the deal actually cost $22 million.
When teams blew past pool money by 15 percent, as the Padres did in 2016 and many teams do, the organizations were unable to sign any individual the next two seasons for more than $300,000. In the new CBA announced Nov. 30, international signings will fall under a hard cap based on market size, not to exceed $5.75 million.
The Padres, meanwhile, might not be tapping the brakes.
Traditional big-spenders remain handcuffed in $300,000-per-player years, while the Padres can spend as much as they want, absorbing 100 percent penalties along the way, until June 15. Preller, Fowler says, continues to eye at least three players.
The short version: If the Padres wanted to shatter the piggy bank in an unparalleled way, this was the last chance to do it.
“Because there’s a cap now, we were flat-out lucky in a sense,” Fowler said. “If you can control these guys when they come up, you can have a very, very good team, but the payroll doesn’t have to be out of this world.”
The timing fueled the Padres’ pivot.
Fowler put it bluntly: “We’re counting on this.”
‘Underwhelming’ Present, Intriguing Future
When the instructor in a small, well-organized classroom pushes the button, the projector and room lurch to life. Cartoon images of American pocket change fill the screen as a Sesame Street-style song blares.
“How much is a penn-y? … How much is a dime?
“How much is a penn-y? … How much is a dime?”
In the back row, a prospect from Tijuana bounces to the music in his chair. Players smile. They pay attention. The discussion drifts to other types of currency. The instructor holds up a $1 bill and explains the front-and-center face.
“Who is the wife of George Washington?” he asked, leaning in.
A voice rises from the back of the room: Señora Washington? The player, satisfied with slice of cross-cultural comedy, laughs.
Another joins in.
The Padres understand that equipping baseball players for what awaits involves more than glove work and base-running techniques.
When afternoons broil, players bounce between rooms to learn English and other life skills. An instructor discussed safe driving with prospects after the same-day traffic deaths of Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura and former big-leaguer Andy Marte.
Every interaction provides a window.
“You’re down here living with these guys,” Preller said. “You’re around them 24 hours a day. We learn lessons from a development standpoint, from a scouting standpoint, from a life standpoint.”
Benefits abound outside the walls in a country obsessed by baseball.
Eighty-two Dominicans played Major League Baseball last season, the most of any country outside the U.S. by a wide margin. The island offers a who’s-who of diamond icons, including Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Juan Marichal, Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano and Johnny Cueto.
“I think a year in the Dominican is maybe equivalent to three years elsewhere,” Preller said. “That’s how I feel, given the volume of players and just the amount of baseball you see here. You can see players every single day.”
Rising excitement about the future collides with an underwhelming present. The sports book at the Atlantis Casino in Reno, offered baseball’s first over-under win totals for this season, listing the Padres dead last – at 64.5.
For the Padres, that means prospect names are certain to pile up more quickly than victories.
To comprehend the burgeoning depth, consider Michael Gettys, a budding outfielder who just logged his best season. The 21-year-old led the organization in steals (33), establishing career highs in home runs, RBIs and walks while hitting .305.
So much youthful talent has been plucked from international and amateur ranks or acquired through trades, however, that Gettys dropped out of the Top 20 of ESPN.com’s Law after landing at No. 18 on his list a year ago.
Former star closer Trevor Hoffman praised the Padres for stockpiling talent.
“I love the fact that we’re kind of all in,” said Hoffman, a Padres senior advisor. “It’s not like half-in, where the roster is guys who are re-treads in a sense, trying to still make a living and kick it around. The youth is kind of the direction you need to go.
“I think people will buy in long-term if they understand the process.”
Manager Andy Green said so many storylines are developing along the Padres’ food chain that he’ll sneak peeks during the hectic season.
“I’ll be watching that closely all year long,” he said.
Stein, the assistant general manager, said the system is developing a steady flow of prospects. Emerging big-leaguers Hunter Renfroe, Austin Hedges, Manny Margot and Carlos Asuaje are lining up alongside Wil Myers, Travis Jankowski and Cory Spangenberg.
“Hopefully a number of the guys playing right now are also going to be playing behind pitchers Anderson Espinoza and Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez and Mitchell Miliano,” Stein said.
In the academy’s roomy cafeteria, wall photos recognize those trained at the facility who’ve reached a Padres’ 40-man roster. There are so few that the 17 images include coaches.
Geaney, the player development director, assured Fowler that the surfaces will become visual symbols of The Pivot.
“I joked with Ron, ‘Hopefully, we can blow out a wall here at some point.’ ”
DID YOU KNOW?
The Padres academy in the Dominican Republic is the lone MLB facility in the province of San Cristobal. The former mayor of the city of San Cristobal is one-time NL West rival Raul Mondesi of the Dodgers.
PADRES’ TOP 10 PROSPECTS
Baseball America: 1. Anderson Espinoza, RHP; 2. Manny Margot, OF; 3. Hunter Renfroe, OF; 4. Cal Quantrill, RHP; 5. Adrian Morejon, LHP; 6. Luis Urias, 2B/SS; 7. Jacob Nix, RHP; 8. Michael Gettys, OF; 9. Dinelson Lamet, RHP; 10. Josh Naylor, 1B.
Keith Law, ESPN.com: 1. Espinoza; 2. Quantrill; 3. Margot; 4. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS; 5. Morejon; 6. Nix; 7. Renfroe; 8. Javier Guerra, SS; 9. Urias; 10. Mason Thompson, RHP.
MLB.com: 1. Espinoza; 2. Margot; 3. Renfroe; 4. Naylor; 5. Quantrill; 6. Morejon; 7. Guerra; 8. Chris Paddack, RHP; 9. Eric Lauer, LHP; 10. Gettys.
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