Major League Lottery: How MLB Teams Make Big Gambles in the Dominican
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Picture a young kid, no older than 12, hitting hundreds of baseballs into a ragged net, or throwing them at a makeshift backstop. They grow up with huge dreams, living in an impoverished nation of less than 10 million people.
Aside from the location, their dream sounds none to different than the one we all had, right? Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two out. The pennant on the line. With one swing, you win a ring, the love of a city, and secure financial stability for your family.
Of course, these two things aren't really alike at all.
Picture that young kid again. Except this time he's the target of a scout, or as they're called locally: a buscon. The kid can run like the wind. He's tall and strong. His parents, like so many here, are poor. Or, perhaps his parents aren't around at all.
So, instead of being in school like we were when having these dreams, the kids are at a makeshift academy, ran by buscones. They live here, eat here and learn baseball here all under poor conditions. They're sometimes honing their baseball skills under the direction of former prospects who went through the same situation.
There are lots of stories to be found about buscones. The large chunks of the signing bonus some take in return for the training. The way some of them help the kids lie about their ages and pump them with drugs: often of the performance enhancing variety.
Like anything, this isn't always the case. One report from MLB identified Dominican imports committing identity fraud at a clip of 60 percent in 2002, but had that number reduced to 25 percent by 2009. So, progress has been made.
And, there are some success stories. From David Ortiz to Hanley Ramirez. Miguel Tejada to Vladimir Guerrero. Considering the size of the country, some big name players have emerged. Big money is going to players who are unpolished and untested, but have real athletic ability.
Like the steroid problem in the '90s, when bad PR comes out, MLB moves fast and hard with corrective actions. Sandy Alderson was tasked with cleaning up some of the mess. Drug testing, identity verification, better facilities for training, English lessons and other steps have been taken within the academies ran by MLB clubs. Twenty-eight of the 30 clubs now have an academy in the DR.
There are less and less instances of exploited prospects being trust into American culture with added pressure to perform well at their craft. The kids are being taken care of better now. So, are the risks lower for teams?
Word came out on Monday that the Seattle Mariners have signed 17-year-old shortstop Esteilon Peguero, with a signing bonus of $4.9 million. Only three players in Mariners history have received bigger bonuses: Dustin Ackley, Ichiro Suzuki and Jeff Clement.
I asked Dave Cameron, co-founder of USSMariner.com and editor at FanGraphs.com if Mariners fans should be even a little stoked, regardless of how little we can possible know about Peguero, considering the size of the bonus. "These kids are lottery tickets," he said, "but when they hit, they can be a big deal."
Peguero could be the next diamond in the rough, or he could be a sunk cost that returns home after not panning out.
The good news is that regardless of the outcome, they're being better taken care of during the process. They aren't being told to lie about who they are. They're living and training better. They're even being offered an education outside of baseball by some teams. They aren't just being treated as a future payday anymore.
The system still isn't perfect. Neither for the teams or the players. There's still some corruption and millions of dollars might still be sunk on a kid who never makes it to the show. But if they're not just glorified slaves sold off to the highest bidder anymore, it's a gamble much easier to live with.
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