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Draft : : Story
Puerto Rico and the Draft
Published: Monday, November 12, 2012

Perfect Game will be running a series of articles and blogs leading up to the first-ever Perfect Game Caribbean Showcase, to be held Nov. 16-18 at Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina, P.R. The accompanying story deals with Puerto Rico’s impact on the baseball draft through the years.



Until 1989, young baseball players from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico fell under the same rules for entering the professional baseball ranks that their peers in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Latin American countries still enjoy today. It was an open market, with major-league teams free to develop and sign players as aggressively as their organizational desires and resources dictated.

The mid- to late-1980s produced arguably the finest group of talent ever to come from Puerto Rico, or any other locale for that matter. Following is a partial list of Puerto Rican players who signed professionally in the years right before the draft rules were changed:

OF Bernie Williams (1985)
OF/1B Orlando Merced (1985)
2B Roberto Alomar (1985)
2B Carlos Baerga (1985)
SS Jose Valentin (1986)
OF Juan Gonzalez (1986)
C Javy Lopez (1987)
SS Jose Hernandez (1987)
1B/C Carlos Delgado (1988)
C Pudge Rodriguez (1988)
C Jorge Posada (signed in 1990 out of a U.S. junior college, but eligible out of a Puerto Rico high school in 1988)
IF Will Cordero

All those players were viewed as significant prospects at the time they signed, and not surprisingly went on to enjoy productive major-league careers. Most signed for bonuses consistent with their talent, and with signing bonuses to all first-year players rising at an alarming rate at the time, Major League Baseball unilaterally decided to incorporate Puerto Ricans into the draft eligibility pool, right alongside high-school and college players from the United States. They have been classified the same way ever since.

Major League Baseball was never forthright about its reasons for including Puerto Ricans in the draft, but the underlying reasons were myriad, and generally ran along the lines of controlling costs and giving teams equal access to talent.

More than 20 years later, you’d have a better chance of finding a snowman on a street corner in San Juan than finding anyone in Puerto Rico that feels this change has been a benefit to baseball on the island.

The New York Times covered the history and perceived effect of the change in draft rules in a January, 2012 article that is required reading if one wishes to understand the subject in greater depth.

The inescapable fact is that, over a 20-plus year span beginning 1989, when outfielder Ed Larregui was selected in the seventh round by the Chicago Cubs to become the first Puerto Rican drafted, the island has become a relative desert for producing legitimate major-league talent.

A list of the top Puerto Rican players who have entered professional baseball since 1989 would include the likes of:

OF Carlos Beltran (2
nd round, 1995, Royals)
C Yadier Molina (4th round, 2000, Cardinals)
RHP Javy Vasquez (4th round, 1994, Expos)
OF Alex Rios (1st round, 1999, Blue Jays)
3B Edwin Encarnacion (9th round, 2000, Rangers)
2B Jose Vidro (3rd round, 1992, Expos)
OF Angel Pagan (4th round, 1999, Mets)

Good to very good players, all of them. But hardly in the class of Alomar, Williams, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, etc., the motherlode of talent produced in just four short years preceding the draft’s adoption.

Looking between the lines, there are two areas that further highlight the decline in Puerto Rican talent entering professional baseball over the last generation.

First, the talent flow was virtually shut off in the early- to mid-2000s. Since 2002, there have only been three players entering the draft from Puerto Rico that have played in the major leagues--catcher Martin Maldonado, lefthander Xavier Cedeno and righthander Luis Atilano. By comparison, such domestic baseball hotbeds as Iowa (8), Connecticut (8) and Utah (6), all with smaller populations and inherent weather disadvantages, have produced at least twice as many future big leaguers in the same time span.

As cited in the Times article, there were only 20 Puerto Ricans on 2012 Opening-Day major-league rosters.

Second, Puerto Rico historically has rarely produced quality pitchers, for whatever reason. Vazquez, with 163 wins and a career 42.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), is easily the most-successful pitcher Puerto Rico has ever produced. He retired following the 2011 season, but is contemplating a comeback in 2013. His competition is not especially stiff as 1984 Cy Young Award winner Willie Hernandez and Juan Pizarro, who toiled mostly in the 1950s, rank second and third, respectively with 131 and 105 wins.

Excluding Vazquez, a fifth-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1994, there have been only 11 Puerto Rican pitchers drafted since 1989 that have played in the big leagues, and their 4.3 combined WAR is roughly 10 percent of Vazquez’ score alone. Essentially, Vazquez and lefthander Pedro Feliciano are the only sustainable big-league pitchers that Puerto Rico has produced in more than two decades.

Veteran Puerto Rican scout Frankie Thon (Astros, Rangers), the brother of former all-star Dickie Thon, once explained to me that the reason why there were so few Puerto Rican pitching prospects developed is that they have the opposite mindset from a young Dominican pitcher at a comparable age.

In the Dominican, young pitchers just think about throwing fastballs and throwing hard, because they know if they throw hard enough they will get signed,” Thon once related to me. “That incentive doesn’t apply here. Young pitchers in Puerto Rico throw way, way too many curve balls from a young age trying to be competitive without proper instruction. They never develop the arm strength to become professional prospects.”

From my own personal experience since 1989, which coincidently was my first draft working in the baseball industry, there have been several years when there wasn’t a single draft-eligible Puerto Rican pitching prospect that touched even 90 mph.

The Tide May Be Turning

While the baseball talent coming out of Puerto Rico in the first two decades after the draft was implemented has slowed noticeably, there are signs that the tide may be turning.

In both the 2011 and 2012 drafts, the talent coming out of Puerto Rico has been exceptional, and there are early indications that the 2013 draft class has a chance to be equally outstanding—both in terms of high-end talent and depth of prospects. That’s more talent than has come out of Puerto Rico in at least two decades.

The 2011 draft featured two of the more dynamic young talents currently in minor-league baseball, Francisco Lindor (Indians) and Javier Baez (Cubs), both drafted among the first 10 picks. Some might argue that this was just a sign of the times, that both young men left Puerto Rico for Florida high schools as young teenagers and developed their skills in the U.S. But the fact remains that they are outstanding talents who were born and essentially raised on the island. Puerto Rico also produced a pair of second-round picks in the same draft in righthander Jorge Lopez and outfielder Gabriel Rosa, and had three other pitchers taken in the top 12 rounds.

This year’s draft was a landmark one, the best-ever for Puerto Rico, without question. Shortstop Carlos Correa became the first Puerto Rican ever selected with the first pick overall, shattering the former standard for highest Puerto Rican drafted, held by catcher Ramon Castro, the 17
th pick overall by the Astros in 1994. Hard-throwing righthander J.O. Berrios also became the highest Puerto Rican pitcher ever selected, going 32nd overall to the Twins. He enjoyed a dominant professional debut.

Jesmuel Valentin, the son of former major leaguer Jose Valentin, also landed in the supplemental first round, going 51
st overall to the Dodgers. Righthander Edwin Diaz was a third-round pick of the Mariners, and between he and Berrios gave Puerto Rico its first-ever pair of 95-mph prospects in one draft.

The 2013 class is headed by Perfect Game All-American shortstop Jan Hernandez. He is not in Correa’s distinct class, but looks very strong and could really emerge over the next week at the inaugural Perfect Game Caribbean Showcase.

While strictly speculation at this point, there are rumblings in the baseball industry that Puerto Rico’s status in the draft could be changing within the next year. As part of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, there is a provision to implement an International/World-Wide Draft, possibly in 2014.

What the parameters of this draft will be are anyone’s guess at this point, but there is sentiment brewing behind the scenes to have Puerto Rico removed from the conventional draft that applies to the United States and Canada, and have it lumped with the likes of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the rest of the world in a new international draft structure.

Puerto Rico’s recent upsurge in the draft notwithstanding, such a change might be a significant boon for baseball on the island. There has been a notable increase in the number of baseball academies in Puerto Rico in recent years, highlighted by the MLB-supported Puerto Rican Baseball Academy/High School and the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy.

These academies have no doubt impacted the recent surge in talent coming from Puerto Rico, but the overriding benefit of including Puerto Rico in a new international draft is it would give major-league organizations an incentive to invest in the development of young players on the island, such as occurs in the Dominican and Venezuela, which have prospered over the last 20 years unencumbered by the same draft legislation that has nearly crippled the flow of baseball talent in Puerto Rico
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