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Monday, March 19, 2012

Dominicans enter elite stage

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

PHOENIX, Ariz.  –Perfect Game first paired-up the elite squads from the Dominican Prospect League (DPL) and the British Columbia, Canada-based Langley Blaze organization for an Arizona get-together last spring.

What is certain to remain an annual event staged Act II on a sunny but chilly Monday morning at the Maryvale Baseball Park, the spring training home of Major League Baseball’s defending National League Central Division champion Milwaukee Brewers.

The event was designed to provide exposure for the young high school-aged prospects from both nations, and it was also designed to provide a heaping-helping of pure enjoyment. But for the DPL prospects, perhaps more so than their Canadian counterparts, the experience had the potential to be a monumental life-changer.

DPL co-founders Brian Mejia and Ulises Cabrera have brought their talented group to the states to make sure these humble young prospects – most are 15 or 16 years old – aren’t overlooked when MLB scouts and front-office people begin signing international prospects that aren’t eligible for the draft.

“This group represents the majority of the top players that play in the Dominican Prospect League,” Cabrera said right after the first pitch was delivered in the DPL-Langley game. “The scouts selected them, we selected them and each of them on their own merits qualified to be here based on prospect status, based on their ability to play in games, their makeup and their character.

“This is the cream of the crop, for the most part, of the Dominican Republic.”

Cabrera and Mejia brought 13 prospects to Arizona and Florida during the inaugural trip a year ago, and 11 of them signed professional contracts in 2011. Cabrera thinks more than 20 of the 32 they brought on this trip will be signed this year.

“We have a couple of first round-type players and a bunch of other players that will be of primary interest to a lot of Major League teams,” he said.

The top guys wearing the DPL uniforms on Monday, as identified by Perfect Game director of scouting David Rawnsley after observing them in Florida, included outfielder Gustavo Cabrera, middle-infielder Wendall Rijo, third baseman Amaurys Minier, catcher Dievi Gurllon and left-hander Kelyn Jose.

The 16-year-old, 6-foot, 2-inch, 190-pound Gustavo Cabrera is considered a can’t-miss prospect. After watching him play in the Florida portion of the DPL squad’s tour, Rawnsley reported:

“He does a very good job of exploding his hands at contact and driving the ball to the middle of the field. His game swings and approach were also among the most mature of any of the DPL players.”

The squad spent five “working days” in Florida and will be here for five more days. There was a PG-sponsored showcase event in Dunedin, Fla., on March 12th and nothing but games have followed, including intrasquad games.

“The kids have been playing a lot of baseball, and our goal with this thing is to allow the scouts to follow the team from Florida to Arizona and allow them to get at least 20 plate appearances for each player,” Ulises Cabrera said. “We think that is a key factor in their evaluation process.”

One of the prospects traveling with the DPL squad is 16-year-old right-hander Alvaro Castillo (6-6, 195). The trip has been a bit of a whirlwind, but Castillo remembers every stop.

“First we went to Tampa, and we had tryouts with the Phillies, Yankees, Toronto – everybody,” Castillo said in more than passable English. “It has been really good. Not everybody has this chance that we got here. Each one of us are the best players of our country and we’d like to say ‘thank-you’ to Brian and Ulises for giving us their support.”

Cabrera and Mejia founded the DPL three years ago in an effort to make the recruitment of Dominican prospects more transparent. Incidents of age and identity fraud were becoming commonplace among the young Dominican prospects, and the two men wanted to nip that in the bud.

“When you gather these best players together, things end up developing into a scenario where the scouts can evaluate them correctly for extended periods of time,” Mejia told Perfect Game and  “… It was our mission to clean up the process so that the Dominican player – the Latin American player – would have a better chance versus (being a member) of a team that didn’t have a transparent process and people would shy away from signing them.”

More than 100 Major League Baseball personnel representing all 30 MLB clubs turned out for the exhibition Monday morning, including Cleveland Indians International Scouting Director of Latin American Operations, Ramon Pena. He’s been in the business for 30 years.

“I think Brian Mejia and Ulises Cabrera have done an outstanding job with this program,” Pena told “It gives us a chance to see the better players from Latin America, especially from the Dominican Republic.  Everybody’s going over to Latin America, especially Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, because the best talent outside of the United State is coming out of Latin America.”

The business relationship between the DPL and Perfect Game continues to grow.

Discussions are ongoing about the possibility of including Dominican prospects in the Perfect Game All-American Classic and also possibly having Perfect Game’s top North American prospects travel to the Dominican to compete. Mejia said attempts are being made to qualify a DPL team for the PG WWBA World Championship held in Jupiter, Fla., annually.

“The ideas are endless,” Mejia said. “We partner up to do these types of projects with Perfect Game, and everything is going to be dictated by the players. Hands down, they have the best players going to their events in the U.S. and we have the best players going to our events in the Dominican.”

Ulises Cabrera said nothing but positives could come out of the DPL-Langley Blaze exhibition.

“Anytime you can put the guys in a competitive environment where they are representing their country, it’s a plus,” he said. “It’s great for the kids – at least at this level for us – because I think people forget these are 15- and 16-year-old kids and they get fired up over little things. To put them against another country is exciting for them, and to play on a big-league field is exciting.

“These are (Dominican) kids that predominantly come from very poor areas where their families probably don’t make more than $5,000 a year, so to be able to stand on a big league surface and travel to the United States; it’s a pretty unique experience.”

As for the young prospects themselves, it really comes down to just one thing once they’re out on the playing field.

“We expect, really, to play baseball,” the right-hander Castillo said. “Not only to just look good in front of the scouts, but do what we like. We’re going to play with our hearts.”

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