BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic — The Rangers are not rebuilding. At least not here.
Here, they are starting fresh, building from the ground up.
Beyond the center-field fence of their “academy,” where their youngest, and often poorest, minor leaguers get their professional start, dirt is being moved. At least today. Maybe it’s all a show since ownership has flown down from Texas in mass to check on the progress of construction, or the lack thereof.
Eventually, a $10 million complex that will serve as the foundation for the Rangers’ Latin American operations will rise from the dirt. It will replace the overcrowded, aging, prison-gray cellblock that currently houses their academy. The Rangers hope it will get them back on equal footing with a host of other major league clubs that have invested heavily in not just talent in Latin America, but also its development. The Rangers have fallen perilously behind on the infrastructure side to accelerate that talent’s growth.
“We pride ourselves on being the best in player acquisition and development across the world,” said Paul Kruger, who is the Rangers’ assistant director of player development and manages the Dominican program. “This new first-class facility will allow us to continue to excel and take us to new heights in terms of what is possible for all Rangers players on the field, in the classroom, the gym, the training room and nutritionally — in many ways we’ve only been able to dream of until now.”
Eventually. Probably. They believe.
Right now, it’s still just a bunch of dirt, occasionally being pushed around.
It was supposed to have already opened in January. Now, the plan is for the fields to be ready in the summer, the main building by early 2019. Whenever it is done, it will cover 55,000 square feet, approximately double the size of the current facility, and include 3 1/2 fields and a gleaming new dormitory capable of adequately housing 70 or more players. It will rival the spring training facility in Surprise, if not in scale then certainly in functionality. Most important, for the first time the Rangers will have a facility that is theirs and theirs alone.
Rangers management has been itching to create a new facility in the Dominican Republic since 2010. But because of a series of complications, not the least of which is the tangled web of sorting through claims to land in the Dominican and executing all the necessary international legal transactions, the Rangers have gone from being on the leading edge of a trend to doing a bit of catch-up. Approximately half the 30 major league teams have invested significant money into building and operating their own academies, rather than leasing from third parties.
It only makes sense. Where once Latin America was a wide-open market and players could be had by the gross for small financial outlays, signing bonuses and MLB’s regulation of the scouting process have risen dramatically. From a pure business sense, there is more risk, so teams want more control.
The Dominican academies are the first stop for most of the 16- and 17-year-olds who receive these bonuses. In the current signing period, which runs from July 2 through June, teams were allotted between $4.75 and $5.75 million to sign international players. They spend a summer there, maybe two. And they often train there when at home during the offseason.
Mostly, these are kids from meager backgrounds. Their development could benefit significantly and rapidly from having access to nutrition programs, state-of-the-art weight rooms and training facilities. That is what most U.S.-born kids have access to immediately after being drafted. High school draftees’ usual first stop: an MLB club’s spring training facility, where they have the same amenities as the established major leaguers.
In the past, the Dominican academies were often make-shift and poorly maintained. They were often built on the cheap by former players. Teams signed leases for the building and service agreements for food and other management issues. And the players, who learned a thing or two during their time in the majors, acted like many big league owners. They invested very little in upkeep and kept raising prices. Everybody made a profit off the kids.
The Rangers have been in their current facility since 2011. It was only supposed to be for a year or two, while they scouted and found someplace newer. In the past, these facilities had a life span of maybe seven to 10 years owing to the numbers of players running in and out and the lack of upkeep.
The current facility has been open a decade. Kids live in barracks-style housing with upward of 20 bunks in a room and no closet space. It is not an ideal growth situation. Despite bed checks and a 9 p.m. lights-out policy, it isn’t hard to envision how a sexual hazing incident involving some of the Rangers’ top prospects, including Rougned Odor’s younger brother, could break out as allegedly happened in 2016.
The cafeteria is too small. The weight room is a converted classroom jammed with equipment and with no air conditioning. Players often do flexibility drills on the walkway in the courtyard with the occasional rooster wandering through. There are power and internet issues that make running advanced metric systems like the radar-based TrackMan program, which the Rangers have in all of their other minor league and training facilities, impossible. The field drainage is so wonky that there are days the Rangers are rained out while the Mets, literally across the road, are able to play.
“Wow,” said Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara, rolling his eyes when the subject of the academy was brought up. “It needs everything. I feel bad for the kids there. They don’t want to stay there.”
Mazara, the Rangers’ all-time Dominican bonus baby, signed for a record $5 million in 2011. He was so mature and such a big investment, the Rangers sent him immediately to Surprise in the Arizona Instructional League. He only spent time at the academy in January the next couple of years. It was enough.
“It’s a half-grade to a grade below other facilities,” said assistant general manager Jayce Tingler. “It’s older. It’s more run down. Ultimately it still comes down to talent and makeup of players on the field, but the infrastructure is important.”
Tingler has intimate background on the subject. He got his start in the organization managing the DSL team in 2008-09, living at the team’s academy, which was then in San Pedro de Macoris, about 40 miles to the east.
The academy was brand new, having been built exclusively for the Rangers by former major league pitcher Salomon Torres. The Rangers boasted about it being state-of-the-art. It was a huge step up from what the Rangers were using in the winter of 2000, when they were working out on a single diamond, hand-hacked out of a sugar cane field by a farmer named Plutarco. The players were temporarily housed in converted storage area in the La Romana stadium.
The euphoria over the new facility didn’t last long. Disagreements over rising food and service costs and the Rangers’ lack of control over food, along with a host of power grid problems that arose from the completion of Torres’ second academy, adjoining the Rangers’, led to the club’s decision to move elsewhere. It was about the same time, MLB took steps to reform the academy system in the Dominican, instituting some basic standards on living, training and security.
The Rangers landed here, on a plot of land they currently share with the Cleveland Indians. It is a prime spot. There are 15 teams based around Boca Chica, with nine of them dotted along this winding road just off Highway 3.
A handful of top-of-the-line academies line the road, including the New York Yankees’ and, perhaps the template for the Rangers, the one the Colorado Rockies opened in 2013.
Now entering its sixth year, the contemporary white and glass building still seems brand new. It is spotless. There are four players to a room, complete with Rockies logo bedspreads and their own closets. The weight room is twice the size of that at the Rangers’ current facility. There is a large classroom that is for teaching and lab work only, a TV lounge and a large cafeteria. The Rockies have a dedicated computer room and server. No areas are being co-opted for multiple activities.
Whereas the Rangers’ current clubhouse is a labyrinth of smaller rooms, dotted with torn artificial turf and shared lockers, the Rockies’ is as spacious and neat as a big league clubhouse. The facility has a flow with players going from dorm to clubhouse to field and back to clubhouse in an efficient and orderly manner. Most important, the Rockies control everything on campus from food to cleaning.
“You have more direction,” Tingler says. “If you want your kids to eat a certain type of food, they eat it. If you want specifically this much space for this activity, you have it. It gives you resources you need where you can get it right going forward.”
The international marketplace is likely to change again soon. Clubs are preparing for the possibility of an international draft starting with the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021. It may necessitate even more advanced scouting in Latin America and more of an investment. Assistant GM Mike Daly, who runs the club’s international scouting program, sees the use for a top-tier academy only rising with the possibility of an international draft.
“You will be able to run more scouting camps,” Daly said. “You will get to see more players. We only see the academy becoming more useful. If you are going to be limited on how much you spend or how many players you can add, you want to be able to maximize all that you can.”
Soon, though perhaps not soon enough, the Rangers will be able to do that.
The Rangers have 10 players on their current 40-man roster who came through the club’s Latin American scouting program at a cost of $13 million in signing bonuses. A look:
Pos., Player Home Age Signed Bonus OF Nomar Mazara Dominican Rep. 22 2011 $4.95 million 1B Ronald Guzman Dominican Rep. 23 2011 $3.45 million INF Jurickson Profar Curacao 25 2009 $1.55 million LHP Yohander Mendez Venezuela 23 2011 $1.5 million LHP Martin Perez Venezuela 26 2007 $580,000 2B Rougned Odor Venezuela 24 2011 $425,000 RHP Jonathan Hernandez Dominican Rep. 21 2013 $300,000 RHP Jose Leclerc Dominican Rep. 24 2010 $90,000 RHP Ariel Jurado Panama 21 2012 $50,000 RHP Ricardo Rodriguez Venezuela 25 2010 $10,000
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