Astros to close Venezuelan Academy
Players will instead train in Dominican, Gulf Coast League
HOUSTON -- Twenty years ago, the Astros were the first team to start a baseball academy in Venezuela, and since then, dozens of products from that grassroots undertaking have gone on to enjoy successful and lucrative Major League careers, including outfielder Bobby Abreu and ace left-hander Johan Santana.
But the Astros are preparing to close the Academy, opting instead to shift the players who would normally live and train there and participate in the Venezuelan Summer League to the United States, where the club is adding a Minor League team to play in the Gulf Coast League. Other players will move to the Dominican Republic, where the Astros are upgrading an academy that they hope will eventually include multiple baseball fields and dormitories on the site.
The changes have nothing to do with on-going political unrest in Venezuela, or the flailing economy in this country, according to club officials. This is instead an effort to develop players at an earlier age and accelerate their ascension to the big leagues, using the bulk of their resources on signing players while saving on operating costs.
For years, the Astros have received criticism for being too slow moving their top prospects through the system. Instead of players reaching the big leagues in their early 20s, often, future Astros stars don't get their first taste of the Majors until ages 25 or 26.
By bringing prospects from Latin America to the States when they're young -- 17, 18 years old -- the Astros feel they will have a head start in adjusting to American life and acclimating themselves to the English language. These players, as well as American-born prospects drafted out of high school, will face other Gulf Coast rookie teams, which the Astros believe will provide competition more equal to their level.
"It provides a landing spot for kids from Latin America and less advanced high school players to begin their professional careers in the States, in an environment less stressful than just plugging them into Greeneville or Tri-City," general manager Ed Wade said, referring to the Astros' other two short-season teams. "We can acclimate them from the standpoint of English classes and adjusting to life here."
The Gulf Coast club, the Astros' entry-level affiliate, will play at the Astros' Spring Training complex in Kissimmee, Fla. The money they'll save in operating costs will be somewhat minimal, but even a small amount of surplus could help in the long run. Over time, the process to sign Latin players has become more expensive, and the Astros view their new blueprint as a more prudent method to keep up with modern times.
"When we signed Santana, [Richard] Hidalgo, [Carlos] Guillen, we would spend 30, 40, $50,000," assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. "That was 15 years ago. Now, it costs [$500,000].
"Our focus is to allocate resources to spend money on signing better players in Venezuela. The more money we spent on operating costs, the less we spent on players."
But more significantly, the Astros hope the new alignment helps to create a more even field for the players. In the past, those from Latin America and high school have been thrust to levels they may not be ready for, and a look at the 2008 records of the low-level clubs -- 30-36 for Greeneville and 28-45 for Tri-City, seemingly support this theory.
On the cultural side, early exposure to American life should help the Latin American players, as well.
"When they get here, they're so afraid," Bennett said. "It takes a while to relax and get them to perform. You don't know what you're getting the first year or two. They're worried they'll be sent home. It takes years for guys to get comfortable, to deal with the language barrier. The sooner we can expose them to it, they'll be better in the long run. The first year, I throw away from a performance standpoint. It's their first time away from home, the first time ever been away from the Academy."
The Astros will officially shut down the Academy after Spring Training in 2009, but they'll still have a presence in Venezuela. They have a full scouting staff in the country, and the players who are there already will use the facility to prepare for Spring Training next year. But some of the 35 players who would normally play in the Venezuelan Summer League will instead move to the States or the Dominican, while the club is still in the process of figuring out where the remainder of the players who do not go to those destinations will land.
The hope is that this shift in philosophy will eventually produce results at the big league level, where the Astros have experienced a three-year postseason drought. Wade has said more than once in the past that an organization's lifeline starts with scouting and player development, a theory that has been proven time and again by the league's elite.
The Astros have always been heavily involved in Latin American scouting and development, and they view their new plan as a step in a more productive direction.
"The focus is getting players to the big leagues," Bennett said. "That is always the goal."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.