04 February 2013

2013 World Baseball Classic: Puerto Rico

This is the second in a series to introduce everyone to teams participating in 2013's World Baseball Classic.  As this series progress, you will find all of the articles under this key world: 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Previously, we reviewed Australia and Cuba.

The body of the Puerto Rico article was written by Jon Shepherd.

Puerto Rico
IBAF Ranking (out of 74) 12th
2013 Pool Dominican Republic


2013 Players of Note Yadier Molina, C

Jose Molina, C

Carlos Beltran, OF

Alex Rios, OF

Angel Pagan, OF

2009 Record 4 - 2, Round 2

2009 All WBC Ivan Rodriguez, C

2006 Record 4 - 2, Round 2

2006 All WBC None

Proximity to the United States, its education and business interests, along with the establishment of the Monroe doctrine (the government’s expressed interest in restricting European interests in the Americas), was a major influence in the spread of baseball in the Caribbean.  The first wave of baseball was from Cubans going to college in the States and then them proselytizing the game to all the islands, Latin America, and the Northern shore of South America.  The second wave often consisted of the US Military establishing bases to secure their interests after the Spanish American war.  In the soldiers’ down time, they would often set up leagues and play against the local.

Puerto Rico’s experience with baseball began the same way.  Early disciples learned the game in the United States and tried to introduce it to the island.  However, it took about a decade before the first baseball clubs were created in the late 1890s.  Shortly thereafter, the island transferred from the Spaniards to the Americans who set up bases and established regular games as recreation to pass the time.  Over several decades, the game became more entrenched with lighter colored Puerto Ricans being picked up by various minor league teams.  The Negro Leagues also picked up players from time to time.

Hiram Bithorn was the first Puerto Rican to appear in the MLB game.  The Chicago Cubs, trying to stay competitive while dealing with a massive efflux of players due to World War II, signed Bithorn in 1941.  He was an ace pitcher in the Puerto Rican winter leagues and was also a manager.  Bithorn struggled his first year and then proceeded to dominate in 1943, going 18-12, 2.60 ERA, 7 shutouts, and 19 complete games.  He then enlisted in the military and served out until the end of the war.  Upon coming back 30 or 40 pounds heavier, Bithorn pitched poorly and retired in 1947 after developing a sore arm.  He was murdered by a policeman a few years later in Mexico as he tried to make a comeback in the Mexican leagues.  You may remember that the main stadium in Puerto Rico, where the Expos played in 2003 and 2004, is named Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Talent came out of Puerto in a slow trickle until the 1980s.  Roberto Clemente was the first Puerto Rican to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame with Orlando Cepeda being the second.  The 80s though saw a massive influx of talent coming to the US from the island.  Javy Lopez, Pudge Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada all came out at the same time and all have a good argument to be included in the Hall of Fame.  Roberto Alomar is already in.  Other late 80s talent finds included Bernie Williams, Juan Gonzalez, and Carlos Delgado.

Since then, talent has been trickling in again with Javier Vasquez, Carlos Beltran, and Yadier Molina establishing themselves as elite players.  Much of the concern over the reduction in talent has been placed at the feet of the 1991 decision to include Puerto Rico in the Rule 4 draft.  No longer could trainers and agent collect amateur talent and sell it to the highest MLB bidder.  Now, every team had a chance as long as they had a high enough draft choice.  The argument goes that with reduced money being handed out to players, that the system that was in place to develop these amateur players had no financial reason to exist anymore.  However, there is some argument to this.  Opposing points of view suggest that improved standards of live have pushed families to further educate their children instead of wishing on big money from baseball.  Others still simply suggest that the island simply has had a run of bad luck.

Below is a table showing how Puerto Rico compares in developing players who wind up in the Major Leagues.  I would interpret any player born before 1974 to be in the pre-draft era.  The 1974 to 1978 range would be players born in the time when the draft was instituted, but the island's talent likely still benefited from pre-draft infrastructure.  The 1979-1983 cohort would represent the group that most likely did not benefit much from the previous system.  I compared the country to the two other stalwarts in baseball player production, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, who are also in their starting pool in the 2013 WBC.
Born Puerto Rico Venezuela Dominican Republic
1954-58 16 5 26
1959-63 20 15 31
1964-68 32 18 57
1969-73 29 28 81
1974-78 39 47 108
1979-83 19 67 105

The interesting thing to me about the above table is how talent greatly increased from Venezuela from the 1969 to 1983 time period.  It may well be that other clubs began mining the country for talent after the Houston Astros showed so much proficiency there.  It may have also been a product of clubs deciding to reroute their scouting and training money from Puerto Rico to Venezuela.  It may also be the elimination of the trainer/agent system and the lack of a developed little league system.

MLB and other interests recognized after a decade of having Puerto Rico under the Rule 4 draft that something needed to be done.  In 2002, MLB had every team pay in money to support the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy and High School.  It sounds more grand than it actually is.  A few years back, the Orioles established their own academy in the Dominican Republic, spending several million.  MLB hands over to the Puerto Rican Academy $400,000 a year.  The academy is a single building that acts as an academic setting and headquarters with its players being transported to fielded around the area to play.  The academy does not sufficient lands or funds to build their own complete training facilities.

However, it is still roughly productive with five players getting drafted and 40 being sent to the states for collegiate baseball per year.  According to my records, 61 players have gone from the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy and High School directly to the professional ranks, starting with their first graduating class in 2004.  None have played a single Major League game, but there is some hope that the island's infrastructure for developing talent is improving.  Carlos Correa was drafted last year number one overall by the Houston Astros with MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo assessing that he was the 30th best prospect in baseball.  Correa definitely shows that top tier talent is capable of turning up in Puerto Rico, but it remains to be seen if the island can return to its former glory as a producer of baseball players.

Much of the island's reemergence will likely be related to how invested MLB is to creating infrastructure in Puerto Rico.  By having a laissez-faire attitude when the country was not under the Rule 4 draft allowed for the area to develop a more professional tone with weak youth leagues and strong trainer/agents.  Upon draft inclusion, the trainer/agents no longer could make serious money by selling off to the highest bidder and that profession crashed.  The youth leagues were underfunded and neglected to the point where they were not a suitable way to develop talent.  It can be argued that it is the populations' responsibility to invest in their own infrastructure if they want to produce top level baseball talent, but that should also be in MLB's interest as well to encourage the game in one of their strongest markets.

2013 World Baseball Classic Roster

In 2009, Puerto Rico's roster was populated with some of the old guard now gone, such as Javier Vazquez, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, and Bernie Williams.  Returning players include Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, and Alex Rios.  New significant additions are Jose Molina and Angel Pagan.  That leaves the impression that this WBC team has been historically an offensive powerhouse, which would be accurate.  It also suggests that some top level, aging talent is being replaced with lower level talent.  Jose Molina may in fact be the great defensive catcher in the past twenty years, but his utility may be minimized with Yadier on the club catching as well.  Angel Pagan is certainly better than 2009's Bernie Williams, but he truly is not an elite player.  Generally speaking, the team's offense is weaker than it was four years ago and it lacks an ace pitcher or, really, any pitchers of elite talent.  Anything can happen in a short series, but they will need things to break their way to get by Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.

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