After years of virtual inactivity on the International front, the Milwaukee Brewers made a splash in 2014, signing then-16-year-old Dominican infield prospect Gilbert Lara to a contract that was reported to be worth more than three million dollars. That signing came on the heels of Milwaukee adding Lara’s fellow Dominicans, outfielder Nicolas Pierre and infielder Franly Mallen, a year earlier, inking each for $800,000.
The signings represented a marked change in philosophy for the Brewers, an organization who chose to focus their resources elsewhere in previous seasons, even going without fielding a team in the Dominican Summer League for five seasons from 2004-2008.
In addition to their increased efforts in the Dominican Republic, Milwaukee has also found success in recent years by scouting heavily in another Latin American country, and may soon begin to reap the rewards of their efforts there as well.
Located on the northern coast of South America, Venezuela is a baseball hotbed, home to Major League All-Stars such as Felix Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Salvador Perez, Elvis Andrus and Carlos Gonzalez.
Milwaukee’s top prospect, shortstop Orlando Arcia is poised to become the next household name on that list as he anticipates advancing from Venezuela to the major leagues at some point this season.
Signed by the Brewers in 2010 for the bargain price of $95,000, Arcia has burst on to the prospect scene in recent years. The 21-year-old Arcia hit .307/.347/.453 last season with Double-A Biloxi, collecting 37 doubles, 7 triples and 8 home runs on his way to being named Milwaukee’s 2015 Minor League Player of the Year.
There’s little doubt that Arcia’s time is coming, as he’s positioned nicely to become the Brewers shortstop of the future, and the Brewers have added other Venezuelan talents in recent years that they hope can follow a similar path to Arcia’s.
Outfielder Joantgel Segovia signed with Milwaukee in 2013 with very little fanfare and not many knew his name when he debuted with the Brewers Dominican Summer League team a year later. But after a selection to the DSL All-Star team and putting up a league leading .384 batting average as a 17-year-old, folks began to take note. Segovia followed that up by coming to the U.S. and hitting .331 last season, furthering his prospect status before injury cut his season short.
Another example is first baseman Nicol Valderrey, who was also a 2013 signee out of Puerot la Cruz, Venezuela. After signing as a scrawny 16-year-old, Valderrey has packed on nearly 50 pounds of muscle since joining the Brewers and the results have begun to show. IN his second stint in the Dominican last season, Valderrey hit an even .300 and was selected to the DSL’s mid-season All-Star squad.
And it’s not just hitters that the Brewers have been acquiring through their efforts in Venezuela either. The system is also stocked with young, live, pitching arms such as right-handers Nelson Hernandez, Yosmer Leal and Victor Diaz. The best of the bunch may turn out to be 22-year-old righty Jorge Ortega, who burst onto the scene with a dominant season in the Florida State League last year.
Signed by the Brewers in 2011, Ortega spent his first four professional seasons playing rookie ball, but when Milwaukee decided he was ready for a full-season test, they jumped him over Low-A Wisconsin, starting him at High-A Brevard County in 2015. Ortega responded in fine fashion, winning nine games and posting a 2.41 earned run average in 22 outings for the Manatees while walking just 11 batters all season.
After finding success in recent years, the Brewers went back to the well last season for their top International signing, landing 16-year-old catcher Jose Sibrian for a reported bonus of $550,000. Sibrian, who was ranked among Baseball America‘s Top 30 International prospect, participated with Milwaukee’s team during instructional league last fall and will make his official debut in 2016.
The Brewers added to their Venezuelan contingent this offseason as well, with the addition of middle infielder Javier Betancout, who was acquired via trade from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for veteran relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.
Betancourt, 20, was signed by Detroit in 2010 and actually got his start in his native Venezuela, where the Tigers had previously operated a team in the Venezuelan Summer League. He worked his way up through Detroit’s system, advancing to High-A Lakeland in 2015, where he played in 122 Florida State League games.
Venezuela has proven to be a difficult area to scout in recent years due to political unrest and high crime rates in the country, and the Venezuelan Summer League, which shrunk to just four teams last season, has ceased operations altogether in 2016.
These types of challenges have made the Brewers success in scouting Venezuela in recent years that much more impressive and as their efforts in Latin America continue to grow, they can already point to some of their success stories to establish increased credibility with a nation rich in baseball tradition.
If players like Segoiva, Ortega, Sibrian and others can continue on the career path mapped out by Arcia and maintain the success they’ve enjoyed early on in their careers, the Brewers could have a solid Venezuelan presence in the big leagues well into the future.