Adios Venezuela

The Astros are closing their Venezuelan training academy:

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.

My first thought when I read this was “it has to be the economy.” My second thought was “if it’s not the economy, it’s the fact that it’s not safe for a promising ballplayer or their family in Venezuela these days, so best to get them out of country ASAP.” If the Astros are telling the truth, I was wrong on both counts:

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.

Which would be a good reason. Still, what was it about the Venezuelan academy that forced the Astros to keep the kids down too long? Lots of teams have foreign academies, and this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Won’t Houston just keep the guys in the Dominican or the GCL too long now?

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  1. Craig Calcaterra said...

    You’re the second person to say that today.  It’s working fine for me—comments are marked as 3:45 and 3:46, etc.

    Not sure what the deal is.

  2. Pete Toms said...

    I think this is interesting.

    Maybe too conspiracy theorist and as previously mentioned I am quite stoned today….but….is this part of a broader effort by clubs to lessen the influence of the local baseball establishments in Latin America.  There were a number of pieces last season on the theme of Chavez & MLB.  Increasing violence, threat of privately constructed facilities / academies being nationalized, closing the border to the players….all floated at different times….and now this…

    Combined with the spate of stories ( Craig and I have discussed this before ) on the crooked “buscone” controlled baseball culture in the DR….lots and lots of steroid busts in the DSL….lobbying in the press for the expansion of the Rule IV…..complaints about rising “player development” costs…

    Rightly or wrongly maybe they have concluded that what’s best for them ( the teams ) is to bring these kids under their control to the greatest degree possible at earlier ages.  Whether that’s good for the kids…..

  3. Aaron said...

    As an Astros this just again makes me depressed that a) we let go of Santana in the Rule 5 draft and b) we protected Richard Hidalgo and not Bobby Abreu in the expansion draft.I have no other comments

  4. James Van Awesome said...

    Hey Craig,

    Long time reader, first time commenter. I am currently working on an undergraduate thesis about Major League Baseball and Venezuela.

    In my opinion, the Astros’ operations in Venezuela have been in jeopardy at least since Andres Reiner’s resignation in early 2005. With Andres and Gerry Hunsicker gone, there was no one left to fight for Venezuela.

    Like with anything there are multiple reasons for the shut down:

    1. This is a cost cutting measure above all else. Drayton McLane is a very frugal owner. If, as it appears, the current higher-ups in the Astros organization do not deem an Academy in Venezuela an absolute necessity, then Uncle Drayton is going to cut it. Budget cuts have hampered the Astros’ Latin America efforts since their infancy, and McLane would cut this program in any economy, but the current climate certainly can’t help. See Ty Wigginton.

    2. Personal safety truly is an enormous issue to consider in Venezuela. Crime rates are out of control and Caracas is currently the murder capital of the world. Venezuela is especially dangerous for Americans given recent political climates.

    3. I suppose you can include the gibberish from the Astros’ official reasoning, but as Craig pointed out, what’s to stop them from holding kids too long other places?

    I was surprised by this news even though I suppose I shouldn’t have been. The Astros think they can compete for talent in Venezuela without infrastructure onsite, and I hope for their sakes they are right. Venezuela is a hugely important market with three times the population of any of the other Latin American baseball playing countries. All I know is that if I was a young Venezuelan kid looking to sign with a Major League team, I would be more inclined to sign with one that has an Academy in my home country where I can train rather than one that wants to ship me overseas at age 17 (or I would want to sign with the team that is going to pay me top dollar, and since that will never be the Astros, how can they get away with cutting their Academy?). Am I wrong?

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