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?