A decade ago, the St. Louis Cardinals were behind their competitors, late to get back into the international market. Yet they moved quickly once Jeff Luhnow was hired in late 2003. Along with his role to build and implement evaluation tools, the Mexico City native was tasked with leading international scouting and player development.
The Cardinals first entered the Dominican Summer League in the spring of 2005, followed by the Venezuelan Summer League the next year. They established academies in both countries, designed to house players and staff and enable them to train. In 2007, Luhnow, now general manager of the Houston Astros, brought MLB executive Moises Rodriguez into the organization to lead the Cardinals’ overseas efforts as director of international operations.
The key indicator of the program’s success to date is two stars who reached the major leagues in pitcher Carlos Martinez and outfielder Oscar Taveras. To keep that pipeline flowing, the Cardinals are making a significant new investment in their facilities in the Dominican Republic, a country in which all 30 MLB organizations operate academies. (Like most other clubs, the Cards closed their brick and mortar facility in Venezuela in 2010 due to political unrest.)
This spring, for the first time in a decade, the Cardinals will enjoy brand-new facilities for their international players and staff. A new complex in Boca Chica, a coastal town about 30 minutes east of Santo Domingo, the capital, is targeted to open in late April or early May, ahead of the June 1 opening of the 2015 DSL season.
A Brief History
St. Louis’ initial facility in the Dominican was located in Villa Mella, built for the Cardinals and contracted on a long-term lease starting in 2005. The organization would remain in the north part of Santo Domingo for eight years, but over time, it became increasingly obvious that a change was needed – both in facility and location.
Not unlike the recent situation the Cardinals faced in South Florida, other teams were moving away, making scheduling and logistics an ever-growing problem. Eventually, Oakland was the only team committed to remain nearby as the Phillies, Brewers and all of the others once in the area had moved toward the Boca Chica region, similar to how a number of MLB clubs have migrated to the Phoenix area from Florida.
There were other factors, as well. Eight years of wear and tear on the once-new facility at Villa Mella contributed to the Cardinals’ desire to look elsewhere and travel time to the Santo Domingo airport created its own challenges.
“We decided to move on and move to a more centralized location with an eye on opening up a new academy,” Rodriguez recalled.
“We decided to move on and move to a more centralized location with an eye on opening up a new academy.” - Moises Rodriguez
The last two seasons, the Cardinals had joined the Washington Nationals as short-term inhabitants of the Las Americas Complex, which had formerly been occupied by Cleveland and Colorado. In the process, the Cardinals shifted into a division with other nearby teams, moving into the Boca Chica South from the Santo Domingo North.
The move to Las Americas was an interim one while the Cards continued to evaluate more permanent alternatives. They decided to partner with a development firm run by Junior Noboa to customize a new facility for their use, one that had already been in the early planning stages.
Location is important
The Cardinals organization has agreed to a long-term lease with Noboa’s company on a new academy in Boca Chica. In the process, location has shifted from being a disadvantage to an advantage for the Cardinals.
“We have a brand new facility that is going up,” said proud Cardinals Vice President of Player Development Gary LaRocque. “It is going to be really nice. The latest pictures are super and the land, which I saw, is a wonderful tract of land right next to the Yankees, right next to the Rockies. It is all very accessible, very close for our young Dominican and Venezuelan players that are there – 40 some odd players.”
Though separated by fencing, the Yankees complex is physically adjoining the property with the Rockies located just down the road. (In the Google Earth view presented above, Colorado’s complex is at the upper left, with the Yankees academy in the middle and the Cardinals facility under construction at the lower right.)
The Cardinals’ partner Noboa is a name familiar to many baseball fans. The former infielder, who played in the majors for parts of eight seasons with six different clubs from 1984-1994, also serves as Vice President, Latin Operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks and has worked for that club in its international program for over two decades.
Some time ago, Noboa recognized a related business opportunity. Major League organizations wanted to operate complexes in his homeland, but without the risk of having to acquire land and make substantial investments in physical plants. Noboa and his investors established a company that has built and leased out a number of the academies in the Dominican.
In all, seven other teams have facilities within three-to-five minute travel time from the new Cardinals complex. (No official name has been decided to date.) Neighbors include the Rangers, Marlins, Mets, Angels and Nationals (who also moved, into the old Phillies complex), as well as the aforementioned Yankees and Rockies.
In addition, the new academy is just 15 minutes from the airport, again a major improvement compared to the Villa Mella complex.
Of course, the facilities themselves and what they enable the organization to accomplish in terms of player developement is what is most important. The Cardinals will have more room and better conditions than ever before.
The complex includes three playing fields and a green agility field for drills along with a view tower, larger batting cages, expanded gym/weight room, living quarters large enough to accommodate 80 players (25-30 more than the previous site representing potential for considerable growth) as well as staff housing and of course the requisite clubhouse, laundry as well as kitchen and cafeteria.
There is more to do between now and opening than just completing construction. In addition to supervising the final elements of the plant, the Cardinals have to outfit the new academy with the necessary equipment and get all of the support staffs in place.
The Cardinals do not have to look far into the future to see the advantages associated with the new facility.
“It is really going to allow us to spend more time with players and in their development,” Rodriguez explained. “We are going to have more space, more tools to work with and an extra field. The player development aspect is really why you do this. It is really going to boost that part of it a lot.”
”We are going to have more space, more tools to work with and an extra field. The player development aspect is really why you do this.” – Moises Rodriguez
A Recruiting Tool
In addition to the on-field development, there are acclimation issues inherent in running an international academy. Whatever the steepness of the challenges for a Dominican youngster to adapt to professional baseball, they can be multiplied for those teenaged signees from Venezuela or Panama, for example, having to deal with cultural and diet changes.
Rodriguez sees the new Cardinals complex as a potential recruiting tool.
“One importance in having a good facility is that you are going to bring in kids from other countries,” he explained. “It is going to be tough enough to get them used to a new culture. If you bring them into a facility where they are not going to feel comfortable, word can get around. If you are recruiting Venezuelan players that know they are going to have to leave Venezuela to come to the Dominican Republic, you want the word to get around that the Cardinals facility is worth going to another country for.”
The level of importance of the academy facilities back at the time of the original signing decision depends on who is representing the player. It can carry more weight when the young man and his family take the lead in negotiations compared to when an agent is involved.
“A lot of times, when agents are negotiating with teams – unless the parents or the kids are really pushing on the representative to work out a deal with a particular club – at the end of the day, the agent controls for the most part where the player is going to go,” Rodriguez observed.
Even in the cases in which players do engage buscones to handle their negotiations, the new facilities will enable the Cardinals to put their best foot forward.
“One of your jobs, once you get the players in there, is to sell the organization,” the international director said. “Make the kid feel comfortable, let them know what the Cardinals are all about. Having a new facility is definitely going to aid that. It will definitely be a recruiting tool we are going to try to use as much as we can – no doubt about that.”
"It will definitely be a recruiting tool we are going to try to use as much as we can – no doubt about that.” - Moises Rodriguez
The most important factor is to do everything possible to better prepare young players to one day compete in the Major Leagues.
“The new facility will be modern and more spacious,” Rodriguez said. “It is going to allow us to better develop our kids. At the end of the day, you are doing it to further and aid the development of players.
“That is why you are doing this,” he reinforced.
“We are very fortunate that we have a new academy,” LaRocque noted. “Mr. DeWitt (Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.) and the organization obviously has really stepped up. It is going to be gorgeous. We are very thankful for that.”
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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