Across a Cardinals minor league system that grew to a total of nine clubs last season, the VSL club might be considered the entry point. Yet, the VSL remains a very important part of the organization's increased investment in player development.
Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow graciously agreed to discuss the organization's Venezuelan Summer League program this past weekend.
Better, more experienced players along with improved conditions are two reasons the organization is feeling increased optimism about the VSL Cardinals this season. We'll start with the latter.
When I last spoke in depth with Jeff about the VSL last fall, he stated that getting a permanent facility was priority one. The Cardinals have been busy over the winter, but there is yet more to be done. He explains.
"Things are moving in a very positive direction. We will be playing in our new field for the VSL. It is in Portachuelo, which is about 10 minutes from where the Mariners have their complex in Agualinda and about five minutes from where the Twins have long been established, in Behuma.
"The field is ready to use for games, but the clubhouse and the dorm and just beginning to be built. We do not have an estimated completion time for those facilities yet but we are hopeful that by this time next year everything will be finished," Luhnow said.
(The new field at Portachuelo)
Given a political environment in Venezuela that is a bit tricky, I asked Jeff if that relates to the Cardinals' future there. There are tradeoffs between continuing to tap the rich player pipeline and the increased risks of doing business.
"You are correct, and it's not only the political situation that I worry about, but also the crime. When I landed in Caracas last week, the headline in the paper reported that 51 people had been murdered over the prior weekend in the city of Caracas alone. Many clubs choose not to operate there in order to ensure the safety of their staff and players.
"We are as careful as we can be and aware of the risks, but up until now we have chosen to continue (in fact accelerate) our operations there because of the quality of the players available. Our academy is located in a relatively safe area of the country and that is one of the reasons we chose it," Luhnow said.
Yet, not all MLB organizations are investing in Venezuela. Last season, there were nine teams in the VSL, representing eleven major league organizations, as the Cubs and Twins shared a team, as did the Devil Rays and Reds. However, that total has dropped by three organizations in 2008, with eight teams competing. The Cubs, Twins and Reds have exited Venezuela.
Jeff is not yet concerned that they have dipped to the minimum level necessary to maintain a viable league.
"As long as they have enough to put together a schedule of games that is reasonable, we will keep having the league. We are not the only club committed to being there and I believe we will be able to continue the league indefinitely," Luhnow explained.
On the field
The 70-game VSL regular season for 2008 continues through August 2. (For details, reference the link at the bottom of this page.)
With one of the youngest teams in the league, the 2007 VSL Cardinals finished in seventh place with a 23-46 (.333) record, a distant 25.5 games behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates' team. The Cards were just two games under .500 at home, but posted a league-worst .200 win percentage on the road.
It seemed unnecessary to ask if the organization has set expectations that the 2008 VSL Cardinals will improve on last year's mark. Yet, I still felt I had to pose the question. The answer was predictably positive.
Luhnow didn't hesitate. "Of course I think so! I trust our scouts and player development people have and will do a good job and our goal is to finish at .500."
The farm director acknowledges the relative youth of his club could be a factor in terms of won-loss record, but is looking at a much bigger picture. Catching up in age just to try to win a few more games isn't necessarily part of the Cardinals' strategy.
"Yes, we are young again. We have a very young team there again this year, with most players being in their first or second year of professional baseball. I don't know if it will "catch up" because we like to sign the younger players who have big upside. As long as we don't care about winning too much in the VSL, this strategy should get us the best possible players," he said.
The increased number of players in the pipeline may cause a pinch however, as players even at this level may not advance quite as quickly due to competition up the line.
"I do think that after this year we will have to keep some players back in the VSL that might have otherwise been ready to come to the US because we might not have room for them. That would tend to increase the average age," Jeff said.
With a number of the more advanced Venezuelan players in the US, currently competing in Extended Spring Training, I asked Jeff if he would be sending any of them home to compete in the 2008 VSL. His answer was a bit surprising, but a reminder that just like at any level, these youngsters have to produce or risk losing their jobs.
"That is not likely. The VSL roster has 33 players on it presently. The Venezuelan players who are at EST will either stick with a US club or be released," he explained.
Here are the rules: VSL roster limits are 35 active players of which no more than 12 players can be 20 years of age or older and no more than four players 21 years of age or older. At least ten must be pitchers as of July 1. No player on the active list may have more than four years of minor league service. Players from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are not allowed.
The coaches and players
Two of three coaches leading the Cardinals' VSL club in 2008 are returnees, with a new hitting coach having been signed. Luhnow goes over his lieutenants.
"The staff is Javier Meza as manager, once again, along with Dernier Orosco as pitching coach. Our newest addition is Jobel Jimenez whom we hired as a hitting coach. He had worked previously with the Red Sox and was in fact in the same scout school class that I attended in the Dominican Republic in 2004. In fact, that class includes several Cardinal employees… Oz O'Campo, Fermin Coronel, Rene Rojas, Juan Mercado, and now Jobel. The trainer in the DSL is Rafael Caldera, who has been with us since 2004."
The Cardinals braintrust has been busy coaching and observing their top players selected to join the 2008 VSL roster. Luhnow comments on some of their movers and shakers.
"I was just in Venezuela with Moises Rodriguez (Director of International Operations), Juan Mercado (Scouting Supervisor for Latin American Operations), Enrique Brito (former Latin American Scouting Supervisor and new manager of the Gulf Coast League Cardinals) and the rest of the staff and players. We saw our club over the course of two days and put them into a game situation against the top amateur prospects in the country. I asked each staff member to rank the prospects on the team.
"Based on that input and my observations, the top position players on that club are Hector Garcia (3B), Yorbel Alcala (C), Jesus Montero (C), Osmir Medina (SS), and Roberto Perez (1B). Some of the newly signed players could become interesting very quickly, including Kaizer Inojoza (OF).
While there was one left-handed pitcher listed among the projected standouts, every time I see Jeff, I ask him about the constant search for left-handed pitching. He always agrees with the need and continues to take action.
"We added Colorado, (Miguel) Lopez and (Ruben) Alvarado as three lefties for the VSL. We've also added a bunch in the DSL (Dominican Summer League). Juan Mercado has made it an objective of his to find us some big league lefties."
(2008 VSL Cardinals with Luhnow, Brito, Rodriguez and Mercado)
Of course, the reason for building this pipeline is to provide players up the line in the US. To that end, I asked Jeff to name some of the top VSL grads expected to make an impact in the system this season. He had no trouble rattling off over a dozen players' names.
They include Eduardo Sanchez (Quad Cities rotation), Domnit Bolivar (Quad Cities infielder), Jose Garcia (Quad Cities infielder), Frederick Parejo (EST - OF), Kevin Moscatel (EST - C), Richard Castillo (EST – RHP), Ted Obregon (EST – IF), Romulo Ruiz (EST – IF), Reynier Gonzalez (EST – RHP), Jose Calero (EST – RHP), Jorge Rondon (EST – RHP), Jose Rada (EST – RHP), Pablo Ortiz (EST – RHP), Kleininger Teran (EST – 3B), Omar Diaz (EST – RHP) and Orlando Munoz (EST – RHP).
Luhnow is clearly proud of each.
"All of them have played in Venezuela with Cardinals teams although some skipped the VSL and came directly to the US. There are some good players in this group and several will take a big step forward this year."
Look ahead to July
Though the focus of this article was on this year's team, I couldn't resist asking about the never-ending job of filling the pipeline. To that end, I probed on the Cardinals' July 2nd signing budget this year compared to last and whether or not to expect this to be a more important source of prospects in the future.
Luhnow leads us to believe the Cardinals have no limitations other than self-imposed ones.
"We will have the resources to compete for the top July 2nd talent. Having said that, if the price gets too high relative to the talent and risk, we won't make foolish decisions just to show that we are spending money. Moises, Juan and myself have spent the last two weeks bearing down on the top talent and we have a plan of attack. Let's hope it works!"
2008 Schedule: link
2008 Roster: link (This is now current with all 33 rostered players.)
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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