Fortunately, when the Phils hired Mike Arbuckle to oversee their scout and development program, he brought with him a commitment to the Latin America program, a philosophy that new GM Ed Wade heartily endorsed when he was hired in 1997. That the program is growing is evident in the number of talented hurlers being signed and developed. Pitchers like Elizardo Ramirez, Ezequiel Astacio, Robinson Tejeda, Carlos Cabrera and Jean Machi are just a few of the many youngsters being signed and developed by the Phils. But a somewhat disturbing development has taken place this season, and it involves two of their best 4-5 Latin prospects, Machi and shortstop Carlos Rodriguez.
Both have been disciplined, suspended and sent back home to Latin America. Rodriguez, nicknamed C-Rod for obvious reasons, was disciplined in June and has since returned. Machi was disciplined last week and was banished to Latin America and is finished for the year. Without placing blame, and with careful acknowledgment of the wonderful job Arbuckle and company have done in turning around a previously moribund minor league system, one might question why this has occurred twice in a single season? How is it that a franchise that prides itself on signing high quality players becomes forced to suspend and banish two of its best Latin prospects? Was there a better way? Did this damage the team in the eyes of potential future prospects in countries where cultural differences are as prevalent as language differences? And just how will this affect the two players involved, Rodriguez and Machi?
The answers to these questions may well determine the future success of our Latin America program. Let's examine what we know as fact. Fact number one is that the Phils have an absolutely wonderful Latin American supervisor in Sal Artiaga. If a Phillie follower were to list the names of organizational staff that have most contributed to the Phils turnaround, Artiaga's name would be near the top. His talents are well known, both in the US and abroad. Likewise, the skills of Arbuckle are such that he is constantly mentioned as a future GM for a major league team. The Phils are fortunate to have two highly motivated and skilled employees like Artiaga and Arbuckle.
It is also known that Carlos Rodriguez was much ballyhooed when the Phils signed him a few years ago. They spoke glowingly of his talents and, indeed, had a very successful rookie year at Batavia last summer. The name C-Rod was carefully crafted after A-Rod, the legendary Alex Rodriguez, to show the kind of talent that he possessed. Machi, on the other hand, was more quietly cultivated, but it was impossible to ignore his mid 90's fastball and he, along with Elizardo Ramirez, was excitedly projected to one day flash his fastball in Philadelphia.
Sadly, something has dramatically gone wrong with both players this year and not only their development, but their very careers are in doubt. Apparently, C-Rod had broken several team rules, had been disciplined repeatedly, and was finally sent home by Arbuckle. Rumors at the time spoke of a season ending banishment but he was reinstated a few weeks ago. It must be reported that his game has not noticeably improved since his return. His pre-suspension .185 bating average has remained at about .185 since his return. Not only that, but the speed, power and skills that made him such an eye-catching prospect seem to have all but disappeared. Though he is still a prospect, the Phils no longer speak in glowing terms about his chances of making it to the big leagues.
Less talented Danny Gonzalez at Clearwater may have leapfrogged ahead of Rodriguez on the shortstop depth chart. This is not a welcome development for the Phils Latin American program. Perhaps even more disturbing were the antics of Machi. Talented but headstrong, he has refused to listen to coaches and feigned injury last week after a line drive glanced off of his glove. Arbuckle, in suspending and banishing Machi, called it "the proverbial strike three" in discipline techniques and indicated that talking had not worked. While maintaining that Machi remains very much a valued prospect, Arbuckle did indicate that he must make some major adjustments in his attitude.
Again, though probably justified, this can't enhance the Phillies image in Latin America. One can only surmise what Rodriguez, and now Machi, must have to say about their parent club as family and friends ask them just what they are doing home in the middle of baseball season. Unless these two players have developed far more maturity than they seemingly displayed on the ball field, it is doubtful they offered a "mea culpa" when discussing their suspensions.
What must be addressed now is not whether or not the Phils actions were justified, but how to keep this from happening again. Not only do these players lose valuable development time away from baseball, but it can only make the Phils minor league staff appear as if they have major difficulties in communicating with foreign players. Is it a language problem? Are the cultural difficulties inherent in a young player who is away from home for the first time being properly addressed? Is there another way, more of a reward punishment system that attempts to avoid this seemingly last straw scenario?
This writer, while an avid Arbuckle supporter, is curious if this is a baseball wide problem, or is this unique to the Phillies? That these questions have no apparent answers is distressing. This situation is one to watch over the next few years.
As the Philadelphia Phillies begin a new era with the opening of Citizens Bank Park next year, it is hoped that players continue to make more news for their exploits on the field than for their banishment from it.
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