Unrest threatens Tigers' Venezuelan gold mine

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Consider for a moment some Tigers names, past and present.

Miguel Cabrera. Victor Martinez. Anibal Sanchez. Magglio Ordonez. Carlos Guillen. Omar Infante. Avisail Garcia. Bruce Rondon. Eugenio Suarez.

All are from Venezuela, a country on South America's northern border that is more than twice the size of California and, in terms of sustaining the Tigers, is a front office's single most important relationship outside the United States.

But today's Venezuela, today's culture, is different. Political and economic strife have made it increasingly tough for United States diplomats, citizens, business people and, yes, big-league scouts to travel to a country the state department and President Barack Obama urged be avoided because of an "unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. security."

The Tigers, along with the Cubs, Phillies and Rays, are one of four big-league teams that for now have decided to endure tangled webs of logistics, red tape and peril — from sky-high murder rates, to kidnappings, to currency exchanges that in mere hours can fluctuate wildly — because Venezuelan talent is vast and so often geared toward long and productive years in the big leagues.

But the baseball landscape is changing. Tired of dealing with myriad issues that have fueled crime and citizen unrest, as well as crackdowns by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the Mariners departed Venezuela ahead of this year. And while the Phillies said earlier this year they were staying put in 2015, no assurances have been offered beyond 2015.

If one more team departs, the Tigers and any two remaining clubs would find it impossible to schedule games regularly, which could doom the Venezuelan Summer League, an important link in player development, and force the Tigers and any other full-time operations to move their teenage prospects elsewhere.

The Tigers' Venezuelan commitment can be seen in its scouting staff there. The Tigers have five full-time scouts, heavy compared with most teams who might have part-timers among an average group of three or four scouts.

All of the Tigers' staffers are Venezuelan natives. All are adept at handling shifting internal realities. In a country where graft can be part of the scouting fabric, all of Detroit's representatives are trusted. All report to a linchpin in the Tigers' Venezuelan forays, Miguel Garcia, the team's director of Latin American operations, and to Tom Moore, the Tigers' international scouting director and a Boston resident who is one of the few U.S.-based scouts or executives who still visits Venezuela.

'Continue to operate as usual'

The Tigers say they are going nowhere.

"We're happy with our operation in Venezuela, and regardless of whatever political or economic situations there, we plan to operate normally," said Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager who oversees minor-league operations and player development. "We have had some success there and will continue to operate as usual."

What separates the Tigers and their three cohorts, beyond a broad scouting presence, is that each team owns Venezuelan academies — dormitories, playing fields, coaching staffs, etc. — that groom newly signed teenage professionals in the Venezuelan Summer League. These academies and VSL teams act as a hatchery ahead of the prospects' migration to the U.S., and, if their talent dictates, to Comerica Park and other big-league ballparks.

But the Tigers acknowledge any change in the VSL's viability would lead to necessary changes none of the academy-based teams would welcome. In the Tigers' case, it is possible the Venezuelan teenage professionals would be brought to Lakeland, Florida, the Tigers' minor-league headquarters, where housing and practice fields at the Tigertown complex would handle the dozen or more Venezuelans who might sign in a given year.

Any transition, though, would be harsher for Latin American teens who gain an important year in pro ball, in their own country and culture, ahead of their move to the U.S. The ability to train the youngest players in their farm system in their homeland is viewed by the Tigers as a significant edge. Players from Latin America can sign pro contracts at age 16 but can only move to the U.S. if they turn 17 before their first regular-season professional schedule ends.

There are language barriers, homesickness, food adjustments, a daily regimen of pure baseball, etc., that have been eased for players by academies the Tigers likewise oversee in the Dominican Republic.

A protester opposed to President Nicolas Maduro is arrested in Venezuela, where unrest has increased in recent years.

A changed country

But it is a new Venezuela the Tigers and other clubs now confront. And new, in this case, is not better. The oil market has been depressed. Maduro is viewed, domestically and internationally, as a poor act to have followed the late Marxist president Hugo Chavez. And with grotesque inflation and an abject lack of basic consumer goods ripping at families and their daily existence, crime and the black market have flourished.

The former Venezuela, by contrast, was something of a model for much of South America, at least in terms of dealing with poverty and education.

A robust middle class existed for decades due to the country's rank as a major world oil-producer and wealth that essentially was redistributed by Chavez. Jobs and two-parent homes were the norm, as when Avila, then with the Marlins, visited the home of a 16-year-old Miguel Cabrera in 1999 and helped sign Cabrera to what then was the largest bonus ever paid to a Latin American prospect: $1.8 million.

Cabrera's mother had one stipulation: Her son would finish high school before beginning his professional career. Education has been a common thread among Venezuelan prospects, particularly when compared with the generally impoverished players from Dominican Republic.

More educated players, from more stable families and economic conditions, have, on balance, produced players whose U.S. assimilation has been easier. Language has been less of a challenge. More self-actualization helped prepare players for a new life and, often, for a lengthy career that paid all-around dividends.

Venezuela's relative serenity is no longer the norm. Apart from the country's economic grind, Maduro has sought to rewrite textbooks and history books in a manner consistent with his more rigid Marxist views.

One well-known scout, for example, moved from Venezuela to Panama because of new realities that made life in his native country untenable. Big-league executives and scouts from the U.S. who once routinely visited Venezuela no longer go there, a reality the state department has outlined in careful detail.

A young prospect exercises at the Tigers baseball academy in Venezuela. Team personnel say the talent in the country makes the challenges of working in Venezuela worth it.

Lured by abundant talent

In recent years, only Honduras has had a higher per-capital murder rate than Venezuela, which in 2013 recorded 24,763 homicides, or 79 per 100,000. In the capital of Caracas, the rate was 134 per 100,000 residents.

In Caracas, all U.S. direct-hire personnel and family members assigned to the U.S. Embassy there are ordered to travel in armored vehicles to and from Maiquetia Airport, and in certain areas of Caracas and the surrounding region.

Maduro has made obtaining visas for U.S. visitors — including scouts — complicated and one more reason why big-league teams are backing away.

But still teams find a way to scout the talent there, all because it is so abundant and, potentially, so valuable, as the Tigers have known with Cabrera, Martinez, Ordonez, Guillen, Sanchez, and many stars the team has either homegrown or acquired.

For those versed in Venezuela's ways and fluent in street-smart Spanish, a scouting trip there can still be manageable, even for a U.S. visitor.

One scout for an American League team, who because of political realities did not wish to be identified, said that when he went there for three weeks last year, his family worried for his safety. However, he said, if it wasn't safe he wouldn't go, though there are areas he would avoid. If you don't speak the language, he said, he could understand how there would be serious concerns about visiting.

But if he were the Tigers, he would hang in.

The Tigers insist they're staying put. A country that, to many of its citizens and to many of its world neighbors, is troubled and dangerous, still has that rich worldwide commodity — good baseball players. A team from Detroit has chosen to dig in and scout hard.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Current Tigers minor leaguers from Venezuela

■Adrian Alfaro, Bolivar

■Franklin Arias, Charallave

■Keyder Aristigueta, Caracas

■Jose Azocar, Sucre

■Jeyser Azuaje, Caracas

■Johan Belisario, Bolivar

■Moises Bello, San Juan de los Morros

■Javier Betancourt, Miranda

■Endrys Briceno, Aragua

■Eliezer Castillo, Boca de Aroa

■Oswaldo Castillo, Maracay

■Anthony Castro, Miranda

■Harold Castro, Maracay

■Irwin Chirinos, Lagunillas

■Johandry Cortez, Caracas

■Victor Cortez, Zamora

■Elys Escobar, Valencia

■Adonis Figuera, Anaco

■Jose Fuentes, Caracas

■Daniel Gonzalez, Cagua

■Miguel Gonzalez, Porlamar Nueva Esparta

■Alfred Gutierrez, Pampatar

■Hector Hernandez, Cabudare

■Eudis Idrogo, Temblador

■Eduardo Jimenez, Cumana

■Junnell Ledezma, San Felipe

■Luis Ledezma, Ciudad Bolivar

■Jose Lopez, Tumero

■Francisco Martinez, Edo Miranda

■Dixon Machado, San Cristobal-Tachira

■Willians Moreno, Maracay

■Franklin Navarro, Miranda

■Jose Ovalles, Miranda

■Victor Padron, Puerto Cabello

■Jesus Paricaguan, Puerto La Cruz

■Anthony Pereira, Tocuyito

■Arvicent Perez, Bolivar

■Manny Pina, Barquismeto

■Wladimir Pinto, Villa de Cura

■Hector Rodriguez, Maracay

■Jesus Rodriguez, Araya

■Perkyn Rodriguez, Petare

■Andres Sthormes, Cabinas

■Luis Torrealba, Quibor

■Michael Torrealba, Aragua

■Orvin Tovar, Edo Carabobo

■Angel Vasquez, Edo Aragua

■Adenson Verastegui, Maracay

■Javier Villarroel, Caracas

■Wildenson Yanez, Puerto Cabello

■Jose Zambrano, Maracay