What did Tigers get with Roberto Campos, their $2.85M Cuban prospect?

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

What finally pushed the Tigers to spend more money than they had ever lavished on a Latin American teen was what they saw at a place called, simply, Academy Baseball Training, which rests not far from the Tigers’ development camp and prospect hatchery in San Pedro de Macoris, along the Dominican Republic’s Caribbean coast.

Roberto Campos was a young teen. But in the minds of scouts, he was irresistible: Campos stood 6-foot-1 when the Tigers first scouted him in 2017. Now, at age 16, he is 6-3. He might have weighed 170 pounds during those early glimpses. Now he is a good 200.

Roberto Campos

Campos has, in scouts’ parlance, a fast bat. He can tattoo a quality pitch and drive it over a fence in any direction.

He has an arm good enough for right field. And speed that, as he has gotten older, has only soared.

He also defected at age 13, along with his brother, from Cuba, joining their father in the Dominican with their collective aim pointed in one direction: the big leagues.

Because of all his glitter, and most of all because of those core gifts that continued to blossom after his escape, the Tigers signed Campos on July 2 for $2.85 million. It is $1 million and change more than they 15 months ago handed teen outfielder Jose De La Cruz, who before Campos ranked as the team’s highest-paid Latin investment in the years since hard annual budget-caps were slapped onto 30 big-league clubs.

Campos no longer plays his original position, third base. His move to right field began a year ago because of size, agility, and, of course, an arm that fits at a position where rifle-shot throws are paramount.

The Tigers spent more than half of their international allowance for 2019, which was just under $5.4 million, on Campos. This, despite the fact he was not ranked among the Top 30 international prospects.

The Tigers say those rankings have little relevance to what they saw in Campos from the time they first scouted him, not long after he had turned 14.

“The ball always jumped off his bat, even when he was that young,” said Tom Moore, who is the Tigers’ director of international scouting. “We liked him from the get-go. He was always a big, physical kid. Power to all fields. A really good frame. You could see that he would get stronger with that frame.

“My fear, in one sense, was with his frame as he’d get bigger and stronger. What you see with some kids is that they lose foot speed. Something that was very important for us is that he actually gained speed. And improved his arm strength. And I would say that’s partially due to his work ethic. He loves to be on the field.”

Moore continued, speaking of a key difference, often seen in Cuban natives: “He has a pretty good sense for the strike zone. And that, I would attribute, to the high-level game experience he had even at a younger age.”

Under the radar

Moore says the Tigers have seen Campos in every kind of competitive environment: in games against other teams, in simulated games against stiff pitching, and in those workouts at Academy Baseball Training, where a host of young prospects work under the stewardship of Alex Sanchez, a one-time big-leaguer who 15 years ago was playing center field for the Tigers.

Why, then, did Campos not crack any of the top international talent lists, the sexiest of which might be a Top 30 roundup overseen each year by MLB Pipeline? Nor was Campos part of any elite fraternity listed by Baseball America and its sharp international analyst, Ben Badler.

The Tigers say, with foundation, that such lists are arbitrary and hardly diminish a talent such as Campos. They say Campos wasn’t advertised in showcase events or tournaments as broadly as many on those Top 20 or Top 30 charts.

And yet there was no public outside voice or critic who might have explained such a comparatively steep investment by Detroit in a single player.

Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, isn’t bothered and says the Tigers spent properly.

“We think he’s a premium bat,” Avila said. “Now, the kid is 16 years old. But the main thing is, we like his bat.”

Avila was asked if $2.8 million suggested the Tigers saw in Campos talent on another level from Detroit’s past forays into Latin America.

“It’s what our scouts say he’s worth,” Avila said, “and that’s what counts.”

Even if other evaluators seemed underwhelmed by Campos?

“I think too much was made out of this.” Avila said. “We’ve seen him play, our scouts liked him, and at the end of the day we signed him.”

Another scout, from a National League East team who knows Dominican talent and who typical of scouts requested anonymity because of sensitivity to his employer, says the Tigers probably scored, as much as can be measured, with a 16-year-old who, at best, is years from crashing a big-league clubhouse.

Tigers talent sleuths, the scout said, did not casually commit to $2.8 million. Their evaluation, the scout said, was thorough, methodical, calculated, and deeply thought-out.

Another, independent scout, familiar with the Latin market, said the Tigers got a player for $2.8 million who probably was worth $750,000 to $1 million. The scout likewise asked that his name not be revealed because of sensitivities with the Tigers.

Al Avila

Avila, again, shakes off what others might or might not think about Campos. He says he remembers 20 years ago when he was with the Marlins and how scorned teams downplayed a Venezuelan teen he and Miami had just signed for the biggest bonus ever handed a 16-year-old. The player was Miguel Cabrera.

Campos isn’t Cabrera. He may, in fact, become a casualty of percentages that allow few signees, even the high-priced ones, to see a day in the big leagues. Avila says only that “considering his hitting ability, we felt we gave him a fair dollar offer, and he took it. It’s as simple as that.”

Except it isn’t that simple. Not in the parallel universe that is Latin American scouting.

Over-pays happen all the time in Latin signings. They happen mostly because of the industry’s quiet understanding, and tolerance of, an ongoing reality.

Handshake agreements (if not significant advance pay) with quality prospects and their trainers are often brokered one, two, or even three years before the player can officially sign at age 16.

It’s quite against big-league baseball’s strict spirit of international signing laws. It is something Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office has been working to toughen, which is how former Braves general manager John Coppoletta found himself banned from baseball in 2017 after the Braves were hit hard for early signings.

The bid to ease early-signing pressure on kids, trainers, and clubs is the main reason big-league baseball could move to an international draft as soon as 2020 or 2021.

Different game

But everyone who has done business in the Latin markets, which is 30 big-league teams, understands how the system works.

An early agreement is news that travels fast in big-league’s Latin America back channels. It means, unofficially anyway, that a player is off the market. Other teams will check off the name. There will be no need to pursue. And minus steady outside competition or league play where a player can be showcased, which is often the case for a Dominican adolescent, he will be left to work primarily with his trainer at a complex such as Academy Baseball Training.

Alex Sanchez

About that word “trainer.” It stands also for “agent.” The trainer-agent in charge at Academy Baseball Training is, again, Sanchez, who remains familiar to anyone who followed the Tigers during Alan Trammell’s time as manager, from 2003-05, when a team in Detroit was building from ash and took a flier on a center fielder then with the Brewers.

Sanchez became Tigers property on May 27, 2003, in a trade that cost the Tigers two forgettable prospects: Chad Petty and Noochie Varner.

Sanchez was only 26. He was Cuban-born, but earlier had wended his way to the United States and to Miami-Dade College, from which he was a 1996 fifth-round draft pick by the Rays.

He did well in Detroit – offensively, anyway, if you use batting average as a sole barometer: .304 in 180 games, with a lot of those hits coming via bunts. But he could be, well, undisciplined in his ways and when he botched a fly ball during spring camp in 2005, Trammell had seen enough. Sanchez was released and played in only 62 more big-league games with Tampa Bay and the Giants.

He still lives in Miami, but his work continues in the Dominican with the Academy. Sanchez could not be reached despite numerous attempts.

Sanchez specializes, it is known, in sharpening Cuban talent that has defected to the Dominican. That pathway has become easier in recent years. The old days of stealing away in the dead of night on a boat or raft have given way to easier exits, much as the Campos brothers experienced when they simply left their team and hopped into a SUV during an international tournament in Punta Cana, just as Roberto was being named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player.

Cuban roots cannot be overemphasized in any appraisal of Campos and the Tigers’ devotion to him. For all the daily trials most Cubans experience, the country’s youth baseball system is advanced. It is far superior to the Dominican, where ingrained poverty can make baseball development there an unrefined exercise for even the most gifted kids.

According to those familiar with Sanchez, like most trainers in the D.R. he has a staff and an unknown number of “students” whom he grooms. He supplies equipment, living necessities (a dorm or house arrangements, generally, for those who are there minus parents), food, and essentials.

What he might get from the $2.8 million Campos received is known only by Sanchez and by the Campos family. But there is a reason Sanchez is in business there and it is not all about altruism.

Schooling varies, but most of the teens at such academies remain in some form of school until they are 17, at which point they can legally go to the United States for development. The time between when they sign at 16 and are able to migrate to the U.S., at 17, is spent at one of those team-owned academies, such as the Tigers have at San Pedro de Macoris.

Venezuela, like Cuba, once specialized in a loftier brand of development than boys growing up in the Dominican generally know. It was due to Venezuela’s once-sturdy economy, to stable two-parent families, and to educational sophistication that was reflected in the advanced development baseball-playing kids could get even before they turned 10.

With an economy that has since crashed, and with the Maduro government in pieces, Venezuela has become a disheveled place and talented teens there now often head, with the blessings of family and trainer-agents, for the more stable Dominican.

The Tigers once were one of five teams to have sophisticated academies in Venezuela. They still have a presence, but the old days of a polished Parallel League there have withered. Where the likes of one-time Tigers prospects Avisail Garcia, Hernan Perez, and Eugenio Suarez arrived from Venezuela, and developed with skill sufficient to move them quickly through a minor-league system, those players now are subject to rougher odds.

Cubans now are more consistently shaped into the class of the Caribbean teen talent. Sanchez, to name one trainer-agent, has done his mightiest to corral talent from Cuba and anywhere else in the Caribbean where prospects with big-league potential wait for a helping hand.

Campos paid off. For Sanchez, anyway, and for the Campos family. The Tigers won’t know for a few years if that $2.8 million bought them more than hope.