Tigers' reinvestment in international scouting staggered but not stalled by pandemic
Detroit – From March through September, Tigers director of international operations Tom Moore was, like most of the baseball industry, shut down.
Instead of his scouts scouring the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Australia and the Far East for teenage prospects, he was stuck in his office in Lakeland doing skills-building exercises with his staff and pouring through all the video and reports he could get his hands on from his contacts world-wide.
And now the international signing period is just two months away – pushed from July 2 to Jan. 15.
“We’ve kept in touch with certain players, target players of ours, players we’ve had interest in,” Moore said in a Zoom interview Thursday. “We were able to get videos of workouts and once they opened up, we had a direct focus on what players we wanted to see and how we’re going to see them.”
The pandemic is still raging, of course. The Tigers haven’t been able to open their academy in the Dominican Republic. In Venezuela, there are gas shortages, travel restrictions and radical quarantining every other week. Scouting in Japan, China and Australia has been halted for now.
But just because the scouts haven’t been able to get their eyes on them doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially franchise-altering prospects out there waiting to be signed.
“The trainers (coaches/handlers) of these players, they were prepared to have their players signed on or after July 2,” Moore said. “So they’ve been just champing at the bit to get their players out and signed. As soon as it was safe for their players to start working out again, they were working.
“So even before we could scout them, we could keep tabs on them the entire time.”
The Tigers have re-entered the international prospect pool in a big way the last few years. Presently, five of their top 25 prospects (per MLBPipeline) are international signees, not including those acquired from other franchises.
Baseball America, before the shutdown, had the Tigers prepared to sign two more Dominican-born players – shortstop Cristian Santana (for close to $3 million) and right-handed pitcher Rainer Castillo.
Last year, they signed 16-year-old outfielder Roberto Campos (ranked No. 20) for a then-record $2.8 million. They also signed outfielder Jose De La Cruz (No. 25) for $1.8 million and shortstop Adinso Reyes (No. 23) for $1.45 million.
Campos, who is 17, still hasn’t been able to travel to the U.S. He defected from Cuba to the Dominican when he was 13 and has remained there.
“He’s working under the programs our player development staff has put together and they monitor it closely,” Moore said. “We still can’t have our guys working at our academy, but our player development people are working tirelessly with all of our players, making sure they have the things they need to workout and making sure they are following through on the workout plan.”
Moore said, too, the Tigers hope to hold an instructional league-type camp in the Dominican Republic next month. It would be similar to the alternate site set-up the Tigers had in Toledo, with all the COVID testing and protocols in place.
That, if it goes through, will be the first time Campos has participated in organized team instruction since the Dominican Summer League was shut down in February.
“Roberto has been able to work on his body and get stronger,” Moore said. “That’s been the silver lining for a lot of these players. They’ve been able to work on strength and conditioning and improving their bodies. He was already a physical kid. We just anticipate him getting bigger and stronger as he matures.”
De La Cruz, who is 18, and Reyes, 19, have had the benefit of playing a season in the Dominican Summer League, and both have been impressive these past six weeks competing in the instructional league in Lakeland.
Jose De La Cruz
When the Tigers signed him, he was 6-1, 195 pounds. Talking to him via Zoom Thursday, after spending six months in the Dominican working out daily with a trainer, he’s up to 214 pounds, with 14-percent body fat.
“I’ve been working with my trainer and also working on having a better diet,” he said through Tigers interpreter Carlos Guillen. “Sometimes I broke the law with food (chuckles) but I got back on track.”
Before the shutdown, he’d put himself on the Tigers’ radar slashing .307/.375/.556 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI in 56 games in the Dominican Summer League in 2019. He has hit the ball with authority and played center field in instructs in Lakeland.
“De La Cruz comes from a more prominent program (in Santo Domingo),” Moore said. “He’s just a physical kid who has five tools and can really do everything. But he can really impact a baseball. Not many kids at his age can do that.”
De La Cruz said he had no issues with rust when he returned to Lakeland last month. He said he played unstructured pick-up games four to five times a week, did drill work and batting practice daily on a field near his house and worked out with his trainer every day.
“Nobody expected this (a shutdown),” he said. “I was ready to play before and once COVID showed up, I just tried to take advantage and try to work forward to be ready for this season – whenever it came.”
De La Cruz, baby-faced, a little shy in front of the camera, looks 18. Reyes, with his hairline already receding and his voice as sonorous as an old late-night FM deejay, looks several years older than 19. Maybe that’s because he’d spent two full weeks fighting off the coronavirus, testing positive after he returned to Lakeland last month.
“It was pretty hard,” he said, again through interpreter Guillen. “I spent six months in the Dominican, then I was in Lakeland just four or five days and tested positive. I spent two weeks in quarantine, not leaving the room, not going out to see the sun, no nothing.”
He lost weight and strength. He’s been back participating again the last two weeks.
“He’s from the Santiago area (of the DR), so not as highly scouted as the Santo Domingo area, but still, it’s on every team’s radar,” Moore said. “He was a guy who stood out with the bat.”
He impressed in his first summer league action in 2019, as well, slashing .331/.379/.508 with seven home runs and 48 RBI in 62 games. His defense at shortstop is still a work in progress, and there are those in the organization that project, as he continues to grow into his 6-1 frame, he’ll be moved to a corner infield spot.
“I know I need to improve my defense,” he said. “My hitting, I feel like that is a gift to me. I can hit. But I need to get better at fielding ground balls. I get them, I stop them, but I have to get better and getting my feet in position when the ball is coming toward me.”
The last shortstop the Tigers signed out of Santiago was Willy Adames, who just helped the Rays get into the World Series. That was a thrill for both Moore and Reyes.
“I would have loved to see him do that with a Tigers uniform on,” Moore said. “But it was really exciting for Willy to have that experience at such a young age. It’ll do nothing but help him for the rest of his career.”
Adames, who was part of the trade package that brought David Price to the Tigers, is six years older than Reyes.
“It felt great watching him play in the World Series,” Reyes said. “He’s a great guy. We met when he was already playing with the Rays. We have good communication.”