Monday, January 6, 2014

The Trailblazers, Part 1: Astros MiLB Adventures in Venezuela

As most people already know, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow grew up in Mexico from an early age and, since coming to the Astros organization, has embraced those Latin roots in many ways in his job as GM, through signings of Mexican League players OF Leo Heras and 1B Japhet Amador; putting a renewed emphasis on and increasing the scope of International Scouting; and, most recently, by spending more time and deploying more resources in Venezuela.

The Astros, the first MLB team to establish a baseball academy in Venezuela, closed that Academy in 2008, and although they still scouted there in subsequent years, the rich lode of talent produced by the Academy (Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Melvin Mora and Richard Hidalgo, among others) seemed to have been largely mined out.

Last winter, Luhnow went to Venezuela and was greeted enthusiastically by trainers and agents in Venezuela for whom a MLB GM sighting was a rare thing, particularly one fluent in Spanish. He left with an enthusiasm for re-growing the Astros presence there, a charge accepted by Astros Director of International Oz Ocampo. Ocampo and International Crosschecker Mark Russo have spent significant time in Venezuela over the last year in an attempt to re-establish a strong Astros presence.

Fast forward to 2013. When Q & A (Director of Player Development Quinton McCracken and Assistant Director of Player Development Allen Rowin) suggested sending Astros minor league players to the Dominican Republic and to Venezuela in the off-season, Luhnow jumped at the idea.

The Dominican experience was very limited. Eight players (RHP Brady Rodgers, LHP Mitchell Lambson, 3B Rio Ruiz, SS Carlos Correa, OF Tanner Mathis, OF Chris Epps, C Brett Booth and 1B/DH MP Cokinos) spent 10 days there, working out at the Astros Dominican Academy, touring the island nation and getting an up close and personal look at how some of their Dominican-born teammates live. It was just a taste of that lifestyle. Mathis told me a little about that experience in this interview from November.

The Venezuelan experience, however, was much more comprehensive. Eight American-born Astros minor leaguers and three coaches embarked in early October for what was intended to be almost two and a half months of intense immersion into the Venezuelan culture playing for the Tiburones in the Liga Paralela, Venezuela’s version of the minor leagues.

They were, as they named themselves, The Trailblazers. The group consisted of RHP Jamaine Cotton, RHP Michael Dimock, RHP Joe Musgrove, LHP Blair Walters, OF Marc Wik, C Ricky Gingras, 3B Ryan Dineen and OF Brett Phillips.
 noun ˈtrāl-ˌblā-zər
: a person who makes, does, or discovers something new and makes it acceptable or popular
: a person who marks or prepares a trail through a forest or field for other people to follow

And the trail wasn’t always smooth. Both the players and the front office learned much about the challenges of lifestyle, safety and nutrition in a South American country, among other lessons.

Several players ended up leaving the program early due to some of the issues and concerns associated with the nascent program, and one was forced to leave early due to a family emergency, leading to only one of eight players, Jamaine Cotton, winning the baseball equivalent of Survivor as he stayed with the Tiburones 'til the very end.

But the trail has indeed been blazed and Luhnow hopes to tweak things next year and give other players the opportunity to see the world from a much different vantage point, learning as much about life and themselves as they do about baseball.

To hear more about the players' experiences in Venezuela, tune in tomorrow for my interview with Brett Phillips and Wednesday for email interviews with Jamaine Cotton, Michael Dimock and Joe Musgrove.

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