By Wesley James
Blue Jays from Away
The Dominican Summer League is the lowest level of the rookie leagues. There are 40 teams, over 1,000 players, and lots of hope. Players are usually young, low-priority acquisitions who take relatively small signing bonuses and even smaller pay to continue the dream of making big league money in The Show. Those assigned to DSL teams are almost all teenagers, and all from Latin America.
The Dominican Summer League Blue Jays play out of the Boca Chica Baseball City Complex, a shared facility with several other major league teams. The season starts in early June and ends in late August, with many players joining teams after the July 2 international signing period begins. For thousands of young hopefuls, it is a world where much is at stake.
The legacy of the Toronto Blue Jays in Dominican baseball is profound and, as with many integral moments in Blue Jays history, starts with a decision made by Pat Gillick. In 1967, Gillick hired a 25-year-old ex-minor leaguer from the Dominican Republic as a full-time scout for the Houston Astros. That scout’s name was Epy Guerrero.
Arguably, no other hiring decision has altered the course of Dominican baseball history as much as this one. At the time Gillick was the director of scouting for the Houston Astros and, after being impressed with Guerrero’s work helping the team sign Cesar Cedeno, he promoted him. Guerrero would follow Gillick to the Yankees and then, in 1976, to the newly founded Toronto Blue Jays.
While the Los Angeles Dodgers were the first team to start pumping real money into a professional-level facility in the late 1980’s, The Toronto Blue Jays were well ahead of the game when it came to talent recruitment in the Dominican Republic - largely due to Guerrero’s work.
By the late 1980’s Guerrero’s legacy as a scout had grown so large that People magazine and Sports Illustrated wrote stories about his work. Those articles basically agreed on one origin story: in the 1970’s Guerrero bought a plot of land for $9,000 from a man with a gambling debt. On this land he built the Dominican’s first baseball academy.
Guerrero had an eye for speed, a strong arm, and encouraged players to play strong defence, knowing glove first play was more likely get them to the majors over stronger American prospects. The result was that Guerrero trained a high number of shortstops. According to a Sports Illustrated story from 1987, every team in the majors had a Dominican shortstop in their system in the late 80’s, and the Blue Jays had “no fewer than eight.” Most famous of all these shortstops was a kid who walked with a limp - Tony Fernandez. It was Guerrero who arranged for Fernandez to have the bone spurs in his leg removed, and the rest is history. Today all major league teams have some version of what Guerrero started.
Between 1977 and 1995 Guerrero not only helped scout and recruit international talent in the DR but he also advised the Jays on roster decisions and trades. Pretty important ones. Guerrero advised taking George Bell, Manny Lee, and Kelly Gruber in the Rule 5 draft. He helped Pat Borders transition from third base to catcher while in Dominican winter ball. He signed Tony Fernandez, Junior Felix, Kelvim Escobar, and Carlos Delgado and advised the Jays on trades that acquired Alfredo Griffin and Juan Guzman. In 2008, he reportedly recommended to Cito Gaston that Toronto “definitely keep” a kid who was just starting to get his leg kick down. That kid? Jose Bautista.
In recent years baseball academies have become controversial. With the amount of money being pumped into the country by major league teams, new middle men have emerged. Unregulated academies throughout the country can sign players as young as 13 to development deals and, if they end up signing with a major League team, take as much as 30%. Some have accused these academies of pulling kids away from school and pushing steroids as a way of advancing their standings with scouts.
Since the Dominican Summer League began in 1985 only 28 players who have played for the DSL Blue Jays have made it to the major leagues, and only 15 of those players were from the Dominican itself. The rest were largely from Venezuela, with two from Panama and and one from Mexico. According to the DSL website 534 players in all have journeyed their way from the Dominican Summer League to the Grandes Ligas, just a fraction of the tens of thousands of players who have played.
But while the chances of players making it to the major leagues from the Dominican Summer League are small, some still do.
The most recent prospect to begin his career with the DSL Blue Jays and make it to The Show was catching prospect Carlos Perez. Perez was signed 2008 and spent five years in the Jays minor league system, making it as far as low-A Lansing before being traded to the Houston Astros with a package of prospects that first brought J.A. Happ to Toronto in 2012. In 2015 he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels, where in his major league debut he hit a walk off home run off of Seattle Mariner’s reliever Dominic Leone - the same Dominic Leone that Toronto traded this off-season to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Grichuk deal.
Pitcher Miguel Castro was signed for $43,000 in 2012, a relatively princely amount for the DSL, and played in eight games for the DSL Blue Jays that year, winning the Webster Award as the teams top prospect at that level. After working his way through the system over the next two seasons he became the youngest player to play for the Blue Jays in their history after he pitched a game in relief on April 6, 2015. He was 20 years and 103 days old. Two days later that youngest Blue Jay record was broken by Roberto Osuna. In July 2015, Castro was traded to Colorado for Troy Tulowitzki, along with Jose Reyes, Jeff Hoffman, and Jesus Tinoco. Last year Castro pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and finished the season with a 3.53 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP.
Teoscar Hernandez, who may very well be the Blue Jays' Opening Day right fielder began his career with the DSL Astros in 2011. After hitting .274/.360/.487 he was promoted through their system and made his major league debut in 2016. After being traded to the Jays last summer he hit eight home runs in September. Another rare success story.
Growing up Octavio Antonio Fernandez Castro used to watch games from the top of the fence next to his house, whose roof was regularly pummeled by baseballs. This boy, who became the All-Star we know as Tony Fernandez, was like many boys in the Dominican today who still hang out atop that same fence and as long as Major League teams keep bringing money into the Dominican, those kids will still be there.
In 2014, the Blue Jays were the first team in MLB history to start six Dominican players in a game. That legacy is in large part due to the complex history that the Toronto Blue Jays and Epy Guerrero left for both professional baseball and the Dominican Republic.
Blue Jays from Away will soon publish our 2018 Minor League Handbook. This handbook includes biographies of every player currently in the Blue Jays system, including those on the 2018 Dominican Summer League roster. To order go to bluejaysfromaway.com.
Up next: The Gulf Coast League Blue Jays.
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