Dominicans in Baseball’s Amateur Draft
The legend of poverty stricken kids in the Dominican Republic honing their baseball skills with gloves fashioned out of milk cartons, tree branch bats, and balls made of old socks is pretty familiar to even a lot of casual fans by now. Even in this age of big league clubs operating baseball academies and millionaries who made it giving back, the story rings true for an awful lot of the 472 Dominicans that played in the majors through 2008.
However, 21 of those Dominican-born players –including some of the biggest stars of all– took a very different route to the Show. After coming to the United States (or, in a couple cases, Puerto Rico) at a young age, they had outstanding high school and/or college careers and entered pro ball through the amateur draft.
The #2 overall pick this June, Vanderbilt 3B Pedro Alvarez, seems destined to join this list soon now that his grievance has been settled. (That’s a long, wacky story for another post).
Without further ado, here are the Dominicans that came to MLB via the amateur draft:
JOSE DeLEON – The Pirates 3rd round pick in 1979 out of Perth Amboy HS in New Jersey, DeLeon burst on the scene in 1983 by flirting with (but never completing) multiple no-hitters. Tough to hit in a 13-year career, he’ll unfortunately be remembered as one of the most talented pitchers ever to twice lead the league in losses.
LUIS De Los SANTOS – A tall, lanky 1B chosen in the 2nd round by the Royals in 1984, De Los Santos batted just .209 in 139 career at bats with the Royals & Tigers. He played in Taiwan and Korea before retiring in 2002.
JOSE MOTA & ANDY MOTA – Jose, the White Sox 2nd round pick in 1985, and Andy, the Astros 12th round selection two years later, were both sons of ex-big leaguer Manny Mota and 2B out of California State University. Together they combined to bat .195 in a total of 46 major league games.
BIEN FIGUEROA & RAFAEL BOURNIGAL – Shortstops drafted out of Florida State University in consecutive year, Figueroa (Cardinals 5th round pick in 1986) and Bournigal (Dodgers 19th round pick in 1987) had careers inverse to their draft positions. Figueroa peaked with a dozen big league appearances in 1992, then slipped from minor league utility infielder into a coach career within a few years. Bournigal, on the other hand, lasted parts of seven seasons in the majors, including a three-year stint as Oakland’s utility infielder thanks to a very good glove.
LUIS ORTIZ – A corner infielder who batted .295 in a dozen years at Triple-A, Ortiz batted just .228 and fielded just .875 in limited big league trials with the Red Sox and Rangers. Boston’s 8th round pick out of Union University in Tennessee in 1991 was once part of a two-for-one package (along with Otis Nixon) in a trade for Jose Canseco.
MANNY RAMIREZ & FRANKLYN GRACESQUI – About as different as two players could be, but they share the fact that they were both drafted out of George Washington HS in the Bronx. Ramirez, the Indians 1st round pick in 1991, already has 527 big league homers, 12 All-Star selections, two World Series rings and a certain plaque in Cooperstown. Gracesqui was a 21st round pick of the Blue Jays in 1998, and the southpaw was pounded to the clip of an 11.25 ERA in his only major league action with the 2004 Marlins.
PLACIDO POLANCO & JUAN PENA – These two were drafted out of Miami-Dade Wolfson Community College in Florida in consecutive seasons. Do most fans even realize that Polanco, the Cardinals 19th round pick in 1994, is five hits away from 1,500 with a .306 career batting average? It sure doesn’t seem like it, and he earned a Gold Glove at 2B in 2007 when he didn’t commit a single error for the Tigers. Pena, a 6’5″ RHP selected 27th by the Red Sox in 1995, won his first two big league starts in 1999 with an ERA of 0.69 and more than a strikeout per inning. Unfortunately he hurt his arm, missed the following season entirely, and hung up his spikes after going 4-15 over three minor league seasons in an unsuccessful comeback attempt.
JULIO LUGO & RUDDY LUGO – Brothers with different skills, different paths to the big leagues and different types of careers. Julio, a SS drafted by the Astros in the 43rd round out of Connors State College (OK) in 1994, has batted .271 in 1,149 career games through 2008. He was the starting SS for the World Series champion Red Sox in 2007. Younger brother Ruddy, a RHP taken by the Brewers in 1999 with their 3rd pick of of Brooklyn’s Xavierian HS, went 8-4 as a big leaguer in 2006-2007, but has just 133 1/3 big league innings to show for 10 seasons as a professional.
ALBERT PUJOLS – This future Hall of Famer probably needs no introduction if you’re reading this blog, but it bears repeating that he was the Cardinals 13th round (!) draft pick in 1999 out of Maple Woods Community College in Missouri. You think the other 29 teams would pass on him a dozen times if they had the chance to do it all over again?
HENRY MATEO & EDWIN ENCARNACION – These pair of Dominicans were drafted out of high schools in Puerto Rico. Not everybody knows this, but Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and, since 1989, major league teams have to draft them rather than signing them as free agents the way they still do in the DR. Mateo, the Expos 2nd round pick in 1995, is a speedy 2B with nearly 300 stolen bases in the minor leagues who’s spent parts of six seasons with the Expos / Nationals. His .289 big league on-base percentage and .292 slugging mark are two reasons he’s made only 280 plate appearances during that time. Encarnacion was a 9th round pick of the Rangers in 2000, then got traded to the Reds (with fellow Dominican Ruben Mateo, no relation to Henry, for Rob Bell a year later). He’s currently a slugging 3B in Cincinnati, having hammered 26 home runs in 2008.
CARLOS PENA – At press time, the powerful 1B is battling vision problems in the ALDS, where the Tampa Bay Rays are hoping their HR & RBI leader gets back to full strength. In 1998, the Rangers made Pena their 1st round pick out of Northeastern University (MA). Texas eventually traded him to the A’s, who traded him the the Tigers, who released him. The Yankees signed him and released him before he ever wore their uniform. The Red Sox let him go after 18 games. Since signing on with Tampa Bay, though, Pena’s clubbed 77 home runs in two years and helped them become winners for the first time.
EDWIN ALMONTE – A big RHP chosen by the White Sox out of the College of St. Francis (NY) in the 26th round in 1998. Almonte was one of three players traded to the Mets for Roberto Alomar in 2003, put up an 11.12 ERA in a dozen appearances for New York that summer, and found himself out of pro ball two years later.
JOSE BAUTISTA – Not to be confused with the former big league pitcher from the Dominican with the same name, this is the 3B-OF drafted in the 20th round out of Chipola Junior College (FLA) by the Pirates in 2000. Since making his major league debut with the Orioles (like the other Jose Bautista) in 2004, he’s played for four more teams, most recently the Blue Jays.
VICTOR DIAZ – Hitting 24 homers in 446 at bats give some idea why Pedro Martinez says Diaz is known as “Little Manny” in the DR, but the Dodgers 37th round pick in 2000 out of Clemente HS in Chicago has nowhere near the plate discipline of Mr. Ramirez. After entering pro ball as an infielder, he moved to the outfield due to glove deficiencies, and doesn’t hit the long ball often enough to justify his .309 big league OBP or lack of a position. Nevertheless, he hit 25 HR with 107 RBI in Triple-A in 2008, so he may yet be back.
HUMBERTO SANCHEZ – A super-sized (6’6″, 270-lbs) RHP once drafted in the 9th round by the Dodgers out of high school, Sanchez went to Rockland Community College (NY) instead, and slipped to the Tigers 31st round pick before signing. He actually went to the same college in Oklahoma that Julio Lugo attended before inking his deal…and dominated, giving the Tigers reason to be optimstic about the hard thrower. Injuries have hounded him since turning pro, but he was highly regarded enough to be part of the package the Yankees accepted for Gary Sheffield. Despite pitching fewer than 14 professional innings the last two seasons, Sanchez made his major league debut for New York in September.