There was a time, not that long ago, when the Dodgers dominated international scouting.
Pedro Guerrero. The Martinez brothers, Pedro and Ramon. Fernando Valenzuela. Hideo Nomo. Chan Ho Park.
Wilton Guerrero. If you could hit, pitch or field with aplomb, the Dodgers knew about you.
That tradition was one of many that dried up under former owner Frank McCourt, who tossed around dimes like manhole covers when it came to international signings. The Dodgers had the lowest budget for international signings among all 30 teams in 2010 and 2011.
The new owners are determined to reverse that, and they’ve wasted little time. Already, they’ve landed Cuban defector Yasiel Puig and Korean lefty Hyun-jin Ryu (both at hefty price tags). Their most significant signing for the long-term health of their international efforts, however, might be the acquisition of vice president for international scouting Bob Engle.
While with the Seattle Mariners, Engle was instrumental in signing Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. He got started on the international scene while with the Toronto Blue Jays, under general manager Pat Gillick, in the mid-1990s.
We caught up with Engle to explore the Dodgers’ newfound commitment to finding players all over the planet.
Q. You guys announced the signings of four teenage players out of the Dominican Republic the other day. Can you give us thumbnail scouting reports of all four?
A. Ariel Sandoval is a multi-tool player with good makeup. Our scouts were on him for a long period of time. He has a chance to be a good hitter with power, he’s an above-average runner with an above-average arm and he has a chance to be a true center fielder.
Deivy Castillo is a very good, mature left-handed hitter with a great approach. He has a real good concept for a young kid. We like his bat and everything else is playable. We think he has a chance.
Ravel Hernandez is a switch hitter who is somewhat on the frail side now, but we think he’ll grow into his body. He has a lot of bounce and quickness in his actions. He has a plus arm and is a plus runner. He’s more of a line-drive, contact-type hitter.
Miguel Urena is a big kid – about 6-foot-8 – and a little older than the others at 19. We think there’s a lot of untapped ability in him. He has a fresh, big arm and a very good delivery. We think there will be a lot more in there when we get him into a pro setting.
Q. What country is the next frontier for baseball talent?
A. I think most of the bases are covered. What happens next is various governments and federations allowing baseball to grow and funding it. If you want a place that has been touched, but not to a great extent, with potential it’s South Africa. Brazil has a program. They’ll be in the World Baseball Classic in San Juan [Puerto Rico]. Baseball is making a move in Brazil and I think the fact they won in the preliminaries is important, but it’s still, obviously, a soccer country.
Q. Few Dodgers fans have any idea what to expect from Ryu. What should they expect to see in April?
A. He has a real good feel and an assortment of pitches and he can reach back when he’s in trouble. He’s a good competitor and it will be interesting and fun to watch. The [Korean Baseball League] is a good league. I don’t know what caliber of league you would compare it to in the States, but it’s solid. You see more power there than you see in Japan.
Q. You first got involved scouting internationally in the 1970s. How would you compare the state of the Dodgers’ efforts then versus the previous few years before the new owners?
A. The Dodgers helped bring along the efforts of a lot of teams in the Dominican Republic. One guy I respect a lot is Ralph Avila. They always did a great job. I'm laughing, because if you wanted to get a player out of the Dominican, it was tough.
It would be unfair for me to judge their organization before I got here, but obviously they’re going from one extreme to the other. I think this first year we’re just going to try to walk through it very slowly, evaluate it and see where we are, what we need to fine tune. We’re not here just to make dramatic changes, but we certainly want to get back on track and make the Dodgers the top club internationally.
Q. How’d you sign King Felix?
A. We got to know him starting when he was 14. Felix was very advanced at an early age. He had a pro delivery, big and strong, with a quick arm. He had very good makeup. He was a young man who was confident, but not cocky. People ask me all the time what stuck out when I saw him. I asked him how he got that delivery. He said, ‘I taught myself.’ I thought, ‘Bingo! That tells you something about a young man.’ We spent a lot of time with his family, a very solid, close-knit family, and that was the key. They’re just good, down-to-earth people. We won them over and that’s what we want to do with the Dodgers.
Q. What’s going to happen with Cuban baseball?
A. It’s an evolving process. Raul [Castro] has somewhat opened it up in terms of the process of allowing people to depart. There are, of course, still stipulations for professional baseball players. It remains to be seen whether it continues to open and bring us more players. Hopefully it does in the very near future. I think the talent there is comparable to the Dominican.
Q. MLB has instituted a soft cap of $2.9 million for teams’ international signings. How does that affect you?
A. Scouting is scouting. Everyone has a different opinion of players. The $2.9 million certainly plays into your strategy, but ultimately it comes down to what the club wants to do. Do they want to do something special?
Q. Have any travel plans?
A. I was going to be in the Dominican today, but my wife blew out her knee last week and had surgery. This housework is not easy and I think I need to get on the road and get some rest. I’m going to Brazil, Panama, Nicaragua and Europe.
Q. There are players in Europe?
A. In the Netherlands and Italy, although Germany is making marked improvement. It’s going to be a slow process. Obviously, there are other sports to compete with. In Seattle, we had Greg Halman from Holland and Alex Liddi from Italy. When you go into Europe and some other areas, you have to be patient. The competition you see isn’t normally what you’d come across in our country.
Q. What is the most exotic locale you’ve watched baseball?
A. I’ve been to Thailand. We had a tournament there. We conducted a tournament in Hong Kong. That was quite different. They play, but it’s not like Taiwan. It’s a fascinating place, though.