In Boston, there was reason to believe in the promising future of Felix Doubront. The left-hander proved poised in his major league debut, a trait that – along with his arsenal of a legitimate fastball and changeup that are complemented by flashes of a curve – suggests he could be a solid major leaguer in the not-too-distant future.
But in El Toro, Dominican Republic, the significance may have been even greater. The 22-year-old’s big league debut represented hope.
Doubront became the first player signed under GM Theo Epstein as an amateur out of Latin America to reach the majors in Boston. At first glance, the statement is somewhat striking. Epstein has been in charge of baseball operations for nearly eight years. The team has witnessed a steady flow of impact talent from the draft into the majors.
Yet until Doubront’s successful debut – an outing in which he picked up the win in Boston's 10-6 victory over the Dodgers (recap) by pitching five innings and allowing five runs (three earned) on six hits while walking a pair and striking out a pair – not a single Latin American amateur signee who joined the Sox after 2003 had progressed all the way through the farm system to Boston.
As such, there was some meaning to Doubront’s performance.
“I think it is significant. He’s kind of the first graduate [of the team’s Dominican baseball academy] to come all the way here,” said Sox Assistant GM Ben Cherington. “I think it is significant for the players at the academy. Boston seems a long way away when you’re down there. Now we have a player in the big leagues who took a path through the academy to get there.”
The fact that the Sox (under Epstein) have not had a Latin American amateur signee reach the majors until now does not represent a failure. Instead, Doubront’s status as the first Latin American amateur signed under Epstein to play for the Sox serves as a commentary on the nature of signing young players from the region.
Current Sox Senior Vice President/International Scouting Craig Shipley joined Boston’s international operation in 2004. That year, he was involved in the signing of Doubront out of Venezuela in 2004 during the annual window (from July 2 through the end of August) to acquire international amateur free agents who are at least 16.
“He was projectable with a solid delivery and very clean, smooth arm action,” Shipley recalled.
The Sox gave the left-hander a bonus of around $150,000. A year later, Doubront enjoyed tremendous success at age 17 in the Venezuelan Summer League. He came to the U.S. as an 18-year-old in 2006, and slowly made his way up the minor league ladder, enduring significant periods of struggle along the way.
“I played with him down in [Single-A] Greenville three years ago,” noted Sox reliever Daniel Bard. “Neither one of us had a very good season there. We both had 6.00-plus ERAs.”
Just as Bard did, Doubront learned from those struggles and turned a corner with his performance in 2008. He started the year back in Greenville (for the second straight year), finished it in High-A Lancaster and then moved up to Portland in 2009. He enjoyed success there, but returned to Double-A at the start of this year. He showed enough developmental strides to warrant a promotion to Pawtucket last month, before reaching the majors on Friday.
It took nearly six full years for Doubront to reach the majors after signing. And yet, in some respects, that represents an efficient climb for a player who is just now 22, an age that is roughly one year older than many of the top college talents taken in the domestic draft.
His path was a very reasonable one for a player who turned pro at such a young age. Indeed, his timetable to the majors would seem a success, particularly given the tremendous challenges associated with scouting in Latin America. The undertaking remains something of a crapshoot even as it features increased risk thanks to dramatic increases in the size of bonuses, with seven-figure deals becoming increasingly commonplace.
“Bonuses are out of control on the upper-end guys internationally, and getting them is very difficult,” Shipley said this spring. “Personally I think the money is out of control, especially given the information about the age, you have to make that decision. It is what it is.”
The process of projecting players who typically would be halfway through their high school education can be vexing. As inexact as the major league draft is for players from the U.S. and Canada, it is even more difficult to identify accurately talent that is a couple years younger.
That challenge is multiplied by the fact that many young baseball players in Latin America are trained to develop raw tools for showcases rather than in-game skills. In the extreme, there are stories of players who do not know what a force out is.
“When you sign [players] at 16 the risk is huge. The risk is way more at 16 than it is at 18,” said Shipley. “The amount of information we can get on any kid internationally is maybe 25-30 percent of what you can get on a kid domestically. You know what the kid's name is here, you know where he goes to high school, you can go watch him play.
“Internationally, specifically Latin America, that's very difficult because most of them don't play in organized leagues. It's turned into like a workout circuit, which is not a good place to evaluate. We try to get around that by putting them in games in our academy but that's still not the perfect setting, because it's a game that we organized and not a real league.
“I think you have to temper the expectations and be patient.
Once a 16-year-old is signed from Latin America, the process of player development can be complicated by the need for personal development. There is an adjustment to the professional baseball environment. There is significant physical maturation that a player must go through, and to which a player must acclimate.
There is a need to endure a cultural transition when going from a baseball academy in the Dominican to the U.S. All of those elements can be tremendously challenging for an individual, which is why Shipley and his staff have spent years building and refining the process by which they get to know the players whom they sign.
While tools can be fairly straightforward to evaluate, Shipley insists that learning about whether a player is signing for the right reasons -- whether they love the game, and have the personal maturity to deal with both success and failure -- is a crucial element of the process. That is because in the States, the players must learn to perform (and, typically, fail) against much older competition in U.S. minor league affiliates.
“When you’re throwing a kid who’s 18, 19 years old in the [Single-A] South Atlantic League, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to struggle,” said Sox Assistant Director/Latin American Operations Eddie Romero. “We recognize that if a kid goes up there and hits .200, we have to understand that. We can’t get frustrated by that because the kid is still so young. We still have five years before he’s 23, 24.
“We really do need to be patient and not making conclusions on these kids too early. We don’t want to judge them too early and make a rash decision.”
Progress for such young players must typically be measured incrementally. Patience is an essential characteristic for judging the strides being made by players who start their pro careers at 16.
On Friday, the patience paid off for the Red Sox. Doubront (who never pitched in the Dominican Summer League, but who has spent time honing his craft at the team’s academy) looked like a pitcher with a big league future.
He pitched aggressively and attacked the strike zone, recording a strikeout against the first batter he faced (Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp). He moved efficiently through the first five innings before tiring in the sixth. Though his line (5+IP, 6H, 5R, 3ER, 2BB, 2SO) wasn’t memorable, he showed a powerful fastball and a changeup that represents a swing-and-miss offering.
“He’s a young pitcher developing but he threw the ball pretty well,” said manager Terry Francona. “The significance of his first major league start didn’t throw him. He pounds the zone and does what he’s supposed to do.”
The Sox are hopeful that they will benefit not just from more such contributions from Doubront in the future, but from other players from Latin America. The team features other promising talents such as pitchers Stolmy Pimentel and Manny Rivera and position players such as Oscar Tejeda and Jose Iglesias who may knock on the door to the majors in coming seasons.
If that happens, then Doubront’s debut may take on added significance over time.
“It’s nice to see an international signee making his way through our minor league system and into the big leagues,” said Epstein. “We are hopeful for more of that in the future. We look forward to a continuing impact from our international players.”
That may not come tomorrow. The payoff for Latin American scouting operations typically comes at a trickle rather than a torrent.
Nonetheless, for the first time under the team’s current international scouting staff, a player showed that the pipeline can end in the majors. For some in the organization – particularly the teenagers at the Dominican academy – that lesson was no doubt a powerful one.