Baseball's Venezuelan growth clear in D-backs clubhouse
JUN 23, 2014 7:46p ET
"Lot of Venezuelans in that lineup," Montero said, loudly making the observation to no one in particular.
The D-backs rank among the league leaders in Venezuelans, providing one of Major League Baseball's best current examples of just how much the country's presence has grown in the league over the past 15-20 years.
The D-backs roster currently features five Venezuelans, all of whom started on June 1 to equal a major-league record for native Venezuelans in the starting lineup and who continue to play almost every day. Montero's countrymen in the lineup are third baseman Martin Prado and outfielders Gerardo Parra, Ender Inciarte and David Peralta.
That lineup also featured the National League's first-ever all Venezuelan-born outfield.
"It makes you feel good about all these Venezuelan guys coming up and about our country," Montero said. "Every day it's more and more guys coming up as baseball players."
Right now, only the San Francisco Giants (seven) have more Venezuelan-born players on their roster than the D-backs, though three of those are relief pitchers. The D-backs have a sixth Venezuelan in their clubhouse in former catcher Henry Blanco, who serves as the team's assistant hitting coach after failing to make the roster during spring training.
Because of his long career, Blanco offers a particularly insightful perspective on the Venezuelan boom in Major League Baseball. When Blanco broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers for three games in 1997, he had just one Venezuelan teammate. The league that year saw just 39 native Venezuelans play in a game, and only 20 of those played in 25 or more games.
"There weren't too many in the big leagues at that time," Blanco said.
In his next big league stint, Blanco was the Rockies' only Venezuelan and one of 35 to play in the majors that season. Now, as he sits next to the batting cage before games and watches five of his countrymen come through, he marvels at the growth.
"I guess times change, and now you get to see more guys coming up," Blanco said. "Now being around a lot of guys from Venezuela and getting the chance to be with them in the big leagues makes you proud of your country."
Last season, 94 Venezuelan-born players played at least one game in the majors -- almost triple the number of 15 years earlier. At the halfway mark of this season, 75 Venezuelans have played in the majors.
The first Venezuelan to appear in the majors was pitcher Alex Carasquel in 1939. The total number of Venezuelan big-leaguers currently stands at 311 -- with more than half of those making their debut since 2004.
"Definitely Venezuela has started producing a lot more players than, say, 10 years ago," D-backs vice president of Latin operations Junior Noboa said. "Of all the players that we sign in Latin America -- except for the Cubans, because they're older and come from a different system -- if we compare Venezuelans and Dominicans or Nicaraguans or Panamanians, the Venezuelan players are the ones that move quicker than the other players. They take less time now to play in the majors."
Noboa was the D-backs' first international hire in 1995. He's based in the Dominican Republic and oversees the team's development academy in Boca Chica but serves as the team's liaison to all its Latin American prospects.
The D-backs have signed and developed Montero, Parra and Inciarte under Noboa's watch as well as Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who the team traded in 2007. The credit for those signings, Noboa says, belongs to scouts like Miguel Nava, who discovered Parra, Inciarte and Gonzalez.
"The D-backs, from the beginning, were very aggressive in Venezuela," Noboa said. "Now we continue to be very aggressive."
Noboa believes a number of factors beyond increased scouting have led to the growing Venezuelan population in Major League Baseball. (Venezuela has the third most major leaguers, behind the United States and the Dominican Republic.) First, Venezuela has a more organized youth baseball system than other Latin American countries.
"That helps a lot," Noboa said. "When young kids are starting to play when they're very young that gives them the opportunity to learn the game and to dominate the fundamentals. That's very important."
Additionally, there's a larger pool of talent to draw from, and the D-backs are accordingly signing more Venezuelan prospects each year.
Most Venezuelan prospects are signed by the time they are 16. Montero says seriously he was "getting old" when the D-backs signed him at 17. More are signed now than in the past in part due to "buscones" -- street agents who develop and sometimes house or feed young players until they get a major league deal.
Noboa said about 90 percent of the Venezuelan players the D-backs sign are represented by buscones, who have driven up the price of signing Latin American prospects.
There's also a trickle-down affect that is not new but is more substantial than ever. Montero recalls growing up in Venezuela watching and emulating the likes of Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel.
"There were not as many at the time, but obviously they were good," Montero said. "We grew up as a fan of them, and obviously at some point we want to be like them."
Adds Blanco: "I got to see them play (in Venezuelan winter ball), and it made me work even harder to get to where they were."
The same thing still happens today as young Venezuelans idolize big leaguers from their country like Miguel Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Felix Hernandez, but they now see many more Venezuelans at baseball's highest level.
Peralta, who was become an everyday player since being called up when A.J. Pollock suffered a broken hand, remembers wanting to be like Johan Santana while getting his professional start as a pitcher.
"It was 'Hey, I wanna be like him, I wanna pitch like him,' " Peralta said. "Now I'm a hitter, so right now my favorite guy to be like is Carlos Gonzalez from Colorado. I like the way he plays."
Many Venezuelan big leaguers are giving back to their home country, helping baseball grow at the lowest levels. That creates even further interest.
Venezuelan players used to know all their fellow countrymen in the league. Now, Montero says he's often surprised to hear a new pitcher he's watching is Venezuelan.
"We used to know everybody!" Montero says. "Now I didn't even know Peralta. It's a good thing because there's so many."
The community of Venezuelans in major league baseball may not be as tight-knit as it once was due to the continued growth, but the Venezuelans in the D-backs clubhouse have a small community of their own.
Peralta, 26, said Prado, a former teammate from the Venezuelan winter leagues, was the first to welcome him to the team when he was called up. Parra and Prado often seem inseparable, arriving and leaving for games together.
The D-backs' Venezuelan contingent might not remain together in the majors all season, but that it came together at all demonstrated what the future may hold for baseball: Even more Venezuelans.
"Every day we see more and more and more because there's a desire to be a big leaguer now," Montero said. "Back then it was probably 'I want to play baseball,' but now I guess they know it's a good business. It's like the Dominicans -- families would much rather send their kids to a baseball field than to school. I'm not saying that's the same in Venezuela, but it's pretty close.
"Baseball is pretty much everything in Venezuela."