Tampa Bay had a difficult signing day after the failure to sign top pick Levon Washington resulted in significant criticism. Tampa has an impressive track record of building their farm system and perhaps passing on Washington will prove a wise decision. That Washington’s bonus demands are the same as the cost of Tampa’s new “baseball academy” in Marilia, Brazil shows international scouting can sometimes pay major dividends at a cheaper price.
Tampa began flirting with idea of bringing Baseball to Brazil in 2005. Assistant GM Gerry Hunsicker is presumably the mastermind behind the academy because Hunsicker witnessed how international scouting can help a franchise when he was with Houston. Around 1989, the Astros gambled on building a scouting center in Venezuela led by Andres Reinor (who now works for Tampa). The academy—built on land owned by an oil company—produced players that turned the Astros’ farm system into one of the best in baseball from 1994-2000.
It is speculative whether Tampa will see results from this investment. Unlike Brazil, Venezuela had a rich baseball history when the Astros built their scouting center in 1989. For example, Venezuelan Luis Apricio was an all-star during the 1950’s and several Venezuelans (Ozzie Guillen, Omar Vizquel, Andres Gallaraga, etc) were playing in the major leagues. Tampa cannot expect short-term dividends from their Brazilian investment because the country has almost zero baseball history.
I think the academy is a wise investment for the Rays. Brazil produces more athletes than almost any country in the world. While most play soccer, the recent success of basketball in Brazil (Leondro Barbosa, Anderson Verajo, Nene, etc) shows baseball might also become popular. Tampa’s entire investment is $1-1.5 million (building costs) because the city is helping with the funding. Therefore, the academy seems like a wise investment. Even if the academy is a complete failure, it is still a novel attempt to bring baseball to another country at a reasonable price (for baseball standards).
If the academy succeeds, Tampa will end up with several Levon Washingtons.