Discover more from Maximizing Playoff Odds - A Baltimore Orioles Newsletter
How the Orioles' commitment to Latin American scouting elevated their Dominican Academy along with it: "This is what you devoted all your time for, to see this grow"
Felipe Rojas Alou Jr. has led the Orioles' Dominican Academy for the last 14 years, and outlines the changes in operations and instruction that their newfound commitment to Latin America deserved.
For an organization that’s come in for criticism in recent years for moving on from those with decades of institutional knowledge, the Orioles kept a baseball lifer in a key role overseeing one of their most important player development areas and are reaping the rewards.
Felipe Alou Rojas Jr. joined the Orioles’ to oversee their academy in the Dominican Republic in March 2008, when they were new to their current facility and had a pair of teams in the Dominican Summer League beginning their professional careers.
In the ensuing 14 years, the Orioles went from diverting resources away from Latin American scouting and development in what was deemed an ownership decision to building them back up to the ever-climbing standards the game is setting for acquiring and developing talent out of the Dominican Republic.
Having been through it all makes seeing the Orioles invest not only in signing top-level Latin American players, but break ground on a new Dominican Academy and improve the on- and off-field instruction and resources at their current one the most significant point of pride Alou has from his time in the organization thus far.
“This is what you wait for” said Alou, son of longtime manager Felipe Alou as well as brother of six-time All-Star Moisés Alou and former New York Mets manager Luis Rojas.
“This is what you devoted all of your time for, to see this grow. And that’s the direction where it’s heading, where we are as a company and as an organization, we are committed to an international market. We’ve been ready for that for years and years.”
The Orioles’ full devotion of resources to that market began in 2018 under then-executive vice president Dan Duquette was a long time coming. The same month he said they were considering diving back into Latin American scouting, he traded away the last homegrown impact player the program had produced in infielder Jonathan Schoop.
It’s now been essentially a generation in which Schoop was the lone homegrown success story to contribute to the in a meaningful way, and for the last few years of Duquette’s tenure they largely shunned a talent acquisition avenue that represents about a third of the players in the game.
Alou admitted that reputation for sitting out the proceedings there was hard to overcome locally.
He said: “If you don’t attack the market as aggressively as we’ve done it the last few years, agents, buscones – which are the coaches that represent and train players – players’ families, why would they commit with an organization that’s not that aggressive with international talent?”
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ arrival in November 2018 and the hire of senior director of international scouting Koby Perez shortly thereafter marked a turnaround for the operation. They’ve spent millions in signing bonuses over the last three years and are expected to top last year’s club-record bonus for an international amateur in the period that opens this weekend.
“There's no doubt that you sense a difference,” Alou said. “Players, they understand now. They understand now that the Baltimore Orioles are in, and they’re in for good, and that they’re expecting to sign the best talent available, and they’re looking forward to bringing that up-and-coming talent to a new facility and a better organizational situation.”
The last part is just as important as any other. The new Dominican Academy has been in the works for years, but at the existing one, investments under Elias and director of player development Matt Blood have modernized how the baseball portion runs and improved how players are educated and trained off the field.
Many of the technological and data advances that have permeated the domestic minor league affiliates and helped spur player development stateside are now part of the Dominican program. Alou noted there’s also new technology and programs built around improving range of motion and promoting proper physical development.
When coaches speak on players’ abilities, they cite batted ball data and swing decisions just like would happen at any other affiliate. Top player development officials are frequently in town, and dual roles like the one Florida Complex League hitting coach Anthony Villa held as short-season hitting coordinator meant he spent time in both Sarasota, Florida and the Dominican Republic to ensure the rookie-level hitting program was consistent across the organization.
Off the field, Alou believes there was a “huge step forward” in how the Orioles educate players.
“We finally were able to develop a complete educational program,” he said. “I mean, we had something in place in the past, but it was more learning English. Now, we do have, I’d definitely say, one of the best educational programs in all of us baseball.”
The club hired Anaíma García as education coordinator for the 2020 season, which proved to be a boon considering there was no minor league baseball that summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Alou said the shutdown allowed players to dedicate more time to that aspect of their growth, and a year-end award ceremony was held to give awards to some of the highest achievers. Teaching English is still a priority, but they’ve added different workshops and cultural instruction to round out the development of these teenagers.
That’s why the class of signees who are joining the organization officially this weekend will hear a dual early message about what’s expected of them as Orioles early in their professional careers. Alou said the goals for all the players at the academy are twofold.
“I would say first of all, bringing [someone] into this new culture that we’re trying to build, is to expect that you’re going to fail, expect that you’re going to feel uncomfortable doing some things, because that’s part of the process,” Alou said, noting one of the main tenets of the Orioles’ player development philosophy. “Expect that you’re going to be trying new stuff. We understand where some of these young kids are coming [from], and we’re going to be patient. We’re going to be prepared, and we’re going to monitor their progress, and also expect that you’re going to be challenged with an educational program.
“You’re going to have people there that care that you also become an All-Star professional baseball player but also be a good man for society.”
For years, individuals like Alou and the staff at the Dominican Academy have been invested in seeing the young men in their care succeed. Same goes for the player development staffers who preceded the front office changeover like director of minor league operations Kent Qualls, senior manager of minor league and international administration J. Maria Arellano, and Latin American operations coordinator Ramón Alarcón.
Now, there are resources in place so everyone involved can put the more-talented players in the Latin American program in a better place to succeed, and measures are being taken to ensure the players’ growth continues apace. The most advanced wave of international talent since the philosophy change should be at Low-A Delmarva in 2021, where according to MASNSports.com Alou is expected to be the manager.
There impact of the Orioles’ commitment in the Latin American market is climbing through the system, and so is a man who spent so long hoping for that commitment to come before successfully leading the transition on the ground.
“I think we all understand we’re moving to a better situation and that commitment is in place right now,” Alou said. “Definitely, the signing and the commitment with the players is what we’ve been hoping for for quite some time.”