STAR GAZING THE HOUSTON ASTROS SET THEIR SIGHTS ON VENEZUELA AND FOUND A HOTBED OF TALENT

March 12, 1996

When Bob Abreu was 14, he was living every kid's dream: He was
going to a school where recess lasted all morning. At the
Houston Astros' baseball academy, located in north central
Venezuela, outside of Valencia, Abreu and his classmates spent
their afternoons hitting the books and the rest of the day
hitting baseballs.

The academy, the first of its kind in Venezuela, is something of
an experiment. Players, mostly in their mid-teens, are brought
in from all over the country and placed with local families
while they hone their baseball skills and take academic classes.
The academy can accommodate up to 35 players, some of whom stay
there (though not continuously) for as long as 18 months. "In
essence, it is a school where we are able to set up a
step-by-step process to instruct the youths to improve their
skills," says Astros director of player personnel Dan O'Brien.
"For players not under contract, it's a chance for us to see
them in a controlled setting. For those under contract, it's a
process of indoctrination, a chance for them to get a feel for
how we play in the Astros organization. The challenge of
competing is equal to a cultural adjustment, and we try to
provide direction and education."

More than six years after its founding, the experiment is an
unquestioned success for both the players and the team. The
Astros have more than 20 bona fide prospects under contract,
including Abreu and Richard Hidalgo (both of whom are expected
to become fixtures in Houston's outfield by 1998), hard-throwing
righthander Oscar Henriquez and slick-fielding shortstop Carlos
Guillen.

Abreu was discovered by Astros scout Andres Reiner in 1989 at a
Little League game in Turmero. "The way he handled the bat
really caught my eye," says Reiner. "It was something that was
completely natural. He was born with a bat in his hand, but the
rest we had to teach him."

So Abreu entered the Astros' academy at age 14 and signed in
1990 when he turned 16. He came to the States in 1991, hit .301
in the Rookie League and has moved one step closer to Houston
each year. Last season, at Triple A Tucson, he hit .304 with 10
homers, 75 RBIs and a minor league-leading 17 triples.

Currently a rightfielder, Abreu will probably end up in left in
Houston to make room for Hidalgo, who has a remarkably strong
and accurate arm. In 1993, as a 17-year-old at Class A
Asheville, N.C., he led the minors with 30 outfield assists.
Though he hit just .266 last year at Double A Jackson, Miss.,
the Astros consider him one of their top hitting prospects. And
they have no need to rush him; by signing at age 16 after a year
at the academy, Hidalgo was able to reach Double A by age 19.
"The idea of him spending this year at Double A and one or two
at Triple A makes him only 23 or 24 when he gets to the majors,"
says O'Brien.

The success of Abreu and Hidalgo validates the Astros' decision
to construct the academy, which opened in August 1989 after
years of lobbying by Reiner. General manager Bill Wood finally
agreed to the idea when he realized that as a small-market club
the Astros were fighting an uphill battle scouting players in
the Dominican Republic, a market largely controlled by big-money
teams such as the Dodgers and the Blue Jays. "It was an
acknowledgement that we should redirect our resources," says
O'Brien.

Despite producing a few big-name major leaguers--Dave Concepcion,
Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel, among others--Venezuela has
long been a sleeping giant when it comes to turning out baseball
players. The country has a population of 20.5 million (nearly
twice the combined total of the Dominican Republic and Puerto
Rico), and, of course, its tropical climate makes it conducive
to year-round baseball. But the factor that played the largest
role in opening the floodgates had nothing to do with the
country's size or where it lies; it was what it lies over.

Venezuela's vast petroleum reserves--it is the only Western
Hemisphere member of OPEC--kept the nation's economy strong for
years. Because of Venezuela's relatively high standard of
living, the hunger that motivated players in other Latin
American countries to use baseball as a way out of poverty was
missing. "Most of the parents and kids had plans to go to
college," says Reiner. "It was free, there was time, and the
parents had no economic problems."

That all changed in the late '80s, when the global oil market
took a nosedive. Inflation and unemployment went through the
roof while wages dropped. As a result, baseball in Venezuela
went from a casual pastime to a hope for the future.

"People want to play baseball now because it pays well," says
Hidalgo. "Kids play baseball in school and then afterwards in
the streets. It has always been popular, but people are far more
interested today."

As Venezuelan kids became more interested in organized baseball,
organized baseball became more interested in them. "In Venezuela
there's a very large area to cover, and a lot of areas are still
somewhat untapped," says Phillies scouting director Mike
Arbuckle. "So clubs are getting involved more and more with the
idea that they are going to dig up players who are largely
unknown. I know some clubs that are not a factor at all in the
Dominican, but they've set up in Venezuela because they feel you
get more bang for your buck."

Although the oil-market bust sent the Venezuelan economy into a
tailspin, the country is still somewhat better off than most of
its Latin American neighbors, a fact not lost on scouts. "The
plus to Venezuela is that the players are a bit more educated,"
says Rockies vice president of player personnel Dick Balderson.
"And education is the basis of the whole thing, in that the kids
who have had some schooling are more coachable as a group, with
rare exceptions. They learn the second language better. They
adjust to the customs better. They're a little bit more mature."

That allure is part of what drew the Astros into Venezuela, and
they are not alone there. Reiner estimates that 15 major league
teams will have academies in the country by the end of the year.
As long as there are players, there will be teams lined up to
sign them. And by all accounts, there will be available talent
for years to come. "The players now have a desire to go with the
opportunity to play," says O'Brien. "Where there was once an
interest, there is now a commitment."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Academy products Abreu (left) and Hidalgo can see a spot in the Houston outfield in their future. [Bob Abreu; Richard Hidalgo] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES The Astros struck it rich with Guillen. [Carlos Guillen] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Lots of young talent will follow in the footsteps of Henriquez. [Oscar Henriquez and children]

FUTURE FLASHES: THE BEST LATIN PROSPECTS

Below are SI's current top 100 Latin American-born minor
leaguers, listed alphabetically by team, with Opening Day age,
position and country of birth (statistics are for 1995 unless
otherwise noted). Players who have had considerable major league
service (i.e., more than a September call-up, such as Yankees
pitcher Mariano Rivera) were excluded.

KEY

[*] should see significant time in the major leagues in 1996
[**] probable September or emergency call-up this year
[***] projected major league debut in 1997 season
[****] projected major league debut in 1998 season
[*****] at least three years away from the major leagues

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Atlanta Braves

[*****]Winston Abreu, 18, RHP, Dominican Republic
Fanned 90 in 74 rookie-ball innings

[****]Andruw Jones, 18, OF, Netherlands Antilles
Does it all: 25 HRs, 100 RBIs, 56 SBs in A

[*****]Fernando Lunar, 18, C, El Salvador
One of the minors' top defensive catchers

Chicago Cubs

[*****]Elinton Jasco, 20, 2B, Dominican Republic
Hit .369 with 31 SBs in rookie and A ball

[***]Roberto Rivera, 27, LHP, Puerto Rico
Went 6-2 with 2.38 ERA and 6 saves in AA

[**]Amaury Telemaco, 22, RHP, Dominican Republic
Went 8-8 with 3.29 ERA in AA

[***]Pedro Valdes, 22, OF, Puerto Rico
Hit .300 with 68 RBIs in AA

Cincinnati Reds

[*****]Emiliano Giron, 24, RHP, Dominican Republic
0.94 ERA and 20 saves in low-A ball

Colorado Rockies

[*****]Luis Colmenares, 19, RHP, Venezuela
Struck out 74 in 55 innings with 21 saves in A

[*****]Elvis Pena, 19, 2B, Dominican Republic
Hit .242 with 51 SBs in A

[***]Neifi Perez, 20, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .253 with 28 doubles, 3 triples and 43 RBIs in AA

[****]Edgard Velazquez, 20, OF, Puerto Rico
Hit .300 with 69 RBIs in A

Florida Marlins

[****]Antonio Alfonseca, 23, RHP, Dominican Republic
Six-fingered pitcher had 9 wins, 3.64 ERA in AA

[***]Luis Castillo, 20, 2B, Dominican Republic
Hit system-high .326 with 41 SBs in A

[*****]Alex Gonzalez, 19, SS, Venezuela
Hit .294 with 30 RBIs in rookie ball

[****]Wilson Heredia, 24, RHP, Dominican Republic
Won all 4 AA starts after August trade

[*]Livan Hernandez, 21, RHP, Cuba
Had 45 K's in 32 innings in winter ball

[*****]Victor Hurtado, 18, RHP, Dominican Republic
Allowed 14 hits in 33 innings in rookie ball

[*****]Clemente Nunez, 21, RHP, Dominican Republic
Franchise's first signee had 12 wins in A

[**]Edgar Renteria, 20, SS, Colombia
Marlins' top prospect had 68 RBIs in AA

Houston Astros

[**]Bob Abreu, 22, OF, Venezuela
Hit .304 with 75 RBIs in AAA

[*****]Ramon Castro, 20, C, Puerto Rico
Hit .299 with 9 HRs in 224 at bats in A

[*****]Alejandro Freire, 21, 1B, Venezuela
Hit .305 with 15 HRs, 65 RBIs in A

[*****]Carlos Guillen, 20, SS, Venezuela
Had 15 RBIs, 17 SBs in 105 rookie-ball at bats

[*****]Oscar Henriquez, 22, RHP, Venezuela
Missed all of '94 with illness; 3 wins in A in '95

[***]Richard Hidalgo, 20, OF, Venezuela
Has all the tools--drove in 59 runs in AA

Los Angeles Dodgers

[*]Roger Cedeno, 21, OF, Venezuela
Hit .305 with 44 RBIs and 23 SBs in AAA

[***]Ramser Correa, 25, RHP, Puerto Rico
Saved 17 games in AA

[*]Karim Garcia, 20, OF, Mexico
Hit .319 with 20 HRs and 91 RBIs in AAA

[*****]Manuel Gonzalez, 19, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit .360 and stole 16 bases in rookie ball

[***]Wilton Guerrero, 21, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .348 with 21 SBs in AA

[***]Oreste Marrero, 26, OF, Puerto Rico
Had 21 HRs and 86 RBIs in AA

Montreal Expos

[*]Yamil Benitez, 23, OF, Puerto Rico
Had 18 HRs and 69 RBIs in AAA

[*****]Hiram Bocachica, 20, SS, Puerto Rico
Hit .284 with 47 SBs in A

[****]Vladimir Guerrero, 20, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit .333 with 16 HRs in 110 A games

[***]Jose Paniagua, 22, RHP, Dominican Republic
7-12 record in AA belies his good stuff

[*]Ugueth Urbina, 22, RHP, Venezuela
Went 6-2 with 3.04 ERA in 13 AAA games

[**]Jose Vidro, 21, 2B, Puerto Rico
Hit .325 in A before call-up to AA

[****]Esteban Yan, 21, RHP, Dominican Republic
Had a 3.07 ERA in 138 innings in A

New York Mets

[**]Alberto Castillo, 26, C, Dominican Republic
Hit .267 with 31 RBIs in 69 AAA games

[*]Rey Ordonez, 24, SS, Cuba
Hit .214 in AAA but has one of the great gloves

[*****]Yojanny Valera, 19, C, Dominican Republic
Hit .294 in 59 rookie-ball games

[*****]Julio Zorrila, 21, 2B, Dominican Republic
Hit .276 with 42 SBs in A

Philadelphia Phillies

[*****]Leonardo Oliveros, 20, C, Venezuela
Good receiver; hit .284 in rookie ball

Pittsburgh Pirates

[*****]David Alvarado, 17, RHP, Venezuela
Already throws in the low 90's

[****]Jose Guillen, 19, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit .305 with 14 HRs and 52 RBIs in A

[***]Ramon Morel, 21, RHP, Dominican Republic
Just 6-10 but had a 3.49 ERA in A and AA

St. Louis Cardinals

none

San Diego Padres

[***]Raul Casanova, 23, C, Puerto Rico
Hit .271 with 12 HRs in AA

[*****]Domingo Guzman, 20, RHP, Dominican Republic
Saved 11 games in rookie ball

[****]Juan Melo, 19, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .282 with 46 RBIs in A

San Francisco Giants

[*]Osvaldo Fernandez, 27, RHP, Cuba
Has 12-0 record in international competition

[****]Wilson Delgado, 20, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .310 in A after coming from Mariners

[****]Fausto Macey, 20, RHP, Dominican Republic
Went 8-9 with a 3.89 ERA in A

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Baltimore Orioles

[*****]Calvin Maduro, 21, RHP, Aruba
8-5 with 120 K's in 122 innings in A

[*****]Eddy Martinez, 18, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .308 with 35 RBIs in 57 rookie-ball games

[*****]Billy Percibal, 22, RHP, Dominican Republic
Top pitching prospect in the California League

Boston Red Sox

[*]Jose Malave, 24, OF, Venezuela
Hit 23 HRs in 91 games in AAA

[***]Rafael Orellano, 22, LHP, Puerto Rico
11-7 with 3.09 ERA, 160 K's in AA

California Angels

[**]Jovino Carvajal, 27, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit .317 with 49 SBs in AA and AAA

Chicago White Sox

[*]Luis Andujar, 23, RHP, Dominican Republic
12-game AA win streak included a no-hitter

[*****]Rafael Ruiz, 21, LHP, Venezuela
Fanned 62 in 42 innings in rookie ball and A

[*]Olmedo Saenz, 25, 3B, Panama
Hit .304 with 13 HRs, 74 RBIs in AAA

[****]Mario Valdez, 21, 1B, Mexico
Hit .272 with 30 doubles, 11 HRs in A

Cleveland Indians

[****]Bartolo Colon, 20, RHP, Dominican Republic
13-3 with 1.96 ERA and 152 K's in A

[****]Einar Diaz, 23, C, Panama
Carolina League's best defensive catcher

[****]Wilmer Montoya, 22, RHP, Venezuela
Saved 31 games in A

[****]Alex Ramirez, 21, OF, Venezuela
Hit .304 with 11 HRs in A and AA

[*****]Enrique Wilson, 20, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .267 with 52 RBIs and 18 SBs in A

Detroit Tigers

[**]Ivan Cruz, 27, 1B, Puerto Rico
Hit 31 HRs in AA his seventh season in the minors

[*****]Juan Encarnacion, 20, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit 16 HRs and 31 doubles in A

Kansas City Royals

[*****]Carlos Beltran, 18, OF, Puerto Rico
Hit .278 with 23 RBIs in rookie ball

[***]Lino Diaz, 25, 3B, Panama
Hit .350 after promotion from A to AA

[****]Raul Gonzalez, 22, OF, Puerto Rico
Hit .292 with 13 HRs in A and AA

[****]Felix Martinez, 21, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .263 with 44 SBs in AA

[*****]Carlos Mendez, 21, 1B, Venezuela
Hit .273 with 61 RBIs in A

Milwaukee Brewers

[*****]Juan Gonzalez, 21, RHP, Dominican Republic
Won 11 games as middle reliever in A

[****]Gabby Martinez, 22, SS, Puerto Rico
Switch-hitter batted .278 after promotion to AA

Minnesota Twins

[*****]Rafael Alvarez, 18, OF, Venezuela
Hit .283 with five triples in A

[****]Jose Valentin, 20, C, Puerto Rico
Hit .321 with 19 HRs and 65 RBIs in A

New York Yankees

[*****]D'Angelo Jimenez, 18, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit .280 with 28 RBIs in rookie ball

[**]Ramiro Mendoza, 23, RHP, Panama
Struck out 81, walked just 35 in AA and AAA

[*]Jorge Posada, 22, C, Puerto Rico
Hit .255 with 32 doubles and 51 RBIs in AAA

[***]Ruben Rivera, 22, OF, Panama
Hit 24 HRs with 74 RBIs in AA and AAA

Oakland Athletics

[***]Tony Batista, 22, SS, Dominican Republic
Hit 33 HRs in last two years, in A and AA

[*]Fausto Cruz, 24, SS, Dominican Republic
11 HRs, 67 RBIs in AAA

[*****]Mario Encarnacion, 18, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit .345 in a Dominican summer league

[****]Ramon Fermin, 23, RHP, Dominican Republic
Had 6 wins and 7 saves in AA

[*****]Ramon Hernandez, 19, C, Venezuela
Hit .364 in the Arizona League

[***]Jose Herrera, 23, OF, Dominican Republic
Hit .282 with 6 HRs in AA

[*****]Miguel Tejada, 19, SS, Dominican Republic
Top prospect in the Northwest League

Seattle Mariners

[***]Osvaldo Fernandez, 25, LHP, Cuba
Fanned 160 in 156 innings in AA

[**]Arquimedez Pozo, 22, 2B-3B, Dominican Republic
Just 160 lbs. but hit .300 with 10 HRs in AAA

[****]Marino Santana, 23, RHP, Dominican Republic
Struck out 167 in 145 innings in A

Texas Rangers

[****]Edwin Diaz, 21, 2B, Puerto Rico
Hit .284 with 8 HRs and 56 RBIs in A

[*****]Asbel Ortiz, 19, SS-3B, Puerto Rico
Hit .305 with 23 RBIs in 43 rookie-ball games

[***]Julio Santana, 23, RHP, Dominican Republic
Allowed 91 hits in 103 innings; 3.15 ERA in AA

[****]Fernando Tatis, 21, 3B, Dominican Republic
His 84 RBIs in A were tops in Rangers system

Toronto Blue Jays

[*]Felipe Crespo, 23, 2B, Puerto Rico
Hit .294 in AAA; could replace Roberto Alomar

[*]Robert Perez, 26, OF, Venezuela
Hit .343 in AAA before September call-up

[****]Jose Pett, 20, RHP, Brazil
6'6" 210-pounder had 8 wins in AA

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)