Fred Ferreira learned back in the mid-80s to never leave any corner of the baseball world unscouted. Talent is everywhere, and when Ferreira was a scout for the Yankees in 1985, it was on the tiny untapped island of Curacao.
He heard of a hitter named Hensley Meulens, and upon seeing him play for the first time, Ferreira signed him to a free-agent deal. It wasn't unlike his first trip to Panama, where he plucked an outfielder named Roberto Kelly out of 150 players at an impromptu workout and signed him on the spot. Both made it to Yankee Stadium.
Ferreira, the Orioles new executive director of international recruiting, has been to four countries the past month. Two of them — the Dominican Republic and Venezuela — are regular stops for any international baseball scouting director. The other two — Guatemala and Costa Rica — seem more like misdirections.
But in Dan Duquette's first offseason as the Orioles' executive vice president for baseball operations, he has put the franchise's international scouting efforts at the forefront of turning around the misfortune of 14 straight losing seasons.
"I believe that aggressive scouting will help you build a winning ballclub," Duquette said. "We encouraged our scouts in the international market to be very aggressive and sign good players. It's a global market now. We just encourage our scouts to be aggressive and sign the players who can help. We've signed some good young players that I think will develop into good young prospects for the team."
Traditionally a step behind in the international market, the Orioles have been aggressive in global amateur scouting. Over the past six weeks, the organization has signed three 17-year-olds — South Korean left-hander Kim Seong-min, New Zealand outfielder Pita Rona and Guatemalan outfielder Andres Aguilar.
While many players have come out of South Korea, there's never been a major leaguer to come out of Guatemala or New Zealand. (The Red Sox signed softball catcher Beau Bishop from New Zealand last year).
Rona — also a standout softball player — is a baseball novice, but the Orioles believe his size (6-foot-5) and quick swing can translate to the game. They feel Kim, whose signing caused an uproar in South Korea, has a tremendous upside. And Ferreira said Aguilar is a rare four-tool player for his age.
"It's all been the same process as before," Ferreira said. "And that's going out and finding the best prospects. Dan and I have often talked, we're not looking for minor leaguers. We're looking for major leaguers, so when we sign a prospect, we're assuming that they get to the big leagues."
International free agents can be signed as young as 16, and being quick to sign a player is important, Ferreira said.
"That's another think about international scouting," Ferreira said. "There's no such thing as following a player unless he's underage. If he's eligible and you like him, you have to make that decision today because you're going to go home and somebody else is going to take that kid and you're going to kick yourself later on."
The Orioles believe signing these prospects early helps to get them into the organization early on, and they could conceivably reach the majors at age 21.
Duquette has trusted two of his best international scouts for these jobs. Ferreira, who signed players like Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera and Javier Vazquez for Duquette with the Expos (and also signed Bernie Williams for the Yankees), knows Latin America well. Ray Poitevint, who worked for Duquette in Boston, is well-known in Asia.
Top prospects can be found in odd places. Take for example Royals farmhand Chelsor Cuthbert, who is from Corn Island, a four-square-mile island off the east coast of Nicaragua. A third baseman, Cuthbert was signed to a seven-figure bonus and is now a ranked the fifth-best prospect in the talent-rich Royals farm system by Baseball America.
Meanwhile, the Orioles signed three players from Curacao last year, and two natives of that country — second baseman Jonathan Schoop and outfielder Roderick Bernadina — are among the organization's top prospects.
Dominican pitcher Miguel Chalas, Venezuelan pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and Venezuelan catcher Gabriel Lino are all also considered promising prospects. The Orioles still have yet to sign and develop a major leaguer from Venezuela.
The international markets are constantly evolving. Puerto Rico was once a hotbed for talent — Ferreira signed the likes of Vidro and Vazquez while working with Duquette for the Expos. But Puerto Rico's inclusion into the MLB first-year player draft in 1990 drained the island. There is talk about an international draft, which would include the hotbeds of the Dominican and Venezuela.
The Orioles have also been scouting talent in Costa Rica and Brazil, and Ferreira says these signings are just the beginning.
"We're refueling to get going again," Ferreira said. "And we're going to keep going until we find what we like."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun