Latin power hitter’s Mariners journey just starting

MIXED RESULTS: Transitioning a foreign-born player like Helsin Martinez, 16, to the pros is a complex and risky process

July 3, 2011 

If you have never heard of outfielder Helsin Martinez, don’t worry. He’s only 16 and just signed a contract with the Seattle Mariners on Saturday, the first day of the international signing period.

Martinez signed for $2 million, Baseball America reported via the International Prospect League. The native of the Dominican Republic is described as 6-foot-5, 190 pounds and might just be the best right-handed power hitter in Latin America, according to some scouts.

The signing period begins each year on July 2, and that’s when teams look to stock their systems with foreign-born players.

The Mariners have been successful in its world-wide search for baseball talent; players from five continents and 21 nations are represented in their organization.

Turning a foreign-born baseball player like Martinez into a major leaguer is not an easy or rapid process. For every All-Star the Mariners have found – pitcher Felix Hernandez is a prime example – there are plenty of players who never make it to Seattle.

Mariners outfielder Greg Halman, who signed out of the Netherlands in 2004 as a 16-year-old, said the transition to playing baseball in the United States was difficult.

“What (was) not (hard)?” said Halman, who made his major league debut last September. “I came from Holland, a country that’s all the way on the other side of the world and came here as a 16-year-old kid.

“It was hard, but I had baseball and that’s all I loved to do every day. Whenever I was feeling homesick, I was already on the field doing what I do and time just rolled by.”

Bob Engle, the Mariners’ vice president of international operations, oversees the process. He said signing an international player, who is often as young as 16, requires a close examination of the individual’s present traits and future potential.

“We have to incorporate our thinking and evaluations in terms of where a player will be in five to six years in all aspects of his development, both physically and mentally,” Engle said.

Scouts find players in a variety of ways, but the most common are through academy programs or private amateur clubs.

The Mariners have academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, two fertile grounds for baseball prospects. These baseball schools, which became popular after the Los Angeles Dodgers had success with them in the 1970s, not only feature game coaching, but also life lessons.

Besides players who are already signed, amateurs attend trying to catch a scout’s eye and earn a contract.

The amateurs, who are allowed to stay at the academy for 30 days, are provided with housing and are normally given the same instruction as the professional players.

These amateurs are 16 years old and eligible to sign during the signing period. Following their time at one academy, they are allowed to travel to another camp to participate in the same 30-day trial.

The other way of finding players is through private amateur clubs. These clubs generally operate within a league organized by their respective countries.

That’s how Halman became a Mariner.

Halman played in his first Holland league when he was 15 but said other teams’ interest was slow to develop.

“At that time when I signed, it was a lot tougher (to get noticed) than it is now,” Halman said. “I was, not to say, really good for my age, but people saw that I was ready to go for the next step, and people knew I wanted to go play professionally in the United States.”

Halman said adapting to a new culture was challenging, but Venezuelan-born Hernandez said learning English was the hardest part.

Players pick up some language skills from teammates and are also given more formal training, Engle said.

“Players who sign a professional contract and enter our academy program are provided classes in history and culture of the United States. Each player must [also] partake in the Rosetta Stone Program to learn the English language,” Engle said.

Players receive a lot more help than in the past, said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik.

Foreign-born players have the benefit of being coached by professionals while immersed in baseball at a younger age. This can give them an advantage over their American counterparts who must complete high school or earn a GED before they’re eligible for the major league draft.

While Hernandez feels 16 is old enough to sign a contract, Brendan Ryan said it would have been tough for him to begin a professional career at that age.

“I mean, 18 is pretty young,” said Ryan, “Sixteen? Jeez, I can’t imagine myself on my own at 16. I always think it depends on the person. …It’s hard to speak for them when they are getting some money dangled in front of them …”

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