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Rubio Signing Shows Recommitment to Latin America

The Brewers aren’t typically active in the international market, so when they do sign a Latin American player, it’s typically noteworthy. Milwaukee has agreed to sign outfielder Elvis Rubio for a signing bonus of $95,000, but the signing won’t be official until the 17-year old’s identity can be verified. Basically, if MLB finds out he’s not who he says he is or is as old as he says he is, the deal is void.

This isn’t just a formality — the Brewers had the signing of shortstop Santo Aybar thrown out just about a year ago after he apparently failed the age/identity tests. Even if this signing doesn’t go through, though, it’s still the latest example of the Brewers trying to re-establish themselves in Latin America — and that’s a good thing.

Tom Haudricourt notes that Doug Melvin & Co. were recently down in the Dominican, presumably to take a look at Rubio in person. He’s said to have the potential to be a power bat, but as Jim Breen points out, it could be awhile before we even see Rubio play for a Rookie League team in the United States (assuming he’s allowed to sign). It’d be an understatement to say that these players are extremely raw, and they have a much higher flameout rate than prospects acquired through the draft.

The Brewers have had successes when it comes to finding Latin American talent — Alcides Escobar grew to become one of the best prospects in the game, and Milwaukee wouldn’t have Zack Greinke right now if they didn’t first find Escobar. Wily Peralta is still seen by some as the pitcher with the highest ceiling in the Brewers’ system. Roque Mercedes, who has been in the news a lot lately after being reclaimed on waivers and ultimately DFA’d for Mark Kotsay, could also be considered a success with how far he’s been able to come.

But there have been far many more misses, perhaps none bigger than pitcher Rolando Pascual. The Brewers gave Pascual — then just 17 years old — the highest international signing bonus in club history ($750,000) in late 2005. He just finished his age 21 season, still hasn’t risen above rookie ball, and still hasn’t shown any semblence of control. He spent 2010 on the Brewers’ Dominican Summer League team.

The good news, though, is that these days the Brewers do have an academy in the Dominican Republic. If you missed Adam McCalvy’s excellent piece from last spring on the Brewers’ re-dedication to finding talent in Latin America, it’s definitely worth checking out. As McCalvy says, the Brewers were the only team in Major League Baseball without a permanent Latin American academy from late 2003 into 2009, meaning any talent they signed from Latin America had to make the jump to the United States long before they were ready — like Rolando Pascual.

Rubio isn’t the first big-name Dominican player the Brewers have signed since opening the academy, though. You may remember the Brewers signing another outfielder with some pop — Jose Pena — in July 2009. Pena played in his first season for the Dominican Summer League team in 2010 at age 17, hitting .204/.326/.339 in 227 plate appearances. At least he did show some patience for a 17-year old, drawing 33 walks in 227 plate appearances, but even he’s quite far from making an impact in the minor league system.

Even though it’s a longshot that any of these names even get to the level of Mercedes — good enough to someday be designated for assignment — it’s still a worthy gamble. Rubio’s signing bonus is a drop in the bucket of the team’s budget, whether he makes it or not. While the organization has had very good luck with the draft for the better part of a decade, the lack of a Dominican (or any other Latin American) academy from ’03-’09 and the lack of commitment to finding Latin American talent in general has undoubtedly played a role in the weakness of today’s farm system. It may be five years before we see any of these signings even start to pay off in Top Prospect lists, but it will be worth the investment.