JUPITER, Fla. — Rafael Bautista always wanted to play baseball growing up in a rural town in the Dominican Republic, but his father, a devout Christian, wouldn’t let him because he thought baseball was a waste of time. It wasn’t until a 15-year-old Bautista moved with an aunt to Santo Domingo, the capital city, that he first played in a baseball league.
By all standards, but especially those in the Dominican Republic where 18-year-old prospects are considered expired goods, Bautista was ancient for a baseball novice. But he wanted to play and he started off as a 15-year-old pitcher in a league for 11- and 12-year-olds. He improved rapidly, converting to shortstop and joining a program for potential MLB signees when he was 17. But when he finished high school at 18 without signing with a major league team he knew his chances were slim.
“I was going to give up on baseball,” Bautista said. “I was ready to go to college. I was thinking about being a lawyer.”
The Washington Nationals, however, weren’t ready to give up on Bautista because, unlike the majority of major league franchises, they were keen on signing Dominican players after their 17th birthday. The deviation was out of necessity; ownership wasn’t willing to allocate significant money to spend on the international free agent market after the Smiley Gonzalez scandal forced the organization to press the reset button on their Dominican operation. Older players fell within the limited budget.
“We got their confidence with time,” Nationals vice president of international operations Johnny DiPuglia said. “So we were going after the older guys.”
The Nationals had a plan when they did, focusing on pitchers and middle-of-the-field players with tools. They found bargains and, it turned out, a market inefficiency that is now surfacing at the major league level. Nearly six years after signing for $35,000, Bautista celebrated his 24th birthday on Wednesday by doubling in the Nationals’ 9-3 Grapefruit League loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Pedro Severino, who received a $55,000 signing bonus weeks before his 18th birthday in 2011, started at catcher. Utility man Wilmer Difo, who signed at 18 for $20,000 in 2010, came off the bench in the sixth inning to play shortstop and went 2 for 2.
Right-hander Wander Suero didn’t make the trip to Roger Dean Stadium, but he’s in major league camp and signed for $35,000 as an 18-year-old in 2010. Like Bautista, the 25-year-old Suero grew up in a rural area, moved to Santo Domingo when he was 16 and gained exposure later than most.
“Once you’re 18, it’s tough,” he said.
First baseman Jose Marmolejos, Washington’s minor league player of the year the past two seasons, signed out of the Dominican Republic at 18 for $40,000 after going undrafted in the United States. Right-hander Reynaldo Lopez, who signed for $17,000 as an 18-year-old catcher, is a top prospect and was part of the three-player package traded to acquire Adam Eaton. Jeffrey Rosa, another right-handed pitcher, signed at 18 for $10,000 and was flipped for Enny Romero last month. The list goes on.
“I can see an 18-year-old,” DiPuglia said, “and say, ‘Hey, that’s a high school senior. He’s a sixth-rounder in the States if he comes out.’ For 10 grand, that’s a bargain.”
None of the discounted players are premier prospects — though Washington’s No. 1 prospect Victor Robles was still a relative bargain for $225,000 when signed as a 16-year-old in 2013 — but all have or could make an impact at the major league level, directly or indirectly.
“If Difo and Bautista were born in the states, they would’ve played Division I college football somewhere,” DiPuglia said. “Difo would be a running back and Bautista would be a wide receiver. So those are athletes that are different. You don’t see them. A lot of the premium athletes aren’t playing baseball here in the states. So when you got a guy like that on the field, he stands out. That’s what you want. You want guys that stand out a little bit.”
Severino and Difo were on Washington’s playoff roster last October. Severino, who turns 24 in July, is still considered at least a backup catcher for the future. The eccentric Difo, who turns 25 next month, is a natural shortstop who has spent some time at second base and added third base to his portfolio last season. The Nationals are also giving him time in the outfield this spring to add to his value, but Manager Dusty Baker emphasized Wednesday that Difo needs to eliminate mental mishaps.
“We love Difo, but we don’t like mistakes,” Baker said. “And so far it’s been mistakes on the bases. It’s happened more than a couple times, so it’s like we’re in the process of trying to round him out to be a ballplayer.”
Unlike Difo, Bautista is lauded for his makeup while supplying elite speed. The 6-foot-2 center fielder led the minor leagues in stolen bases last season, with 54 for Class AA Harrisburg, while batting .282. He will likely begin the season with Class AAA Syracuse, and could make his major league debut later this summer.
“He’s improved leaps and bounds,” DiPuglia said. “I remember whenever he played center field early on, he didn’t have the routes. He would drop balls. But he’s got one of the best makeups in our Latin program. He’s unbelievable.”
The Nationals haven’t been limited to the clearance aisle in recent years, culminating in spending more than $5 million for 19 teenagers by last year’s July 2 deadline. The investment included $3.9 million for Dominican shortstop Yasel Antuna, $2.4 million more than they had ever spent on an international free agent. But that doesn’t mean the Nationals have stopped hunting for bargains and they’ll need to over the next two years, because Collective Bargaining Agreement rules stipulate they have $4.7 million to spend but can’t give a player more than $300,000. And they’ll look for those cheaper players that other teams don’t want.
“I want to keep it a secret,” DiPuglia said.