As of late January, 15 spots on the Royals’ 40-man roster were occupied by players from Latin America: one apiece from Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico, four from Venezuela and seven from the Dominican Republic.
Not all were discovered by the Royals and shepherded through their academy in the Dominican, but more than half have been — and the overall number reflects the importance of the Royals’ presence and investment there.
“It’s a crucial part of your operation. … It was a high priority; it was perhaps the No. 1 priority” when he took over in 2006, general manager Dayton Moore said. “It was an area of our operation we moved very, very quickly to establish.”
But the next impact player from Latin America may not even be among those 40.
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Rene Francisco and Victor Baez, the Royals’ staff members most invested and influential here, gushed unprompted about pitcher Miguel Almonte.
Almonte, a 21-year-old right-handed pitcher, completed last season at Class A Wilmington and impressed Francisco as having “really picked it up” in four games in the Dominican fall league.
“We don’t know the future, but this kid should pitch in the big leagues,” said Francisco, the Royals’ vice president for international operations. “Stuff-wise, his ability, he should pitch in the big leagues. At the same level, you look at the numbers and (Yordano) Ventura has better numbers.
“But this guy is farther along than Ventura at the same stage — throwing the curveball, throwing the change-up, knowing how to pitch. This guy is way more advanced (at the same point) than Ventura. To me.”
That may prove just the latest benefit to the operation.
The 2014 World Series team had major contributions from starting pitcher Ventura and relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera, each discovered in the Dominican, and catcher Sal Perez, a Venezuelan who was funneled here by way of the academy.
Like Ventura, Herrera may easily have been missed. He was signed in December 2006, just months after Moore took over and made Latin American scouting paramount.
Moreover, Herrera was among the last of dozens and dozens of pitchers at an open tryout with the Royals.
After he finished his workout, a scout ran to find Rene Francisco, the director of international operations.
“‘Hey, there’s a kid who’s going to leave, he’s getting in the car, but you guys need to see him,’” Francisco remembers being told. “So we walked out, and they were actually leaving in the car.”
Herrera was happy to throw again, and Francisco stopped him perhaps 10 pitches later and said, “You don’t have to throw any more.” He was signed shortly thereafter.
“Two minutes later, we would have lost him,” Francisco said. “It was just one look, one workout, and we were lucky we were at the right place at the right time and that he came to the right place.”
That came only a few weeks after the Royals had signed Perez, now a two-time All-Star.
Others had seen him before the Royals. But for reasons that are unclear in the imprecise world of scouting, they weren’t as enamored of him.
Perez spent only a few months at the Royals Academy before being nudged along to rookie ball in 2007 as the first of many to come out of the Royals’ revamped approach.