Monday, November 10, 2008

Is India the Next MLB Market?

You know that cliched bit in movies like the Mighty Ducks (or the reverse of that concept in the movie The Cutting Edge) where the coach concocts a crazy scheme in which two figure skates are converted to hockey players because, you know, they can skate?  And since they can skate their skills must be transferable to hockey (or in the case of The Cutting Edge visa versa)?  Well, Jeff Bernstein, Barry Bonds's marketing agent, is attempting to do the same thing only with cricket players from India
Makes perfect sense, right?  Their country is known for providing inexpensive labor to Steve Jobs's organization, why not Billy Beane's?  Hell, isn't the entire country of India viewed to the Western world as one big market inefficiency? 
Bernstein's endeavor was a contest dubbed "The Million Dollar Arm" which had local boys trying to throw as hard as they can, for as many strikes as they can.  The winner was Rinku Singh, a 19-year-old right-hander who threw consistently at 87-mph, and was awarded $100,000.  The runner up, Dinesh Patel, actually threw harder but had more difficulty with accuracy.
Major League scout Ray Poitevint was then brought over to assess the top talents.  "I certainly had my doubts,"said Poitevint, "I took a 21-hour flight to see every pitcher who could throw over 80 mph. They had such funny motions, the way they ran to the mound and jumped, but I couldn't believe how hard they'd throw.  You saw that raw ability, and you wondered if that could be molded. I don't wonder anymore."
Poitevint and Bernstein identified Singh and 19-year-old Patel, a left-hander, to fly to America to workout with current University of Southern California baseball coach and former Rangers pitching coach, Tom House, in the efforts to harness their extremely raw talent.  It sounds as if Singh as the more prototypical pitcher frame, listed as 6-2 and 195 pounds, while Patel is more of your Tim Hudson type at 5-11, 185 pounds.  During the initial workouts in SoCal, they were both clocked at 85+, reaching 90 on occasion.  

"If you go back 25-30 years, tell me how many Dominicans were playing and being scouted," Poitevint said. "There are a lot of athletes in India, athletes that are equal to or better than the ones that Dominicans had 25 years ago. This is not a publicity stunt. When you're scouting you need to take all kinds of shots and use your imagination. And then maybe ... three, four, five years later you see a guy who reminds you of someone with whom you've had success in the past. We're in the business of trying to develop baseball players and eventually if it works, we'll be signing someone from India."

Former Twins pitcher Casey Daigle (also the lessor half of the Daigle-Jenny Finch marriage) took the opportunity to run through workouts with the pair while training with House this offseason. 

"These guys are wonderful to be around," says Casey Daigle, "It's fun because they're like sponges. A few months ago, they didn't even know what a baseball was. What's great about them is that they are so determined to pitch in pro ball, and when you're around them, you can't help but root for them."

Following there brief introduction to pitching fundamentals state-side, Super-agent Jeff Borris enlisted several GMs - the majority of whom were in California for the annual General Managers' meeting - to witness the duo firsthand. 
Borris arranged for a Steve Nebraska-like work out, undoubtedly hoping to secure what could be lucrative contracts in the future.  Cleveland Indians' general manager Mark Shapiro may have indicated how much interest they have in their pair of hurlers from subcontinent Asia.  The Indians sent their Player Personnel Director to scout the, ahem, Indians.  "It's not like you're going to send all of your scouts over there to watch, but you never want to be left out, either. You never know what will happen. It's a country that's been unexplored."  Shapiro commented.
During the audition, both pitchers velocity were significantly lower than the reports from the USC facility, both cited the mound as reasons for the discrepancy - .  Borris, who is representing them along with Bernstein after watching their USC workouts, immediately told the press following the Tempe audition that he expects "multiple" offers from Major League teams, according to the Canadian Press.  Do the baseball minds feel the same as Borris?
In the video located on USA Today's website, House, who also co-wrote one of the seminal books on baseball along with statistician Craig Wright titled 'The Diamond Appraised', indicated that the interest in these players among Major League organization will be limited.  Candidly, House noted that the ones that will show interest are the ones that have very solid player development programs, ones that could appropriately train someone with little technical skill. 
Scouts who attended the Tempe, AZ-based showcasing also echoed the same sentiment as House.  Ted Heid, the Mariners special international project coordinator, told the Arizona Republic that "You can't really make a judgment based on this. There's an awful lot of players further along.  There would need to be an organization to continue the experiment."  Likewise, Ron Schueler, a San Francisco Giant senior scout, said "I didn't know what to expect. You've got two athletes who had never picked up a baseball before. Obviously, they're very crude. The fact that the one kid touched 90, that's stuff to work with.  Their country should be proud of them."

The question is whether this is a historic breakthrough, highlighting yet another geographic region of the world that has not been invaded by scouting tracks or just a novelty ploy by two high-priced agents?  Bernstein has stated that he is organizing another Million Dollar Arm contest in the near future in the hopes of extracting more arms from the nation of India.  Patel and Singh have proven that the raw talent is there.  Now a club has to make the investment in harnessing these abilities.