PC: Gregor Eisenhuth
Playing professional baseball in the U.S is a lifelong dream for tens of thousands of boys across the world. The competition is overwhelming. Very few will earn a spot on a Major League roster. Even signing a team contract and getting a chance to play in the minors is a huge accomplishment, but it guarantees nothing.
For European prospects Major League Baseball European Elite Camp has been the primary steppingstone to a career in professional baseball abroad. Since 2005, 78 players participating in the camp have signed contracts with MLB teams. In 2005-2006, 13 players were awarded a contract. The same pace continued for much of the next eight years and every year 8-12 players were signed. In 2014, the pace slowed down. Only four prospects from the camp were signed. In 2015 and 2016 MLB teams took a complete pass.
Though competition is getting tougher, and in two years not a single European player has been signed, Martin Brunner, who runs the Regensburg Baseball Academy, is not concerned. “Some of our students got offers from the MLB, but decided not to sign.” As students, some of the young men chose to continue their education before advancing to a baseball career. Brunner says, “Player production also goes in waves and it is better to look at long-term development. We have a new circle of players coming in and, in my opinion, the future looks good.”
The first of the camp players to be called up was Italian infielder Alex Liddi in 2011. He played 61 games in his three-year career with the Seattle Mariners. Next was German infielder Donald Lutz who made his major league debut in 2013 with the Cincinnati Reds. He became the first big leaguer raised in Germany, even though he was born in the United States. Lutz spent just two seasons in the majors before an injury ended his major league career.
The latest player to make the show is German outfielder Max Kepler. Though he debuted with the Minnesota Twins in 2015, 2016 was his year. Kepler played 113 games with .233 batting average, 17 home runs, 63 runs and 229 putouts. Lithuanian right-handed pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas, who signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010, may be next. In November 2016 he was added to the 40-man roster for the club. As a result, Neverauskas will be reporting to spring training come February.
Three of the 78 players signed in the last 16 years have made it to majors. This is a very modest number. Two of them, Lutz and Kepler, are out of Regensburg’s academy. Altogether, the academy has 11 signed players giving them an 18% success rate and three are still in the minors.
Martin Brunner, who trained all of them, knows how tough it is to break through in the MLB system. “It has never been easy but, in recent years, it has become even harder to get baseball jobs. Europeans are competing against talented players from around the world,” Brunner said. “Obviously in the MLB there are lots of players from the U.S. but the league has invested lots in the Dominican Republic too, which has led to a whole wave of players coming from there. Cuba is opening and Venezuela and Puerto Rico are producing new prospects all the time. The MLB can’t take them all, which means that it is harder than ever to get a spot in the minor system as well.”
Even though it is difficult, every year some talented players find their way. According to Brunner, talent, dedication and love to the game are the cornerstones for success but those alone are not nearly enough. “No matter how talented you are, or how much you want it, at the end of the day it is a question of making the right decisions. Little things, like getting up in the morning and what you do during the day for developing, are extremely important”, Brunner explained. “No one can do it alone so it is crucial, from the start, to find an environment that supports your development.”
Marten Gasparini, who has received the highest signing bonus for a European in MLB history, is a prime example. Since signing Gasparini has advanced steadily through the system moving up a level each season. In 2016, he was not only invited to extended spring training but was offered a spot in the winter instructional league following the season. Marten surrounds himself throughout the season with family. Both his parents have rented a home in the cities where he’s played and his sister is currently attending university in the States. This makes family time for the Gasparini’s a regular occurrence.
If you are good enough to get an offer from a big league club, there are some bigger decisions to make. “You have to understand how baseball works. Not only as a game but in the bigger picture as well”, Brunner explains. “'What is the best place for me to play winter ball?' As a pitcher the question is, 'Should I find the league or team where I can play lots of innings or is it better to play less and develop other things?' These are not easy decisions to make.”
A European player's career begins on the rookie level and takes a longer path to the bigs than those born in countries where the sport is more popular. “To be promoted you've got to play as good as guys at the next level. That means you can’t afford to slow down your development. You might get signed because your are talented, but the only way up is to work and manage to keep that up every day”, Brunner said. “Max Kepler is a great example. He never gave up and last season all the hard work paid off.”
Next summer hopeful European boys will get a chance to show their skills to professional clubs. The MLB will work together with the Federations and run a series of week-long Cadet Camps in France, Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy for 13-15 year old juniors. In late march Barcelona will run the next MLB Academies Tournament for players ages 16-18. From that tournament European scouts will pick a select group of European and Australian players to send to the States. There the players will participate in a series of showcase events for scouts in April.