FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The names near the top of the lineup include Emison Soto, Jose Quintana, Juan Avila, Jesus Cairo and Maruicio Llovera. And while each of those prospect's hometown is listed as Land O' Lakes, Fla., in the official program, this is truly an international entry at the 18u PG BCS Finals national championship tournament. Please take time to introduce yourself to Team Venezuela.
Team Venezuela is a group of young prospects assembled and coached by Jose Ortega, a former professional player and native Venezuelan. Ortega said that more than 90 percent of the roster he brought to this event are native Venezuelans who come to Land 'O Lakes in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area to train at Ortega's JOBA Baseball Academy.
The players generally arrive at the academy from Venezuela between the ages of 14 and 16. International prospects -- who are excluded from the June MLB amateur draft -- can sign free agent contracts with MLB clubs at age 16.
The group that is at the 18u PG BCS Finals this week has played together for only about a month and is participating in its first national championship caliber tournament of the season.
"What we usually do is we bring in players from Venezuela and we let them play on different (travel ball) teams," Ortega said Sunday morning from the Player Development 5-Plex. "This year we decided to bring our team we put together for this tournament."
He noted that he has been working with young international prospects for the past 14 years in an effort to get them signed to professional contracts; he will also try to get them into American colleges if that is the path they want to pursue.
"We're working on both sides of the game now," Ortega said. "We want the kids to go to school (and) we want the kids to play professional baseball. This year we want to sign at least four (to free agent contracts) and we hope to put at least four or five kids into colleges, too."
There appear to be several genuine prospects on this team, especially among the position players. Through four games at the 18u PG BCS Finals, Avila hit .625 (5-for-8) with three doubles, four RBI and a 1.750 OPS; Llovera hit .500 (4-for-8) with a double, triple, three RBI, three runs and a 1.511 OPS; and Soto hit .462 (6-for-13) with four doubles, five runs and a 1.231 OPS.
"We've got some very, very good hitters here," Ortega said. "Unfortunately we couldn't bring a lot of our pitchers."
He explained that the players must attain visas to come to the United States, and it's a process he said can become "tedious" at best. Consequently, he was able to gather together only about half the players he was hoping to bring to the tournament, and six of his top pitchers were among those that were unable to attend.
Ortega accepts the rules and conditions that must be followed and insists he'll continue to work hard to get the Venezuelan prospects to an event like this one. He said most of the top prospects from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and other Latin and South American countries will sign free agents contracts as soon as they are eligible to do so after their 16th birthday. It becomes more difficult for the older kids, and considering that eight players on this Team Venezuela roster are listed in the class of 2014, they have mostly reached that "difficult" age.
"After you (get older than) 16, the scouts won't look at you (in Venezuela); if you turn 17, it's going to be hard to sign," Ortega said. "If you come to the States when you're a junior or a senior, now you've got a good chance to sign."
He pointed to a player like Avila -- a prospect he described as having "good power and speed" and also as a "plus hitter" -- who turned 18 in March (he is listed in the class of 2014). Avila participated in the PG World Showcase here in Fort Myers in January and continues to try to get noticed by the professional scouting community with the hopes of signing a free agent contract.
"We want him to be in this type of environment so that he can be seen," Ortega said. "We've got a lot of kids like him."
Team Venezuela went 1-1-1 in its first three-game set of pool-play Friday and Saturday, gaining a 10-10 tie with the Miami Suns; routing the South Metro Bandits, 12-2; and getting beat-down by the Florida Express, 13-4.
It opened the second and most important set of pool-play games with a 3-2 win over the East Cobb Padres Sunday morning, and was scheduled to play Quinco Baseball Academy Sunday afternoon and the Hialeah Warriors Monday morning. If TV wins it two remaining pool games it will gain an automatic berth in the 18u PG BCS Finals playoffs, which begin Tuesday.
"This is a good experience for these guys," Ortega said. "We've been coming to this tournament (for many years) and I know this a good one to come and play."
Ortega has had a long association with Perfect Game and even spent some time in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where PG is headquartered. He was working for an agency at that time that had placed international players in some of Perfect Game's showcases and Ortega helped out primarily with the Spanish-speaking prospects.
"It was fun, but it was cold," Ortega said, laughing at the memory of his time in Iowa. "It was way too cold for me."
Ortega signed a free agent contract with the New York Yankees as a 16-year-old right out of Venezuela and also spent some time in the St. Louis Cardinals organization before a back injury ended his career. He stayed in the United States and began providing training and recruiting services to very agencies, concentrating primarily on Latin and South American prospects. He continues to work recruiting and player development for international free agents throughout the world.
"Where ever they are, I go find them," he said. "There is a lot of emphasis on Venezuela -- I am Venezuelan -- but I go to the Dominican (Republic), too; I go to Puerto Rico, I go to Aruba, I go to the Islands. I'm even going to start going to Kuwait, following Venezuelan players over there."
Please take time to introduce yourself to Team Venezuela. The chances are pretty good this won't be the last time you see them.