Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, the two-time World Series champion and 2012 World Series MVP, was only 16 years old, just a cub, when he signed with the Giants. Scouts first spotted Venezuelan pitcher Felix Hernandez when he was 14, and the Mariners signed him when he became eligible two years later.
All nine Venezuelan players on the rosters in last month's World Series between the Giants and the Tigers have similar stories.
And more Venezuelan baseball stars could be on the way. That's part of the reason Major League Baseball organized a two-day showcase this week featuring 65 of the country's top prospects eligible to sign on July 2, 2013, at Jose Bernardo Perez Stadium in Valencia, Venezuela.
The second annual MLB Prospect Showcase in Venezuela was designed to give prospects the opportunity to show off their skills and play in three games in front of 175 scouts and officials representing all 30 Major League teams.
"This is our second year doing a showcase in Venezuela and we felt it was important, as we do in the [Dominican Republic], to make sure we get the top players in this type of competitive environment in front of scouts and all of the clubs at one time," said Kim Ng, senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. "We are incredibly pleased with the turnout. Scouts are happy with the caliber of talent at the event and we want to make sure we continue to service the scouting community."
In all, more than 70 teenage prospects from Venezuela have signed with Major League clubs since the international signing period began on July 2. The list includes shortstop Franklin Barreto, who signed a $1.55 million deal with the Blue Jays, and catcher Luis Torrens, who signed a $1.3 million deal the Yankees, along with pitchers Jose Mujica and Jose Castillo, who signed deals worth $1 million and $1.55 million, respectively, with the Rays. Outfielder Alexander Palma also signed a deal worth $800,000 with the Yankees.
All five prospects are featured on MLB.com's Top 20 International Prospects list.
"Venezuela has always been rich in baseball history and talent and these showcases just reiterate what we already know," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "The scouts would not be here the way they are if Venezuela didn't have the talent it has. There is really good baseball here and that's why we are providing these types of platforms for the clubs."
In September, MLB hosted a showcase that featured some of the top amateur Dominican players at Tetelo Vargas Stadium in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. The previous month, MLB also hosted a four-day tournament that featured amateur teams from the Dominican, Puerto Rico and USA Baseball in Santo Domingo, D.R.
In February, MLB held the two-day Venezuela-Dominican Republic Showcase, which featured 25 prospects from each country. MLB held similar showcases in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in 2011, but February's showcase was the first to combine players from the two countries on the same field.
What's more, the league created the MLB Prospect League for players eligible to sign professional contracts on July 2 and for older players who are already eligible in March. An All-Star team of MLB Prospect League players squared off against the 18-and-under Canadian National Junior Team at the end of summer league play.
"I truly believe that we've seen progress and improvement with every showcase in one area or some facet," Ng said. "There has been a lot of participation from all of the parties involved, from the players to families, trainers, scouts, clubs, and our staff at MLB. I've seen lot of different parties working together to make these events successful. We want to build on that."
The next event is an international showcase that will feature the best amateur players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, Curacao and Nicaragua, scheduled for January in the Dominican Republic.
"When we first started, the biggest issue was getting the trainers to buy into it but now our biggest issue is to deciding which players to invite," Araujo said. "Everybody understands it's an MLB event and it's where you want to be because of the audience it provides. We just want to keep getting better and continue to address the needs of the club. We see the attendance rising on the field and in the stands and we know we are on the right track."