"More and more organizations are coming to the realization that it's important to create a position like Rolando's," said Brewers' special assistant Dan O'Brien. "There are 1,001 reasons why a Latin player may not succeed, and it may have nothing to do with ability. So his role is very significant."
Valles is in overdrive this week. The Brewers' Minor League camp officially opened for business on Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers, including a handful from the team's new academy in the Dominican Republic, reported to Maryvale Baseball Park. Position players will follow on Friday.
First, some background.
From late 2003 to early 2009, the Brewers were the only Major League team without a permanent academy in Latin America. When their facility was shuttered, assistant general manager Gord Ash said the plan was to take the funds that were previously invested in the infrastructure and staffing necessary to host scores of 16- and 17-year old international prospects and apply them instead to fewer, higher-cost and presumably higher-level prospects and importing them directly to the U.S. The Brewers essentially traded quantity for, they thought, quality.
In 2005, Baseball America
reported that the Brewers gave Pascual, considered the top unsigned talent in the Dominican Republic at the time, a $710,000 signing bonus, the biggest investment in a Dominican pitcher that year. Months later the team signed another high-profile right-hander, Wily Peralta, for $450,000.
"We thought the attraction -- and it did help us to sign players -- would be to bring them over immediately to the States," said O'Brien, the former Reds GM who before that worked in player development for the Astros.
"What we found," O'Brien said, "is that the transition was too radical. In addition to your baseball skills, all the things that go into becoming a good professional player, it was just too much."
Valles can relate. A left-handed pitcher, he signed at 16 with the Astros in 1997 and spent his first four years in professional baseball at that team's Venezuelan Academy. Valles worked his way to the U.S. in 2001, when the Astros assigned him to Class A Pittsfield. Even then, after four years as a pro, it was a major adjustment.
It was better than the alternative. Plenty of his friends from the academy never made it out of Venezuela.
"Here is the difference," Valles said. "With American kids, the dream is to make it to the Major Leagues. In our culture, the dream is to sign the contract.
"It's a different mindset, and these kids might not even realize it, but all they train for, all they work for, is just to get signed. Once they get signed, some of them make the mental adjustment to change their dream. But it is a very marginal percentage. I saw that myself."
The Brewers noticed, too.
"For many of them, it's so much to ask them to leave their home countries and drop into a totally different culture where the competition is way over their heads," said Brewers farm director Reid Nichols. "Our school system [in the U.S.], I think, does a better job of teaching kids not only what they need to know, but also how
to learn. We have to spend time teaching these kids how to learn before you can start teaching them the subject."
That's where Valles came in. O'Brien had stayed in touch through the years with legendary Astros scout Andres Reiner, whose academy in Venezuela had produced players like Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu and Freddy Garcia.
O'Brien was looking for a former player to serve as a mentor for Milwaukee's young players. Reiner highly recommended Valles, who was still an active pitcher at the time and had just signed with the Sioux City Explorers of the independent American Association.
It was the spring of 2008, and at 28 years old, Valles was not thrilled about the idea of hanging up his spikes.
"I still had my dream of making it to the big leagues," Valles said. "I was planning to keep going, but when I went to meet Dan I realized that I had a chance to see the game from another perspective. I knew that the biggest thing is that when you go through frustration in this game, you have to be able to spit it out. I thought I could help these kids because I went through the same frustration."
He was in.
Soon after Valles joined the organization, the Brewers decided that they, too, were ready for a fresh start. Plans were launched in March 2009 to re-establish a base in the Dominican Republic, beginning with a shared summer league team with the Baltimore Orioles.
At the same time, O'Brien and Nichols made a series of visits to scout prospective standalone facilities and to tour existing academies to see what other teams were doing right. They settled on a complex north and west of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo that had previously been occupied by the Phillies. It has two baseball fields, proper batting cages and bullpens, plus dormitory-style housing and mess facilities and classroom space.
The academy officially opened for business on Nov. 1 under the watch of Valles, facility coordinator Eduardo Brizuela and field manager -- and former Brewers non-roster invitee -- Nestor Corredor.
As of last week, 34 players and eight staff members were housed there.
"The idea is to give them a foundation," O'Brien said. "Many of these kids have a third- or fourth-grade education, so it's important to give them something to build on. It's a daunting task, and it's 24/7."
Valles is technically not a coach, though he does have the experience to offer advice to young pitchers. His work is done mostly off the field in the classroom, where players spend their afternoons learning English and other lessons designed to smooth their transition to the U.S. He also helps players cope with serious problems, including the myriad of difficulties that can arise for young men from poor families who are handed a pile of cash.
Often, Valles piles players into a van to run errands. They go to the bank and learn about checking accounts and wire transfers. They go to dinner and learn to order off the menu and to tip. They go to government offices and learn about work visas.
Between stops, they just talk about what it takes to make it as a Major Leaguer.
"I would say that the biggest lesson they need to learn is what it means to be a professional," Valles said. "Once they consider baseball their profession, they can learn English and make the other adjustments. But they need to take it seriously first."
Valles realizes that this may sound a bit strange to the American kids who work hard their whole lives and aren't lucky enough to be handed a professional contract. But he points to the fact that as more clubs tune into the cultural side of international player development, more players are advancing to the U.S. Minor Leagues. Valles does not have any official statistics, but thinks the figure could be as high as 35 or 40 percent.
Still, that means fewer than 15 of the 36 players currently working at the academy in the Dominican Republic will make it, and then only a small percentage of those kids will make it to Milwaukee.
Two weeks ago, the Brewers informed players at the academy that only 13 of them would be invited to Spring Training camp in Phoenix. All signed prior to 2009. That means even a highly-touted signee like outfielder Jose Pena, who signed with the Brewers last July, will not make the trip north just yet.
"Our kids had to earn their visas," Valles said.
Pascual was one of the lucky few.
"I know him well," Valles said. "All of us do."
Pascual hails from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, and, as Valles tells it, "there's not much to do there other than being a ballplayer or a meringue singer, to be honest with you. So for him, getting almost $800,000, that was a big shot."
From 2006-2008, Pascual went 3-10 with a 10.60 ERA in 12 starts and 19 relief appearances for the Brewers' rookie affiliates in Phoenix and Helena, Mont. He issued 76 walks in 71 1/3 innings.
In 2009, he was sent back to the Dominican Republic to play in the summer league.
"The arm strength is there," Valles said. "Off the field, he isn't one of those kids who follows the rules very often. He does do well when he's pushed, but when he's left on his own he doesn't seem to always believe that the rules apply to him. He could have benefited from this program if it was in place and he took advantage of it."
At about the same time, the Brewers signed Peralta to a similarly rich bonus. Peralta is a "totally different character," Valles said, and, despite undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2007, he has shot up the ranks to become one of Milwaukee's top pitching prospects. Peralta posted a 3.47 ERA last year at Class A Wisconsin.
While Peralta continues to advance, Valles believes that Pascual still has a chance. He just turned 21 last month.
"I don't want to sound like I have doubts that he is going to make it, because I've seen that kid working lately and he is doing his best," Valles said. "I personally think that he can change the way he approaches his career. We're working on that, and hopefully something clicks in that mind and it happens this year. We all want him to pitch at a higher level."
Valles will do his best to push Pascual along. Then it's back to the Dominican academy to help the next wave of Brewers prospects avoid the same pitfalls.
"He knows all of the problems these players can face," O'Brien said. "He's lived them."