Thursday, November 27, 2008

Branching Out

I don't know how much press it's gotten around the country, but the Pittsburgh Pirates have been up to some interesting things so far this offseason. I'm not talking surprising trades or crafty major league signings, but I am talking about player acquisition.

Most fans know that players sign their first contracts through one of two ways: if a player lives in the United States, Puerto Rico, or Canada, he very often breaks into the minor leagues by being drafted in the June MLB draft. Players living elsewhere in the world are less constrained in their choice of teams. They are allowed to sign with whatever team sees fit to offer them a contract.

This is where the Pirates come in. Looking to establish a presence in areas that are usually passed over by major league organizations, Pittsburgh has signed players from a couple surprising regions of the world. At the beginning of November, news came out that the Pirates had signed a South African infielder named Mpho Ngoepe. There has never been an African-born major league player, so Ngoepe is seeking to make history. Next year he will play for the South African team in the World Baseball Classic before making his debut in the Pirates system.

Ngoepe isn't the only foreign signing for the Pirates this month. Earlier this week the news came out that Indian-born pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel signed with Pittsburgh. For those unfamiliar with their story, Singh and Patel were winners of the "Million Dollar Arm contest," a promotion aimed at finding people who could throw the most pitches 85mph or faster for strikes. After winning, they came to the United States to work out for major league teams. Though very raw in terms of baseball knowledge (they'd never picked up a baseball until last year), they've drawn rave reviews from scouts, coaches, and players. If you're interested in following them more closely, they have a blog chronicling their experiences in the United States.

Though Ngoepe, Singh, and Patel are longshots at best to suit up in a Pittsburgh uniform, it's neat to see teams branch out to new places for talent. Even if the first signings don't pay off, it's never a bad idea to get in on the ground floor in different regions (especially if those regions are home to a billion people). Either way, the low levels of the Pirates system should be interesting to follow next year.

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