Major League Baseball will launch a training program in Puerto Rico aimed at talented teenagers who cannot afford specialized academies, an effort to spark player development in the U.S. territory.
Officials will hold tryouts this month in the capital of San Juan and select 50 players ages 14-18 to participate in an intensive after-school program, MLB senior vice president for baseball operations Kim Ng said Tuesday.
It is the first time MLB launches such a program, and it plans to eventually expand it to other areas of the island for a total roster of 200 players, said Ng, who visited Puerto Rico to make the announcement.
"Some great things have happened for Puerto Rico baseball in the last nine months," she said. "There is much to be proud of, but there is much yet to do."
Puerto Rico reached the final round of the World Baseball Classic last month before losing to the Dominican Republic. Officials say the accomplishment has spurred more interest in baseball, which they hope will lead to more local players in the major leagues.
There were 13 Puerto Rico-born players on opening-day major league rosters and disabled lists, up two from last year but down from 20 in 2011 and 38 in 2003, according to MLB.
Sports and Recreation Secretary Ramon Orta lamented those figures but said Puerto Rico's overall goal should be to offer better training and produce more baseball players in general, regardless of whether they're destined for college or the major leagues.
"We should be thinking about what we have now, and not about what we had before," he said.
Those chosen for the pilot program will practice three times a week with coaches for up to three hours a day, with a focus on mechanics, fundamentals and game strategy, Ng said.
She declined to specify the amount of the investment, although Orta said it would cost roughly $400,000.
Clubs will be told about the program, and it's possible scouts might be interested in seeing players practice.
"They always want to be where somebody's not," Ng said. "Their mission is to get better. If there is talent, they will be drawn to the talent."
Those attending local baseball academies will not be allowed to participate. Ng said the program is not designed to compete with the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, which receives $400,000 each year from MLB and has produced athletes who have been drafted or awarded scholarships at Division I universities in recent years.
Once the after-school program is established, the MLB will create tournaments and other events featuring those players and invite scouts, said Joel Araujo, who will oversee the program as MLB's manager for international baseball operations.
"The academies have been doing a tremendous job," he said. "But we understand not everyone can afford them."