Alexi Ogando rewards patient Rangers
Player personnel director A.J. Preller helped Texas take a chance on OF-turned-starter
A.J. Preller was roaming the backfields in the Arizona desert one afternoon in 2004 when he saw a lanky outfielder throwing a ball on a rope to the infield.
Preller, now the Texas Rangers' player personnel director, took note of young Alexi Ogando and wondered to himself if the minor leaguer had ever tried to pitch. Ogando wasn't a bad position player and he could hit the ball a little bit, but Preller saw that arm and body type and pictured a pitcher.
So when Ogando became available in the Double-A phase of the Rule 5 draft in December 2005, the Rangers pounced. The selection cost them $12,500, and by then it was well known that Ogando might have trouble getting into the United States from the Dominican Republic because of his involvement in a human trafficking ring.
"A.J. came to me and wanted to draft him," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "I said, 'Let me get this straight. You want to draft a guy who is an outfielder, turn him into a pitcher and then hope we can get him in the country?' So we did."
More than six years later, Ogando is now a member of the Rangers' rotation.
He's come a long way -- from the outfield, to visa issues to the rotation -- for the defending American League champions.
Preller remembers the first time the Rangers worked Ogando out shortly after that Rule 5 draft. Preller and Scott Servais, the club's director of player development, asked Ogando to get on a mound and throw for them. He was hesitant at first.
"We had to talk him into it a little bit, but he came around and said he'd do it," Preller said. "We tell him to throw 10 or 15 pitches. The first one comes in at 94 mph. I look at Scott and we both couldn't believe it."
The second pitch hit a kid in the head. But by the end of the brief session, Ogando had managed to hit 97 mph on the radar gun.
"We knew we had something," Preller said.
But they had to harness it. That was the job of Ogando's coaches in the Dominican Republic. Ogando was invited to join the minor leaguers for spring training in 2005, but when he applied for his work visa, it was denied. Ogando admitted involvement in a human trafficking ring in which he had agreed to be paid to marry someone to get her into the United States. ESPN Deportes reported that the scandal involved about 30 Dominican minor league players between the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
"He was taken advantage of," Daniels said. "That's no excuse, but the punishment didn't fit the crime."
That punishment was five years without a visa to enter the United States. That relegated Ogando to pitching in the Dominican Summer League, winter ball and any international tournaments in which he could participate.
Ogando kept working with the Rangers' coaching staff in the Dominican Republic, including manager Jayce Tingler and pitching coaches Jose Jaimes and Pablo Blanco.
"They taught him how to pitch from the stretch, to throw a breaking ball [slider] and figure out his changeup," Preller said. "They did everything from holding on runners to how to approach hitters. They deserve a lot of credit."
Meanwhile, the Rangers kept working behind the scenes on the visa problem.
"Our guys were relentless about it," Daniels said. "They didn't give up."
But four years into the issues, the Rangers were concerned they were leaving Ogando and Omar Beltre, another Rangers minor leaguer involved in the ring, in what Daniels called "baseball purgatory." So Preller and Jim Colburn, director of Pacific Rim operations, took Ogando and Beltre to Japan to work out in front of scouts.
"Beltre was much more known and he goes out and was solid, throwing 94 to 96 [mph]," Preller said. "Alexi had some soreness under his armpit and wasn't going to throw."
But Ogando, knowing this might determine whether he could make money as a professional, decided to pitch anyway. Colburn announced to the scouts that Ogando would throw at about 75 percent.
"He throws his first one at 87 [mph], then 88, 90, 91, 93, 95 and eventually 97," Preller said. "They were all shaking their heads and saying, 'That's 75 percent?' He didn't even realize he was throwing that hard."
But after the session, the Rangers didn't feel as if they were going to get much for the rights to both players and decided to give it one more try to get Ogando and Beltre into the country.
"I always felt like we'd find a way," Preller said. "But this was our last chance. If it hadn't worked, I think that would have been it."
The players' agent, Charisse Espinosa-Dash, and assistant general manager Thad Levine and director of international scouting Mike Daly took a different approach. The players reached out into the community and spoke at various academies and did any public service announcements they could to fight against trafficking. The Rangers even appealed to President George W. Bush.
"They earned their way back in," Daniels said. "They spoke out against it, and they meant it. They didn't want others going through what they did."
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Ogando, 26 years old at that time, and Beltre, who is on the disabled list after spinal surgery this spring, arrived in Surprise, Ariz., just prior to spring training last year. Despite a long layoff from pitching in the U.S., Ogando quickly showed off his skills and ended up in the Rangers' bullpen in June, staying there for the duration of the season. He made five appearances in the postseason, including 3 2/3 shutout innings in the World Series. Ogando left Game 4 with a left oblique strain. But he arrived at spring training this year and was stretched out to be a starter.
With less than two weeks left in spring training, Ogando was moved to the bullpen as the primary setup man for closer Neftali Feliz. All of that changed when Tommy Hunter's groin bothered him in a late spring outing. The strain meant a spot opened in the rotation, and after several front office meetings, Ogando was given the opportunity. And while the assumption was that it would be temporary, if Ogando keeps pitching well, he's not likely to lose his job.
"It's a great story and it was a great scouting job," Daniels said. "Our guys never gave up, Alexi worked hard and here we are."
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.
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