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Waiting For Zapata

When you lose 27 of your last 37 games, score a paltry seven runs in nine games for your newly-named All-Star pitcher, rank next to last in all of baseball in runs scored, and field better than only two American League teams after being the best last year, you had better do something to put a positive spin on this mess of a 2013 season.

So last week Sox general manager Rick Hahn skipped town and flew to the Dominican Republic to hype the signing of a 16-year-old kid to a $1.6 million dollar contract, the most cash the franchise has ever shelled out for a Latin prospect.

"We are sure [he] will have a tremendous impact," gushed Hahn, talking about 6-foot-3, 225-pound Micker Adolfo Zapata, the second-ranked international prospect by MLB.com. (Baseball America has him at No. 9.)

Of course, that remains to be seen. Theoretically, first the kid needs to take driver's ed and Algebra II, and then we'll see whether he can catch up to a 95-mph fastball or hit the cutoff man.

The Caribbean was swarming with major league scouts and executives last week as the international signing period kicked off on Tuesday. This is MLB's answer to a decades-long free-for-all of deals - some of the unsavory variety - reminiscent of the Wild West. Under the new arrangement, each club has a limit on how much it can spend determined by the order of finish from last season. So the Sox have $2.1 million, while the Cubs' $4.5 million is second only to the Astros.

Therefore, every big league club had an opportunity last week to trot out its new future phenom. With 28 percent of rosters filled by Latin players, chances are there is a Yasiel Puig hidden somewhere in this flurry of activity, but let's face it: the majority of these signees will never see a major-league ballpark.

Let's hope Vicker Zapata isn't among the latter category.

Zapata appears to have a few things going for him. His daddy, who's only 37, played six seasons in the Expos' (now the Nationals) minor-league system and another six summers in independent leagues in the U.S. According to Baseball America, Vicker was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands (although he now lives in the Dominican), and he's fluent in English.

"I realized that he has been brought up well," said Hahn, who posed for photos with Vicker, his mom and dad, and Marco Paddy, Hahn's assistant who focuses on Latin America.

So in a country where, according to Forbes, 34 percent of the people live below the poverty level and unemployment is stuck at more than 14 percent, it appears that our Savior has led a different life than, say, former MVP Miguel Tejada - at age 37 he's having a solid season for the Royals - and others who grew up in abject poverty.

Aside from the United States, the Dominican Republic has sent more players to the major leagues - the number is approaching 600 - than any other country. The well-known - at least in baseball circles - town of San Pedro de Macoris is the birthplace of 76 big leaguers including Robinson Cano, Pedro Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Mariano Duncan, Rico Carty, George Bell, Alfonso Soriano and Starlin Castro.

Zapata lives in San Pedro, which often is depicted as this widening of a dusty highway where there must be something in the drinking water which enables young men to hit the curveball and backhand hard grounders in the hole. But actually San Pedro de Macoris is the country's ninth largest city of almost 200,000 people, about the size of Aurora.

Sprinkled throughout the Dominican Republic are baseball academies where youngsters live and are schooled in the fundamentals of the game. Every major league team has one. Twenty years ago some of these facilities often were little more than squalid holding tanks where the young hopefuls endured crowded, insect-infested dorms in return for the dream of playing major league baseball.

Times have changed. Today most clubs spend a few million bucks on sparkling facilities which provide not only baseball instruction but also an opportunity to learn English and earn a GED. The Cubs, major perpetrators of deplorable conditions for Latin teenagers in the past, have spent as much as $8 million for a 50-acre site outside of Santo Domingo for their academy. They're not alone. Most teams are pouring money into baseball development in Latin America.

Youngsters such as Zapata play in the amateur Dominican Prospect League (DPL) which gives scouts an opportunity to peruse the talent. Because of their tender age and different culture, once they sign with a club, most remain on the island and compete in the Dominican Summer League (DSL). A similar league resides in Venezuela, a leading exporter of oil and baseball talent.

The White Sox have a few Dominican prospects in their system, although none have received the kind of notoriety accorded to Zapata because they weren't as highly-rated when they signed.

Nor are they exactly on the threshold of big league stardom. For instance, Jefferson Olacio, a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher, is 3-9 with a 6.04 ERA at single-A Kannapolis this season. And middle infielder Jeffry Santos, 20, played in the DSL for two seasons before being promoted to the Sox farm club at Bristol, Tennessee, this season, where he has three hits in 18 at-bats.

Another young prospect from the Dominican is Luis Barrera, 17, who signed a year ago with Oakland. At the time, the DPL website called him "the best hitter in the Dominican Prospect League and probably all of Latin America."

At present Barrera is hitting .187 in the DSL.

All of which tells us that Vicker Zapata just got a boatload of money which may or may not turn out to be a good deal for the White Sox. Assuming that the kid has genuine talent, he will need to stay healthy while the White Sox mentors and instructors guide him in developing his abilities.

After six months scouting Zapata, Marco Paddy said, "He is a special kid. He has an understanding of what he is doing, what he needs to improve and how to go about it."

Even if Zapata would somehow ascend to the major leagues in a meteoric rise, he wouldn't be the youngest big leaguer in history. His signing brought back the image of Joe Nuxhall, who appeared in a game with Cincinnati when he was just 15.

Rosters were depleted by World War II, and the Reds found themselves on the short end of a 13-0 score on June 10, 1944, so the kid was summoned from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning against the Cardinals. He retired the first hitter, but two hits, five walks, and five runs followed before Nuxhall was replaced, having pitched two-thirds of an inning.

"I was pitching against seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders, kids 13- and 14-years-old," Nuxhall famously said later. "All of a sudden, I look up and there's Stan Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation."

Nuxhall spent the next eight years honing his skills in the minor leagues. He returned to the majors and won 135 games over 16 years. In addition, he became the Reds' radio play-by-play announcer from 1967 until 2004.

Talking about young players, a comparative graybeard, Josh Phegley, 25, made his major league debut over the weekend for the Sox. His first two games were about the only bright aspect amidst the three-game sweep that Tampa Bay slapped on our athletes, lowering the Sox road record to a horrifying 15-31.

Phegley, who had been playing splendidly at Charlotte, had a couple of hits including a home run yesterday for the team's lone run over the weekend. He also had three RBI in the two games. Manager Robin Ventura indicated that Phegley will get plenty of playing time in place of the anemic Tyler Flowers.

The remainder of the weekend was a disaster. Despite the fact that the Rays were able to muster only a total of 11 hits on Saturday and Sunday, they were more than enough to beat the Sox 3-0 and 3-1.

The opposition drools when it hears that Chris Sale will be pitching for the Sox because the foe knows it won't take much to beat our last-place contingent; his run support of 2.56 is the worst in the major leagues.

What a shame for Sale, a truly gifted and gritty young left-hander who clearly gives 100 percent with each outing. He deserves his place among the American League All-Stars.

Whether Sale and/or Phegley will be around if and when Vicker Zapata eventually trots onto the real estate at the Cell is anyone's guess. If it does happen, few other present White Sox will be the kid's teammates. You also wonder just how many fans are going to stick around waiting for the arrival of Vicker Adolfo Zapata.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Ellen Davidson:

I have a different mindset regarding CWS. The challenge for me is to minimize the easy criticisms of their play, and not let the Sox "make my day." It's time to believe. They won't remain at the nadir point. Rebuilding is an essential chapter. I've been with them since the Yankee killers of the '50s. If you rebuild it, Eddie, we will come - even during the lengthy process.

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