Future face of the franchise? Marco Luciano pursues his Giants destiny

Future face of the franchise? Marco Luciano pursues his Giants destiny

The 16-year-old arrived with his agent at the San Francisco Giants’ Felipe Alou Baseball Academy, a state-of-the-art training facility in one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular resort towns, for the most important job interview of his life.

More than two years earlier, Major League Baseball scouts had started flocking to a modest diamond at the end of a dirt road outside Santo Domingo. They’d found a baby-faced shortstop whose thundering home runs belied his skinny frame. Now, as Marco Luciano fielded questions from Giants executives about his practice habits and career goals, he looked his prospective employers in the eyes and addressed them as “sir.”

“You could tell he understood the gravity of the situation,” said Joe Salermo, San Francisco’s director of international scouting and one of the men at that fall 2017 interview. “There was a maturity to him that was very impressive. He wasn’t rough around the edges. He was very respectful.”

Nine months later, Luciano signed with the Giants, receiving a $2.6 million bonus. The price tag inspired fantasies about what he could become: Brandon Crawford’s heir apparent at shortstop, a multi-time All-Star and, just maybe, a generational talent like fellow Dominicans David Ortiz and Albert Pujols. Never mind that Luciano — “Lucy” to his teammates — was still going through puberty.

If a recent string of high-profile international busts has taught the Giants anything, it’s that investing millions in a teenager who speaks little English and has never lived stateside is quite the gamble. Roughly 500 Dominican players sign contracts with MLB teams each year. Less than half will ever leave the island to play in the minor leagues, and roughly 5% — about two dozen overall — will reach the majors.

LEFT: A 14-year old Marcos Luciano stands on Play del Merca de Santo Domingo Field in the Dominican Republic, where he trained with the Ray Baseball Academy. RIGHT: A view of a window broken by Marcos Luciano during batting practice at the Felipe Alou Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic. The Giants organization framed the broken pane of window glass.

Edwin Castillo / Courtesy Edwin Castillo

For every Fernando Tatís Jr. or Juan Soto who blossoms into a dominant big-leaguer, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former prospects in the Dominican struggling to navigate life after baseball. Many of them quit school at 11 or 12 to train full time. When their baseball dream dies, they often take on jobs like moped driver or handyman if they can’t stay close to the game as trainers.

Those cautionary tales don’t keep young Dominican boys from viewing the sport as a sort of religion. The Caribbean nation of 10.9 million, where about 40% of the population lives in poverty, produces more major leaguers than any country other than the U.S. Of the 780 players on Opening Day MLB rosters this year, 80 were Dominican. Venezuela was next with 54.

Like many of his peers in the Dominican Republic’s Duarte province, Luciano grew up swinging sticks at bottlecaps, watching MLB highlights at Internet cafes and hoping that baseball would be his ticket out of poverty. But he was far from typical.

At 14, Luciano was being compared to Alfonso Soriano, a seven-time All-Star from San Pedro de Macorís whose smooth swing generated uncanny power from his wiry build. At 16, Luciano spent part of his seven-figure signing bonus to move his family from a small concrete and wood house to a sprawling, modern home. At 17, he made his pro debut stateside.

Now less than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Luciano is San Francisco’s most hyped prospect in years, already rated No. 7 overall in the minors by Baseball America. His bat speed, athleticism, arm strength and swagger have many scouts believing he’ll become a franchise shortstop in the mold of Tatís or Carlos Correa.

Nearly halfway through his first full minor league season, Luciano leads the San Jose Giants — San Francisco’s Low-A affiliate — in RBIs (41) and runs (36). His 14 home runs are the most at the level, not just his league.

The question is when, not if, he’ll make the big leagues. As phenoms such as Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. turned into major league sensations nearly overnight, teams have become even more aggressive about moving top prospects through their farm systems. Luciano’s goal is clear: start next season with San Francisco.

“Coming up in the Dominican Republic, you learn pretty quickly to only worry about what you can control,” Luciano, who will participate in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday, said through a translator. “That’s why I don’t really stress about all the pressure or hype. I just stick to what’s in front of me. It’s gotten me this far.

“But, that being said, you’ve got to have things you’re chasing.”


San Jose Giants shortstop Marco Luciano (10) stands in the on-deck circle during the seventh inning against the Modesto Nuts at Excite Ballpark in San Jose on June 2.

San Jose Giants shortstop Marco Luciano (10) stands in the on-deck circle during the seventh inning against the Modesto Nuts at Excite Ballpark in San Jose on June 2.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

It didn’t take long for Luciano to build a reputation as San Jose’s team jokester. When he senses the day-to-day grind of entry-level minor-league baseball wearing on his teammates, he’ll prank an unsuspecting teammate or blare reggaeton in the clubhouse.

But in quieter moments, Luciano lets himself imagine what life in the majors would be like. The house he’ll buy in San Francisco for his parents, siblings and aunts. The upgrades he’ll fund at his old baseball academy outside Santo Domingo. The neighborhood kids who will watch him on TV and see there’s a way out.

“He talks about making the big leagues a lot — not in a cocky way, but just to sort of remind himself what we do this for,” said catcher Ricardo Genovés, a Venezuelan and Luciano’s former teammate with San Jose. “For guys like us, it’s all about just giving back to our families and our communities.”

Luciano was raised in Pimentel, a small city in the north-central part of the Dominican Republic with trash-strewn streets and billboards emblazoned with the country’s most notable export: star baseball players. His father, Marco Sr., is a construction worker, and his mother, Juana Duarte, is an elementary-school teacher.

When his parents were both at work, Luciano’s two aunts, Yulissa and Denia, made sure a young Marco and his two little sisters stayed out of trouble. Some of Luciano’s earliest memories are of playing baseball at the neighborhood park — a patch of grass and dirt across the road from his favorite corner store — with kids twice his age.

Though no one in his family had played at a high level, Luciano was a natural. And there was plenty of incentive for him to get better, fast.

In a country where even doctors and lawyers often make little money, a professional baseball contract offers one of the few gateways to legitimate wealth. Shortstop José Reyes, a four-time All-Star from nearby Villa González and Luciano’s childhood idol, earned nearly $173 million in his 17-year MLB career.

All 30 major-league teams have an academy in the Dominican Republic where they house, feed and train Latin American players. Front offices consider the island fertile ground for affordable talent: In a normal year, the average bonus for the hundreds of Dominican players who sign with MLB teams is roughly half that of signed American players.

The local talent brokers who facilitate contract negotiations between players and teams are known as buscones. They provide young prospects — sometimes barely older than 10 — a place to live and work out, with the understanding that they’ll take a cut of whatever deal those players might sign once they turn 16. Typically, buscones pocket 25% to 50% of a prospect’s bonus.

“The way things are down there have gotten a bit better over the years, but the whole process is kind of a puppy mill for baseball,” said one American League scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly. “A lot of times in these negotiations, the kids have little to no say. They’ll just go along with whatever their agent wants because they want to realize their dream of being a pro ballplayer.”

Connor Letourneau looks at the minor-leagues’ recovery from the pandemic. Read more:

Part 1:
The San Jose Giants’ comeback from COVID.

Part 2:
The grind minor-league players face on the farm.

All indications are that Luciano’s broker, Edwin “Ray” Castillo, is one of the more upstanding buscones scouring the Dominican Republic for talent. At a 2014 tryout in the northern part of the island, where he was scouting a different player, Castillo noticed a tall, agile 12-year-old with advanced skills for his age.

During a home visit with Luciano’s parents, Castillo promised to take care of their oldest child and give him the best chance at a life-changing MLB contract. Luciano moved into Castillo’s academy outside Santo Domingo, a nearly three-hour drive from Pimentel, where he shared a small bedroom with other prospects.

From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. five days a week, Luciano worked through fielding drills and batting practices on a fenced-in diamond with a highway just beyond left field. That’s where Jonathan Bautista, one of the Giants’ four scouts in the Dominican Republic, first saw Luciano hit as a 14-year-old.

In the decade-plus that Salermo has overseen scouting reports of Latin American prospects, he can remember only two or three teenage players who graded higher than Luciano during Bautista’s initial visit. Subsequent scouting trips, including one to a showcase event in Chicago where Luciano played with a Dominican all-star team, reinforced the Giants’ belief in his elite potential.

Marco Luciano throws a ball during infield practice at Excite Ballpark before the San Jose Giants played the Modesto Nuts in San Jose on June 3. Luciano's bat speed, athleticism and arm strength have caught the eye of scouts.

Marco Luciano throws a ball during infield practice at Excite Ballpark before the San Jose Giants played the Modesto Nuts in San Jose on June 3. Luciano’s bat speed, athleticism and arm strength have caught the eye of scouts.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

But before San Francisco executives were willing to make Luciano a seven-figure offer, they needed to know what drove him, how he handled adversity, what kept him up at night. Salermo made several visits to Castillo’s academy so that he could see how Luciano looked away from an audition setting. Giants scouts interviewed everyone close to him, from relatives to teachers to neighbors. The team’s educational staffers gave Luciano aptitude tests and gauged his maturity. On multiple occasions, Giants scouts had dinner with Luciano’s family at their home.

Salermo and the rest of San Francisco’s brass learned that Luciano was a baseball junkie whose days consisted of training, reading, chatting with relatives and little else. Routinely the first player on the academy field in the morning and the last to leave in the afternoon, he seemed a low-risk investment — as much as a 15-year-old can be.

Finally, after more than two years of getting to know him, the Giants invited Luciano to their training academy in Boca Chica — an ultramodern complex with three major-league-size fields, batting tunnels, a residence hall and training center — for a sit-down meeting in October 2017. With the opening of the Felipe Alou Baseball Academy a year earlier, San Francisco had become the final MLB team with a full facility in the Dominican Republic. Previously, the team had only fields and dorm rooms for international prospects.

That delay only partly explains the Giants’ issues developing Latin American players. Venezuela’s Pablo Sandoval is San Francisco’s last international signee to become an MLB All-Star, joining the farm system in 2002. Since then, the Giants have signed Dominican first baseman Angel Villalona (2006), Dominican left fielder Rafael Rodriguez (2008) and Dominican center fielder Gustavo Cabrera (2012) to seven-figure deals, only for all three to wash out well before the majors.

Villalona spent more than a year in a Dominican prison for allegedly shooting a man to death at a bar in 2009; charges were dropped. And he might not even be the Giants’ biggest international bust. They spent $12 million to sign Bahamian shortstop Lucius Fox — a $6 million bonus, plus a $6 million penalty for going over their allotted bonus threshold — in 2015.

Fox was dealt to the Rays in the August 2016 trade that brought left-hander Matt Moore to San Francisco. He has yet to reach the majors. The penalized Giants, meanwhile, couldn’t offer international prospects more than $300,000 in bonuses over the next two years.

When Giants executives met with Luciano on that sunny afternoon in 2017, they were well aware of the risk they were about to take. But they believed he was special. After interviewing Luciano for about 30 minutes, Salermo explained that the Giants viewed him as a potential long-term answer at a premium position. When the time was right, they would offer him a bonus of more than $2 million.

Luciano’s eyes widened as he considered the possibilities.

“We run into a lot of kids with potential, and you always want to dream big,” said Kyle Haines, the Giants’ director of player development. “‘Lucy’ had the skills, the body type, everything you look for. He made us dream big.”


Luciano leads the San Jose Giants in RBIs (41) and runs (36). He has the most home runs in the minors.

Luciano leads the San Jose Giants in RBIs (41) and runs (36). He has the most home runs in the minors.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Decades from now, if all goes as planned, Luciano might join fellow Dominicans Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Pimentel will honor Luciano with a parade. A video tribute in Cooperstown, N.Y., will show some of his most memorable home runs and plays. Luciano will talk about how he went from just another Dominican with a dream to an all-time great.

But these days, he’s focused on getting promoted to the Giants’ High-A affiliate in Eugene, Ore. Over the past two months, as Luciano fumed in the dugout after a strikeout or a pop fly, San Jose coaches were quick to remind him of the obvious: “You’re 19.”

Luciano might be a generational prospect for the Giants, but that hardly changes the fact that he didn’t play higher than short-season Class A — five levels below the majors — until this season. His development was limited last year as he toiled through intrasquad scrimmages against the same players again and again at the Giants’ alternate site in Sacramento.

Now, after tweaking his batting stance and improving his plate discipline, Luciano looks like a future MLB regular in a league loaded with players who’ll wash out long before then. In a three-game span late last month, Luciano homered four times. Three of those blasts went more than 430 feet.

“You don’t even need to watch him to know he’s a big-leaguer,” said Genovés, now with the Eugene Emeralds. “You can just listen to the sound of the ball hitting his bat.”

Giants executives are pleased to see Luciano striking out less and making difficult throws at shortstop, but they’re just as happy with what he has done away from games. Coaches laud his ability to take instruction in practice. And unlike many teenagers who become millionaires overnight, Luciano has been prudent financially.

After he got his bonus, his only big purchases were an SUV for himself and that new house for his parents. To pass the time on long bus rides to Stockton, Modesto and Fresno, Luciano jots down notes about potential philanthropic efforts, such as free baseball camps at his old academy or a charity for impoverished youth in his hometown.

After Luciano wakes every morning, he reflects on how grateful he is to provide for his family while playing a kid’s game. Many of his friends aren’t so fortunate. The streets and bars of Pimentel are filled with young men who once dedicated their lives to baseball, only to return home broke and without a dream.

Research indicates that more than three-quarters of those Latin Americans who sign an MLB contract will drop out of the sport in four years. If players don’t have a high school diploma, limited English-language skills can make it tough to earn a living in the U.S.

Slade Heathcott, a former major-league outfielder who directs operations for More Than Baseball, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the lives of minor-league players, invited a recently released Venezuelan minor-leaguer to stay with him last month. The team that cut the player had wanted to send him back to Venezuela, but he no longer had friends or family there. Only $40 remained in his savings account.

Heathcott said that 190 released Latin American players have asked More Than Baseball to help them pay for college stateside. The ex-minor leaguers are proficient in English and have GEDs, but they didn’t make enough playing to afford a trade school or community college.

It doesn’t help that many are still trying to provide for their loved ones back home. Jenn and Rob Griffin, who hosted dozens of the San Jose Giants’ Latin American players over an eight-year span before MLB temporarily scuttled host-family programs, saw many of their guests sending portions of their meager paychecks to family in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.

This was quite the sacrifice, given that San Jose players made only $290 per week at the time. But the Griffins noticed that it was homesickness, not money problems, that most affected their guests.

It has been seven years since Luciano left the family home in Pimentel to begin pursuing his big-league dream. But when talking to his parents, siblings and aunts over FaceTime isn’t enough to ease his sadness, he thinks about the house they’ll share someday — in San Francisco.

“I wouldn’t be here today without my family’s love and support,” Luciano said. “I do this for them, as well as everyone back home who’s ever wanted to be in my shoes.

“I won’t let them down.”

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

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