With the recent announcement of some significant details for the World Baseball Classic and the greater international flavor of baseball, I'm often struck by what the Phillies could do to increase their presence in foreign markets. Certain teams have made it a point to "recruit" heavily in other countries - the Mariners and Yankees in Japan, the Dodgers in Mexico and the Far East, the Rangers in Puerto Rico - which makes it easier to sign players from those countries.
The Phillies are potentially poised to use this environment to become a dominant force in Venezuela. This baseball-crazy country is steadily becoming a pipeline of talent. The 2004 Cy Young Award of Johan Santana brought the country some prominence in the international world. But, more importantly, in the first truly international "competition" sponsored by MLB, The Phillies own Bobby Abreu won the 2005 Home Run Derby at the All Star Game. This was notable as it was set up in a "best of each country" format and Abreu's record setting performance brought out an outpouring of support from his countrymen. For years now, Bobby Abreu has been regarded as the most popular and recognized player in Venezuela, taking over that role as Andres Galarraga declined late in his career.
The country of Venezuela has an interesting (and some would say unfortunate) economic situation reminiscent of Mexico - there is a large amount of oil wealth, which is consolidated in the hands of a small portion of the population and widespread poverty. This type of situation makes it a fertile ground for a baseball team to explore - quality athletes often arise from the impoverished, who can use athleticism to overcome their social standing; a large lower class provides a greater pool of potential talent. Conversely, the great wealth and overall population of the country (25 Million people) is a huge potential market for broadcasting rights for a team.
The Phillies have had a pretty strong presence among Venezuelan players. In addition to the Awesome One, the current roster also has Tomas Perez. Recent players also include Omar Daal and Ugueth U. Urbina (who may return to the team in 2006 depending on his legal status and the club's attitude in offering arbitration). The Phillies have been more active in recent years in running an academy in Venezuela and signing players from there, and some former Phillies farm hands include Anderson Machado and Carlos Silva.
For their part, the Phillies have seemed to embraced this idea to some extent. The are actually playing hosts to the Venezuelan team in the spring and are playing an exhibition game against them on March 4 in Clearwater. The team would probably do well to emphasize their past history with Venezuelan players like Manny Trillo and Bo Diaz from their glory days in the 1980's.
My plan for the Phillies would be for them to attack the media markets in Venezuela. They should try to parlay Bobby Abreu's popularity into a TV and/or radio deal for Venezuela, much like the Mariners did for Ichiro!. Offer the package for as cheap as possible - heck, even for free, if needed. You can start by simulcasting the Phillies Spanish radio broadcasts. If they could have regular broadcasts of Phillies games there that would lead to increase in merchandise sold and exposure of the team. Ideally, the Phillies could someday soon play in one of those "international opening day" games, if one is held in Venezuela. This in turn could lead to making it easier to sign players from Venezuela over other clubs in the area as younger players grow up wanted to play on "Bobby Abreu's team". Heck, maybe that would be something to sway the likes of Johan Santana or Miguel Cabrera to join the Phils once they hit free agency.
Of course, all this requires some forethought and creativity from the Phillies, qualities we don't often see. It would also require them not to cave in to the WIP idiots who want to see Abreu traded for the proverbial bucket of balls. Luckily, that doesn't seem likely.