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Venezuelan Summer League closes doors

Lack of teams, regional turmoil prompts rookie circuit to shut down
January 21, 2016

After 19 seasons, the Venezuelan Summer League will shut down in 2016.

The VSL, a Rookie-level league that joined Minor League Baseball in 1997, has been plagued in recent years by a diminishing number of teams and regional turmoil in Venezuela. After the league fielded just four clubs in 2015, Minor League Baseball opted to cancel the VSL's 2016 campaign when the Chicago Cubs decided to pull their affiliate from the circuit.

The Cubs, Phillies, Rays and Tigers all had VSL teams in 2015 after the Mariners left last winter. The league had as many as 11 Major League affiliates as recently as 2007 and served to develop local talent from Major League Baseball's Venezuelan baseball academies.

Tim Brunswick, Minor League Baseball's VP for Baseball and Business Operations, explained the reasoning behind the decision:

"With the gradual departure of teams from the VSL in recent years, and the fact that only three clubs planned to field teams in the league this year, the decision was made to suspend operations of the Venezuelan Summer League for the 2016 season. Several clubs that were formerly in the VSL will now field an extra team in the Dominican Summer League or Gulf Coast League to provide opportunities for their players to play. It is my understanding that most clubs will continue to operate academies and scout Venezuela, but there will not be a league in Venezuela this summer."

Venezuela has been marred by inflation, crime, corruption and food shortages in recent years, causing concerns for Major League organizations. The country devalued its currency in 2013, went into an economic recession in 2014 and had the world's highest inflation rate in 2015. The nation's crime made headlines in the U.S. in 2011 when Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was abducted in front of his mother's house in Valencia, leading to an air raid rescue mission that included a 15-minute gunfight.

According to the Associated Press, some Major League scouts have been hesitant to sign Venezuelan players due to a visa requirement the country's administration imposed last year. 

Despite the nation's size and economic challenges, Venezuela has produced numerous Major Leaguers, with 98 playing in at least one big league game in 2015. Omar Vizquel, Magglio Ordonez, Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez are among the biggest stars to emerge from the South American republic. In the 2015 season, 973 Venezuela natives appeared in at least one Minor League game.

According to Baseball America, some Major League teams will shift their VSL players to affiliates in the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League, with GCL facilities being a more viable option to house extra players.

"A lot of us are disappointed," one team official told Baseball America. "We liked having that league over there. Even though it wasn't ideal with four teams, it was good for us because some of the kids benefit from playing their first year at home, when they're so young. Going to the Dominican Republic isn't the same. For some families, it really mattered."

The VSL Tigers captured the league's championship in each of the last two seasons. The league is not affiliated with the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, or Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional, which continues to operate in the winter.

Mariners' baseball academy
A VSL Mariners player at the entrance of the club's locker room in 2015 as the team packed up to move to the Dominican Republic. (AP)

Danny Wild is an editor for Follow his MLBlog column, Minoring in Twitter.