$2 million worth of credibility
Dominican teen signing big step
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SARASOTA, Fla. - When Bob Castellini signed a $2 million check with Juan Duran's name on it last week, he sent one of the strongest signals yet that the Reds are ready to do what it takes to return to competitiveness.

Duran is a 16-year-old hot-shot outfielder from the Dominican Republic. There's no guarantee that he'll play an inning in Great American Ball Park. But Castellini was willing to take the big risk to become a factor in Latin America.

"Just watch a game on TV and look at all the players from the Caribbean," Reds scouting director Chris Buckley said. "You've got to be a factor there."

The Duran signing shows the Reds are trying to open up the Latin connection again.

"I think it's a great step in that direction," said Walt Jocketty, a special adviser to Castellini. "It's one of the things Bob Castellini wants to do. This signing sends a pretty clear message that we're going to be aggressive in the market."

Castellini gets ripped occasionally for not throwing money at the Reds' problems. But this signing shows he has the foresight and checkbook to try to turn things around. It's a check neither Carl Lindner nor Marge Schott would write.

That's why you have only one Latin player in camp whom the Reds signed and developed with any shot of making the club. That's Johnny Cueto, he of the 97 mph fastball and drop-off-the-table changeup. Cueto might have the best stuff in camp. He was a bargain acquisition in 2004 - he signed for $3,500.

The Reds have trolled the bottom since they returned to scouting Latin America.

Signing Duran shows they are willing to pay the going rate for top players. That rate has climbed steadily in the last couple of years. A lot of clubs would like to see a worldwide draft to level the playing field.

Until that happens, teams have to try to compete. Top players in the Caribbean are controlled by a "buscone," a sort of agent/adviser.

"They're more than agents," assistant general manager Bob Miller said. "They sign up 13-, 14-year-old kids. They train them, house them, have their own fields."

The buscone, of course, wants a return on his investment.

"Unless you make a significant signing, the buscones won't even bring around the top kids," Buckley said. "This shows we're back in the game."

The Reds got a chance to sign Duran because Miller was able to interpret a rule in such a way to give the Reds a jump.

Most clubs thought Duran was not eligible to sign until July 2. It's complicated, but the Reds got around that by placing him on the Billings rookie-league roster. He won't play in Billings this year. He'll probably play in the Gulf Coast League.

"Bob Miller did a great job in understanding the rule," Jocketty said.

The rule since has been re-interpreted, Miller said, but the Reds' signing has been approved.

Castellini was not personally involved in the signing.

"They have a budget," Castellini said of his scouts. "They decide how to spend it."

The Duran signing is a risk. He's 6 feet 6, 190 pounds. His power rates 80 on the scouting scale of 20-80. He has good speed and an exceptional arm.

"He's very strong for a kid from the Dominican," Buckley said. "He'll get bigger. Most of the kids down there have never been in a weight room.

"But scouting in the Caribbean is more difficult. You can't go see Juan Duran play with his high school team or traveling team."

Buckley says Duran compares favorably with a No. 1 pick in the draft. It would be nice if he turns out to be another Jay Bruce.

But the bigger thing is the statement the signing makes. If the Reds can become a factor again in Latin America, the signing will be well worth the investment.

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