The Seattle Mariners had been one of the few Major League Baseball teams maintaining a presence in Venezuela. But this year, the club has vacated its presence: The academy it was running in the South American club has been abandoned.
The Mariners are hardly setting any trends, though. For years, MLB teams have been pulling out of Venezuela. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, increased crime, political and economic turmoil, and heightened risk for anyone doing business in the country -- not to mention the safety of those individuals -- has triggered an exodus among baseball teams.
At its peak, Venezuela had more than 20 MLB teams maintaining a constant presence in the country, running academies and developing prospects. Now, that number has dwindled to just four teams: The Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies.
It's saying something when MLB teams decide the rewards of working in Venezuela aren't worth the considerable risk. Venezuelan talent has a huge presence in Major League Baseball: 65 players from the South American country began the 2015 season on MLB rosters, second only to the Dominican Republic in terms of the talent making the jump to the U.S.
Shutting down operations in Venezuela means that teams will have a much harder time finding that talent. Without academies to nurture promising athletes, Venezuela's baseball exports are poised to suffer a sharp decline.
That will hurt MLB's on-field product, but maybe not as much as it would seem. The loosening restrictions between the United States and Cuba could provide an influx of previously inaccessible baseball talent. Cuban prospects could effectively take the place of Venezuelan players, helping Major League Baseball maintain its caliber of play.
But the transition will not be smooth, and it will undoubtedly mean that possible MLB stars will be missed. Venezuela has produced numerous stars in MLB, including 2014 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera.
Even so, MLB teams are wary of the situation. Last year, political unrest and protest resulted in 40 deaths in the country, and prompted Venezuelan players playing in MLB to call for peace. But such violence is far from isolated in the country. Meanwhile, anyone with connections to money is at risk of being robbed or kidnapped and held for ransom. The situation is so dire that many Venezuelan MLB players no longer go back home over the offseason.
Until the situation resolves itself, Venezuela's MLB pipeline could soon run dry.
"Those academies helped us to be here," said Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, who came through the Twins’ Venezuela academy. "Now, it's very hard for all those kids who want to play this sport. The doors are closing for their dreams."