Padres mine for prospect gold in Mexico through connection in ownership group

MEXICO CITY -- There is no guarantee that 19-year-old outfielder Tirso Ornelas will break into the big leagues. The San Diego Padres prospect started the minor league season in high-A ball, a long way from the confines of Petco Park and the game's highest level.

On a recent afternoon in Mexico City, however, Ornelas and other youngsters in the organization, clad in Padres blue, received major league treatment from fans south of the border. An exhibition game March 23 against the Mexico City Diablos Rojos drew a capacity crowd of 20,000-plus to christen Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú, the new ballpark of one of the Mexican League's most successful teams. Ornelas, a Tijuana native, started in right field and went 1-for-4 with a run scored.

"For me, it's always a fantastic feeling to play in front of Mexican fans," Ornelas said.

As fantastic as that feeling is, Ornelas has his sights fixed squarely on playing regularly at Petco, where growing up he would watch stars such as Jake Peavy and fellow Tijuana native Adrián González. A fruitful connection with the Padres could provide young Mexican prospects such as Ornelas the edge they need to get there sooner.

Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú is named after the Diablos Rojos' proprietor, who is also part of the Padres ownership group and the only person born in Mexico to possess even a minority share of an MLB franchise (Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno is Mexican American). Additionally, the creation of a baseball academy also bearing Harp Helú 's name designed to scout, develop and export the next generation of stars from the country is emerging as a pipeline for clubs all over the league.

"I relate everything to baseball," Harp Helú, one of Mexico's wealthiest businessmen, told ESPN Mexico in a recent interview. "My entire life is baseball. Love, family, work. It's all baseball."

In just under a decade since it was launched, the Academia Alfredo Harp Helú has 600 graduates playing at home or abroad, Del Valle said, with a select few on big league rosters.

"We've developed a great relationship with every major league club," said Jorge del Valle, the academy's director. "Teams are constantly visiting, looking for the next [academy graduates] Roberto Osuna or Julio Urías."

Young players ranging in age from 11 to 17 live and train at the academy, located in San Bartolo Coyotepec in the state of Oaxaca -- only a few miles from Harp Helú's hometown. Among the perks for its participants are academic scholarships and detailed instructions from top coaches, Del Valle said. Those eligible to sign big league contracts display their talents for scouts in showcase events held at the compound.

The Padres, Del Valle said, have benefited the most from the academy. That can hardly be considered a coincidence given their mutual investor.

"Any team can sign our prospects, but we obviously have a special relationship with [San Diego]," Del Valle said. "When their scouts are here, they feel at home."

Of the 59 players Academia Harp Helú has spread out over the majors and minors, 11 are in the Padres organization. The two more prominent names on that list are infielder Luis Urías, who is ranked among ESPN senior writer Keith Law's top 100 prospects, and Ornelas, who signed a $1.5 million deal with the club at 16. Both are key pieces in a farm system considered the best in baseball.

This season, Del Valle expects more players to make their way up north since Major League Baseball lifted a ban on signings in Mexico that was in place because of irregularities and allegations of corruption involving the distribution of money to younger players. Yahoo! Sports reported last June that Mexican League teams were taking almost 75 percent of signing bonuses paid to players. The new deal, announced in March, caps payments to Mexican teams. That could pave the way for the academy to build on its standing.

"We're not the Dominican Republic or Venezuela yet," said Del Valle. "But the goal is for player sales from this academy to keep us going without outside investment. We want to provide opportunities for baseball to keep growing in this country."

Luis Urías saw playing time for the Padres last season and is expected to rejoin them at some point in 2019 after starting at Triple-A El Paso. Meanwhile, Ornelas is considered to be a part of San Diego's second wave of talent meant to bolster a roster featuring Eric Hosmer, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, who signed a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres this offseason.

"I haven't gotten the chance to talk to [Machado] yet," Ornelas said. "But I relish the chance. I dream of a day in which I'm playing alongside guys like him and Luis in front of the San Diego fans."