GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Scouring the globe for talented baseball players, the Cleveland Indians plucked one from Eastern Europe.
The club signed 16-year-old catcher Martin Cervenka of the Czech Republic to a non-drafted minor league contract on Saturday. Peter Gahan, who scouts Europe and Australia for the Indians, discovered the right-handed hitter while evaluating players at Major League Baseball's European Academy in Italy.
The Indians began scouting the academy about one year ago, assistant general manager John Mirabelli said. But several other teams, including the Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds, have previously signed other prospects from Europe, a continent where soccer rules and baseball is still in its infancy.
"It's the new frontier for baseball," Mirabelli said.
Because he's still in high school, the six-foot-two, 165-pound Cervenka will continue to play for his club team Kotlarka in 2009. Mirabelli said the youngster from Prague will report to the Indians' new year-round Player Development Complex in Arizona during breaks from school - he won't finish until he's 19 - and that he will likely play in Australia during the next two summers.
"It will be a while before he plays with us," Mirabelli said. "We might send some of our instructors over there to watch him and work with him. It's a long-term sign, but we like his upside. It's a creative signing. We just feel like there is value in trying to develop a kid like that and see what happens.
"He's young but we like some of his raw, physical tools."
Major League Baseball opened its European academy in 2006, offering instruction and exposure to the best 15- to 19-year-old players from 13 European and four African countries. The intent was to broaden baseball's reach while possibly developing talented athletes into future major leaguers.
Mirabelli described Europe as "an emerging market" for teams searching for amateur talent. The Twins have already signed four players from the academy, two from Russia, one from France and one from South Africa.
"It's a great opportunity for those kids over there," Minnesota assistant general manager Rob Antony said. "They just don't have as much structure and as much teaching as young players do here and in Latin America. When they go there, they are able to get teaching and see scouts from all over. It really opens a lot up for them."
As a mid-market team with limited resources, the Indians are always looking for affordable talent, and they're not alone. In November, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Indian - the country, not Cleveland - pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, neither of whom had picked up a baseball until earlier this year.
The two 20-year-olds came to the U.S. last year after being the top finishers in an Indian reality TV show called the "Million Dollar Arm."
Finding pitchers these days isn't nearly as tough as locating catchers, who seem to be scarce throughout baseball's lower levels.
"A lot of kids just aren't catching anymore," said Indians manager Eric Wedge, a former catcher in Boston's organization. "I don't think there's that same passion for catching like there was when I was coming up or back in the day when we were kids and that was where you wanted to be - in the action."
Wedge has a theory why young players don't want to throw on a chest protector, shin guards and mask.
"Maybe because it's hard," he said. "It's tough and it's as difficult a position as there is to play out there with all the responsibilities."