LAS VEGAS — Each year at the Winter Meetings, the scouting industry gathers to celebrate some of their own at the Scout of the Year reception. The fact the recipients are chosen by their peers, scouts singling out other scouts, makes the honor even more special.
This year’s quartet of honorees for the 35th edition of the event have made an unmistakable impact on the game, and they continue to do so. Awarded regionally, Damon Oppenheimer of the Yankees (West Coast Scout of the Year), Brad Sloan of the Red Sox (Midwest Scout of the Year), Danny Montgomery of the Rockies (East Coast Scout of the Year) and Sal Agostinelli of the Phillies (International Scout of the Year) have more than 120 years of combined scouting experience, have signed dozens of big leaguers across multiple decades and have helped their organizations reach the postseason many times.
West Coast: Damon Oppenheimer, Yankees
Oppenheimer didn’t have to go far to start his scouting career after his playing career was cut short by injury, with his first chance coming with his hometown team, the San Diego Padres, a team his mother worked for and for whom he had sold concessions as a high schooler.
“I always wanted to be a player, and I really thought that was going to be the path,” Oppenheimer said. “If I wasn’t playing, I was watching. Working for the hometown team, that was really exciting for me. I thought that might be where I worked forever. But things change, better opportunities happen. It’s been a great career.”
Video: Yanks’ Oppenheimer named West Coast Scout of the Year
That career took Oppenheimer from the Padres to the Yankees to the Rangers and back to the Yankees, where he’s been since 1996. Oppenheimer initially helped on the amateur and pro side, helping Gene Michael in his early stint as an advanced scout. When Oppenheimer came back from his year with the Rangers, he served as a national crosschecker and has overseen the Yankees’ Draft in a number of vice president titles since 2004.
“You get into being the director and the contribution you can make by leading a group of scouts has been special, putting players into a system that’s now year in and year out contending, or in 2009, winning the whole thing,” Oppenheimer said. “I’ve never been part of the Yankees where we weren’t at least .500. All those years, when people said we were on a down swing, we were still good. We’ve never been really bad.”
As a result, Oppenheimer has become an expert at picking in the lower half of the first round. Even picking late, he’s helped add talent to the Yankees’ organization, or players who have been used in trades, perhaps none more notable than outfielder Aaron Judge, taken No. 32 overall in the 2013 Draft. One to quickly deflect credit, Oppenheimer offered some perspective.
“I love the kid, but we took Eric Jagielo ahead of him,” Oppenheimer said about the Yankees’ selection at No. 26 that June. “It wasn’t like we nailed the whole thing, though we obviously did like [Judge] quite a bit.”
Midwest: Brad Sloan, Red Sox
Sloan began his career in baseball in 1980 as an area scout, and outside of one year with the Mets as a crosschecker in 1993, he worked as part of the Padres’ scouting staff from 1980-2003. Nearly all of it was on the amateur side, and he served as the team’s scouting director from 1996-2000, helping to bring a ton of talent into the system, with Jake Peavy really standing out as a fantastic get in the 15th round of the 1999 Draft.
“I’m still a dirt scout; I’m still an area scout,” Sloan said. “I’m on the pro side now, but I enjoyed the free-agent scouting the best. Travel gets hard when you get older, but that’s what I like. I like scouting the kids.”
Video: Brad Sloan honored as Midwest Scout of the Year
Sloan sees his craft as an heirloom to be handed down from one generation to the next. He looks around at his contemporaries being honored on Wednesday, and at those who preceded them, and he is awed to be in their company.
“There’s a lot of experience here, signed a lot of players,” Sloan said. “Just to be compared with some of the guys who have gone in before us? There are some legendary guys. That’s why this is such a great honor.
“I started with San Diego in 1980, and one of the scouts there was Ken Bracey, and he’s had this honor. He just passed away just about a year ago. We became very close. He really helped me with my development as a scout.”
One thing Sloan didn’t have after close to 40 years in scouting was a World Series ring, until this past season. He joined the Red Sox in 2016 as a special assignment scout, working on the pro side, and checked winning a title off of his checklist, something he wasn’t sure would ever happen.
“You wonder about that,” Sloan said. “When I was in San Diego, we got there twice, but we got beat both times. That was a big deal to me. Winning the World Series and winning this award, I’ve had a great year.”
East Coast: Danny Montgomery, Rockies
Montgomery’s scouting career started with the Dodgers in 1990. After two seasons as an area scout, he was hired by the Rockies, and he’s been with them ever since, filling a variety of roles up to his current gig as the special assistant to the general manager. As he’s moved up the ladder, he hasn’t forgotten about his start.
“I did 10 years as an area guy,” said Montgomery, who signed players like Quinton McCracken as an area scout and helped bring Charlie Blackmon to the organization as a crosschecker. “You have to understand, back in the ’90s, it was a little different than it is now. We competed, we lied to each other, we did a whole lot of different things. …
“We really competed against each other. I felt if I couldn’t play, then I’m going to compete with you as a scout. That’s what we did.”
Video: Montgomery honored as East Coast Scout of the Year
At the core of everything he’s done in baseball has been Montgomery’s desire to help young people, both as players and beyond their playing days. His work as the vice president of the Buck O’Neil Professional Scouts & Coaches Association has helped create a place for networking, mentoring and professional development.
“To take that organization, along with Steve Williams of the Pirates and Fred Wright, who is one of my mentors, to take that and give back to the up-and-coming guys who are coming out of the game, giving them a chance to have a mentor like I had, helping one and teaching one is one of our mottos, it’s a pleasure,” Montgomery said. “Even though I work for the organization, they’ve been so committed to letting me do other things outside, because they know my heart has always been with trying to help other people get where they’re going. It’s been a blessing to be able to give back. A lot of guys have been hired through that organization, and that makes us feel good. It makes me feel like we’re doing something right.”
International: Sal Agostinelli, Phillies
After spending parts of 10 years in the Minor Leagues, the last four with the Phillies, Agostinelli stayed in the Phils’ organization as an area scout. He started his life after baseball in 1993 and has been with the Phillies since, though how he got to his current job as international scouting director was almost accidental.
Agostinelli was on the field during Spring Training and assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle overheard him speaking with Latino players comfortably. Agostinelli had minored in Spanish in college and that, combined with his Italian roots, had made it easy for him to learn enough to converse with players. Arbuckle asked him if he’d ever thought about giving international scouting a try, and Agostinelli hasn’t looked back.
“That was in 1997, and I’m glad I made that move,” Agostinelli said. “International scouting is the essence of scouting, in my opinion. You have a budget and you can use the budget and you can sign players accordingly. It’s different than the Draft. The Draft is very controlled. I love it. You’re almost like a GM of your own department, that’s why it’s great.”
With all of those years, Agostinelli has tremendous stories, including signing Carlos Ruiz for $8,000 and eventually seeing him catch the last out for a World Series-winning team. Or how he almost ended up with more than he bargained for when going to scout Carlos Carrasco.
“We were coming down the highway and first the bulls were running, and we had to stop for an hour to clear the bulls off the road,” Agostinelli said. “A guy comes running over to the car, he has a monkey on his back and these parrots on a stick. He sticks the parrots in the car and the monkey jumps off his back and starts running around inside the car. I say, ‘What am I going to do with a monkey, put him in my suitcase?’ We ended up going down there, seeing Carrasco, and a week later we signed him.”
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.