Jorge Velandia’s mother was a judge, his father an attorney. They figured their son would go to college and law school. Or maybe he’d practice sports medicine. But three days after his 17th birthday, he signed a contract for $7,500 and set out on a life in professional baseball.
“I told my dad I was going to give this game five years,” Velandia said by phone. “We planned it all out.”
Velandia laughed, not because he ended up playing for 18 years, mostly in the minor leagues. As the Phillies assistant general manager figures it, negotiating an agreement with his dad might as well have foretold a post-playing career in which he has become the highest-ranking Venezuelan-born member of a major-league front office.
More than 400 native Venezuelans have played in the big leagues. Fifty-three have appeared in an All-Star Game. Two (Ozzie Guillen and Al Pedrique) have managed. One (Luis Aparicio) is in the Hall of Fame. And last month, in a Phillies restructuring that began with the hiring of Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations, Velandia became the first Venezuelan to rise to the level of assistant GM.
“Jorgey’s done a great deal in baseball throughout his years,” Dombrowski said. “Been all over, not only as a player but in the Phillies organization in every aspect of our field. Extremely intelligent, well-regarded. Well-liked in the organization. His next step for growth is to have some exposure in a major-league front office, and I think that will lead to him being a general manager at some time, too.”
Velandia, who turned 46 on Jan. 12, was a .189 career hitter but a sure-handed infielder. His major-league career consisted of 278 plate appearances in 174 games with six teams. In all, he played for 11 organizations and suited up for 17 minor-league teams. His final game came in 2009 for Lehigh Valley, the Phillies’ triple-A affiliate. His claim to fame might’ve been getting traded for Nelson Cruz in 2000.
After an endlessly nomadic playing career, Velandia has worked for a decade with the Phillies in various capacities, including minor-league coach, assistant field coordinator, player development assistant, special assistant in player personnel, interim major-league coach, and for the last five years, special assistant to the general manager. In 2017, he interviewed for the managerial post that went to Gabe Kapler. His supporters in the industry characterize him as one of those people who could excel at whatever he wants.
So, why the front-office route?
“Playing with so many different teams, so many different managers, 14 different big-league camps, grinding my way, I got to sit on the bench, I got to study the game, but my mind and my eyes always caught up on the people who sit behind home plate, the evaluators, the people who controlled your destiny and make the decisions,” Velandia said. “That seemed interesting to me. I was like, how can they see the future?”
But in 2009 with his playing days behind him, Velandia wasn’t sure what his future held. He had a reputation as an intelligent player and good teammate. He also had an ally in then-Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., his winter-ball teammate years earlier in Venezuela. The Phillies made Velandia a player-coach at Lehigh Valley, and assistant GM Benny Looper tasked him with writing scouting reports on opposing players in the International League.
“I printed out some blank forms and gave him some names in the league of players to write up that I had seen as well, so I could go over the reports with him and help him with his reports and talk about the players and make him think about them some more,” Looper said by phone. “What I remember is that he was pretty dead-on in his evaluations. It was obvious to me early on that he could evaluate and he had an eye for talent.”
After the season, the Phillies enrolled Velandia in the Scout Development Program, a 12-day course in Phoenix run by the MLB Scouting Bureau. Then, over the next few years, they exposed him to as many areas of the organization as possible.
Looper wondered if Velandia, like many longtime players, would prefer to be on the field and in uniform. But Velandia’s curiosity always extended beyond the field.
“When you play in triple A for so long and you see guys going up and going down and you see prospects, future stars, you evaluate those guys without even knowing it,” Velandia said. “You start wondering, ‘OK, why’s this guy coming back? What does this guy need to work on?’”
Said Looper: “What he really enjoyed was evaluating players. I think he kind of knew that to start with, but he needed to find it out for himself.”
It all crystallized for Velandia in a familiar place: Venezuela.
As a player, he returned to his home country after every season to play winter ball. In 2010, he took over as the general manager for Tiburones de La Guaira, a job that involved signing players, constructing a roster, overseeing a feeder system akin to the minor leagues, and running a front office during a roughly 60-game season.
“The scale is obviously not as big as being a GM in the United States, but it literally works the same,” Velandia said. “That was a great school for me.”
In one of Velandia’s more notable executive triumphs, for both the Tiburones and the Phillies, he signed Odubel Herrera to play winter ball in 2014 and oversaw his move from second base to center field. When the Texas Rangers left Herrera unprotected in that winter’s Rule 5 draft, Velandia recommended him to the Phillies. They selected Herrera, and two years later, he was an All-Star, the peak in a career that fizzled because of a May 2019 arrest on domestic assault charges.
Velandia has had input over other moves, but his influence is stronger than ever now as a member of the Phillies’ inner circle with Dombrowski and novice general manager Sam Fuld. To wit: Dombrowski’s first acquisition, lefty reliever Jose Alvarado, pitched for La Guaira in 2015-16.
“One of the things you have to do is take advantage of individuals and their strengths, and in Jorge’s case, he’ll continue to do a lot of the same things he’s done from an evaluation perspective,” Dombrowski said. “We will also expose him to things that are going on in the front office, and [he will] also be involved in our conversations from a trade perspective.”
Velandia lives in Miami but will soon relocate to Philadelphia. Mostly, though, he appreciates what he represents to his countrymen, namely that careers in baseball extend beyond the playing field.
“When I first became a GM in Venezuela, that was kind of one of my goals — to try to do a good job and try to have a future in this next stage of my life and to be an example, if things went right, for more people to try to climb up the ladder in the front office,” he said. “It’s quite an honor for me.”