Here are the car keys…and $3 million.
Some 16-year-olds are now being made very, very rich by baseball teams. July 2 marked the beginning of Major League Baseball’s amateur international free-agent signing period. From that date through Aug. 31, amateur players from anywhere except the U.S. and Canada who have turned 16 can peddle their services to the highest bidder as free agents. The search for talent spans the globe, from Taiwan and Australia to Europe and, most famously, into Latin America.
Those teams that find the next Miguel Cabrera – whom the Marlins signed as a 16-year-old in 1999 for over a million dollars, then a record – can change the shape of a franchise. Whereas small-market teams often can’t compete with the financial super powers like the Yankees and Red Sox in free agency for established superstars (Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia come to mind), every team, in theory, has enough money to compete for elite amateur talent.
And, in the past couple years, virtually every team in baseball has operated as if that was the case. In 2008, Michael Ynoa signed with the Athletics for a record-shattering bonus of more than $4 million. The 16-year-old received a larger bonus than all but four players taken in last year’s draft.
One could argue that the investment is sound. If Ynoa is as good as the Athletics believe he’ll be, then the $4 million they spent last year could be worth tens of millions in the future.
But scouting the international amateur market, particularly in Latin America, is an incredibly challenging proposition, making projection of skills almost maddening. This environment is much riskier than the amateur draft, which itself remains a process that is filled with more misses than hits.
Players in the draft can be scouted in competitive circumstances as 18-year-old high-schoolers and 21- and even 22-year-old collegiate athletes. Projecting draftees remains a very, very inexact science. Projecting 16-year-olds from other countries – often on the strength of little more than workouts and batting practice sessions that are meant to showcase raw tools, rather than how a player competes in the context of a game – is even more so.
Nonetheless, because these players are free agents and subject to market forces rather than a draft, teams will still end up paying them quite a bit more than they would likely have to shell out for a pitcher with comparable skills in the draft. Ynoa is merely the most glaring example of a huge bump in the size of signing bonuses given to Latin American amateurs. This year, more than a dozen amateurs will likely receive the types of bonuses that often
“It’s kind of this perfect storm of demand for the talent, the wonders of the free market, and a scouting environment where all you see are the good things,” said Sox assistant G.M. Ben Cherington. “I think (the increase in bonuses) has been happening over the last several years. Perhaps in the last couple years exponentially so, but I think we’re seeing this sort of explosion in signing bonuses and I think its based on a combination of things.
“I think teams certainly are recognizing the value of young talent and there are some limitations as to how much of that young talent you can acquire in the draft,” he continued. “So the international market is the next place to go to acquire young talent and so teams are trying to take advantage of that.”
This year, players such as outfielder Wagner Mateo (Cardinals) and catcher Gary Sanchez (Yankees) are already rumored to have agreed to deals in excess of $3 million; shortstop Miguel Angel Sano will almost surely command more than those two. Reports have the Red Sox ready to sign shortstop Jose Vinicio for $2 million when he turns 16 on July 10; the team is also reported to have pitcher Victory Payano lined up for a $900,000 bonus.
Such signings would continue the Sox’ recent aggressive international strategy. Already, it seems fair to consider this year a big success for Boston’s international scouting operation, given that the team landed Japanese amateur Junichi Tazawa with a three-year, $3.3 million contract (which included a $1.8 million signing bonus). Tazawa has been nothing short of outstanding in his first pro experience, with the 23-year-old going 7-5 with a 2.85 ERA in Double-A Portland.
The Sox have also signed some of the most prominent Latin American amateur talents in recent years, including Oscar Tejeda and Engel Beltre in 2006, Michael Almanzar ($1.5 million in 2007) and catcher Oscar Perez (approx. $700,000) last year. One suspects that, had they turned 16 for this year’s signing period, Tejeda, Beltre and Almanzar would all be commanding bonuses that might be as much as twice that in the current frenzy for international amateur talent.
Yet the team makes those commitments with an awareness that it’s terrifically difficult to scout such young players in Latin America, and that kids who are signed for $20,000 might turn into better players than ones who receive hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. As such, Red Sox Vice President of International Scouting Craig Shipley has sought to create an infrastructure that is as developed as possible for scouting young players.
The Sox set up game competitions so that they can see how top amateur talents fare against players who are, at least ostensibly, on a level playing field against them. The team also does detailed background and psychological work with the players, scouts them over time to see how they evolve on and off the field, and uses a sophisticated video database to look not only at how players perform, but also to see how their bodies and mechanics change over time. Amateur scouting director Jason McLeod and Shipley will evaluate players who fall under each others’ domains to see whether a commitment – say, $1 million or $2 million – might be better spent on a highly regarded international amateur or on a draftee.
“I think Craig Shipley and his staff have done a really good job of developing a system that has a bunch of filters in it that allow us a chance to be more efficient,” said Cherington. “Ship has done a remarkable job of creating a system but you’re still working in a most difficult market to project and inherently carry the most risk.
“I think that as much as anything else sort of answers the question as to why sometimes you’ll see the kids who get $50,000 turn into better prospects than the kids who got a lot more. It’s just so difficult to project.”
The Sox’ system suggests as much. The players who currently ranks as the team’s top Latin American prospects – pitcher Stolmy Pimentel and shortstop Yamaico Navarro – each signed for roughly $20,000. The players who have received the most hype during the international signing period have yet to perform at quite the same level as their less heralded colleagues.
Beltre, now in the Texas system after being traded in the Eric Gagne deal, is suffering through a tough season in High-A ball, Tejeda is producing solid if unspectacular numbers in his second year with Single-A Greenville, and Almanzar has been challenged this year while competing against older competition in Greenville and now in Lowell of the short-season New York Penn League.
None of that will stop the Sox from maintaining an aggressive approach in this year’s international market. But the team will surely proceed with an awareness that sometimes, the international amateur prospect mine will be filled with its fair share of fools’ gold.
“We are certainly able to recognize the value of young talent we are going to continue to be aggressive in pursuing it in every part of the world whether it’s the draft or internationally. We’re not going to opt out of any particular market,” said Cherington. “The riskier the demographic, the more we have to scrutinize. We do that in the draft and we do that internationally. In neither place are we perfect and it’s very much an inexact science in both places.”
STARTING NINE: THE TOP RED SOX PROSPECTS SIGNED AS INTERNATIONAL AMATEUR FREE AGENTS
1) Junichi Tazawa (Signed out of Japan in 2008 to three-year, $3.3 million major-league contract including $1.8 million bonus) -- An advanced feel with four pitches. Currently dominating in Double-A Portland. Might be ready to help in the majors this year or next.
2) Stolmy Pimentel (Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 for $25,000) -- 19-year-old is putting together an excellent year in Single-A Greenville, going 7-3 with a 2.77 ERA and 62/14 strikeout-to-walk rate. Has three pitches (fastball, change, curve) that could eventually be above-average offerings in the majors.
3) Yamaico Navarro (Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2005 for $20,000) -- 21-year-old has missed most of the season due to surgery on a broken hamate, but is now back with High-A Salem and hitting .368 with a 1.086 OPS in his first eight games in the pitcher's league. Navarro has impressive pop for a middle infielder, and at times can be an excellent defender.
4) Felix Doubront (Signed out of the Venezuela in 2004 for approximately $150,000) -- Doubront justified his addition to the Red Sox' 40-man roster when he showed up in spring training in great shape and with his fastball, typically an 89-90 mph offering that sometimes touched 92 last year, suddenly sitting at 89-92 with the occasional 94. He has three major-league average pitches (fastball, curve, change), and if those offerings play up for the left-hander, then he could go from a potential back-of-the-rotation guy to something more. As a 21-year-old in Double-A Portland this year, he is 4-2 with a 3.57 ERA and is striking out roughly a batter an inning against advanced competition.
5) Michael Almanzar (Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007 for $1.5 million) -- Though Almanzar is having a tough go of it in his first full season in the U.S., hitting just .206 with a combined .543 OPS between Single-A Greenville and Lowell, the 18-year-old's ceiling as a power hitter remains one of the highest in the Sox' system. He dominated during his first assignment to a U.S. minor-league affiliate last year, tearing up the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, and resulting in the Sox pushing him against much older competition this year.
6) Che-Hsuan Lin (Signed out of Taiwan in 2007 for $390,000 bonus) -- The 20-year-old Lin, a brilliant defensive centerfielder who was named the MVP of the All-Star Futures Game last year, got off to a dreadful start this year, hitting .136 in April. But in May and June, he hit a combined .298 in High-A Salem with an OBP of better than .400 and occasional power to complement his excellent defense and baserunning.
7) Oscar Tejeda (Signed out of the Dominican for approx. $525,000 in 2006) -- Tejeda endured something of a lost season in 2008, thanks to a minor medical procedure on his heart and unrelated staph infections that left him unable to follow a normal conditioning program. After a normal offseason workout program and an impressive spring training in which his power seemed to increase, he was expected to make major strides in 2009. Instead, he has been performing at close to league average levels this year while repeating as an everyday shortstop at Single-A Greenville. Though his improved power has yet to translate in games, his plate approach has been making progress, and there remains the potential for Tejeda to emerge as a legitimate prospect at a premium position.
8) Argenis Diaz (Signed out of Venezuela in 2003) -- Diaz still shows tremendous natural defensive ability but a penchant for making errors on routine plays and it remains questionable whether he will be able to hit enough to have anything more than a fringe role in the majors. While his numbers were quite strong after a second-half call-up to Portland last year (.288 average, .336 OBP, .753 OPS), he's numbers are down across the board at the same level this year (.253, .314, .625).
9) Oscar Perez (Signed out of Venezuela for approx. $700,000 in 2008) -- The catcher showed plenty of promise behind the plate during extended spring training, and his raw power is already impressive, particularly for a 17-year-old. He is far from the majors -- Perez is currently in the Dominican Summer League -- but he is part of the organization-wide step forward by the Red Sox' pool of minor-league catchers this year.