International talent field proving loaded
Small market teams hope signing talent pays off
If the decision makers in baseball's financial lowlands have it right, Game 1 of the 2015 World Series could pit Kansas City left-hander Noel Arguelles against Cincinnati left-hander Aroldis Chapman.Dream on? The Royals haven't been in a World Series for a quarter century, and the Reds haven't even been in the winner's circle for a decade. Besides, neither of these guys has yet pitched in the Majors. But that is exactly the thinking behind such clubs' aggressive forays into the game's lone remaining frontier: the open range of international talent.
What teams like the Royals and Reds may lack in resources to compete for the elite on the mainstream free-agent market, they are making up for, this winter in particular, with their ability to adapt, to be resourceful and to invest in the international market of baseball talent.General manager Walt Jocketty showed his hand after announcing the Reds' Chapman deal: They had little chance of landing such a talent by other means, free agency or Draft, so they had to go all-in on the Cuban kid. "Financially, it works for us," said Jocketty, who swooped in to nail a gem widely conceded to be headed to the Angels, Red Sox or Blue Jays. As confirmed by agent Randy Hendricks, at the end they had to outdraw the A's and one other "sub-.500 club." The approach is a sensible alternative for a so-called small-market franchise like the Reds, both financially and in the context of player development. Potentially, a huge payoff for a relatively moderate payout. No one is calling the $30.25 million committed by the Reds to the 21-year-old Chapman "small," though it is when viewed in comparison to the $82.5 million signed over by the Red Sox to 31-year-old John Lackey. Is there a relevance? Time will test its legitimacy, but both pitchers entered the winter in the top tier of free-agent pitchers on most experts' best-of lists. Jocketty's Kansas City counterpart, Dayton Moore, had taken much the same stance three days earlier upon signing Arguelles, when he called him "certainly a top pick if he was in the Draft this year." Because Arguelles wasn't in the First-Year Player Draft, the Royals had a better than 30-to-1 shot at him, as did the Reds at Chapman. They cut the odds, but not the price of playing. If anything, they overpaid to blow other interested teams out of the picture. The deals given to Chapman and Arguelles ($7 million, over five years) dwarfed the average signing bonus presented to first-round picks in June's First-Year Player Draft. And that's precisely the reason support grows within the game for expanding the First-Year Player Draft to include everyone worldwide. That will be a talking point in negotiations for the next Basic Agreement with the Players Union, which is expected to resist it because of the competitive bonuses now going to amateurs outside of the Draft. As it stands, this marketplace is hardly an arena for bargains, and it's hardly the province of small-market prospectors. The Red Sox and the New York teams certainly bag their own shares of Latin American talent on the open market. Still, fiscally challenged clubs consider it a more level playing field that gives them a fighting chance. "When you look at the size of the market we are here in Cincinnati," Jocketty said, "we have to take some bold moves from time to time to try to improve this franchise. We felt this was a very significant move." One with very significant risks, obviously. The difference between Chapman and Lackey -- or a left-hander like Randy Wolf, the 33-year-old who received a comparable ($29.75 million) deal from Milwaukee -- is the difference between promise and proof. Chapman could turn out to be Felix Hernandez, the Venezuelan who, three years after being signed by the Mariners, was a teenage winner in the Majors and is now the young ace in a contender's rotation, with a new five-year, $78 million deal at age 23. Even if the Reds don't sufficiently improve around him, Chapman could at least turn out to be Bartolo Colon, whom the Indians developed and converted (through trade) into Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips. Or Chapman could turn out to be Sidd Finch, who reportedly threw 162 mph, but turned out to be a hoax pulled off by Sports Illustrated. But you find your needles in whatever haystack you can explore, whether you are the Reds, the Royals, the Pirates, the A's or any other team which has to stretch its player budget. As Cincinnati senior director of scouting Chris Buckley said, "Is there a risk? Sure. There are risks in a lot of things we do in this game. But a great place to start is a 6-foot-4 left-hander who throws close to 100 mph." Plenty of teams with more nerve -- and patience -- than capital step up to accept those risks. The frenzy surrounding the onset of international signing season is beginning to rival the commotion around the Draft, which typically takes place a month earlier, in June. Last year's green light to sign international amateurs flashed on July 2, when clubs could sign anyone past his 16th birthday. Minnesota recently finalized its $3.15 million deal with Dominican shortstop Miguel Angel Sano, who joined German Max Kepler-Rozycki in the Twins organization -- a couple of 16-year-olds from opposite sides of the world with hopes of growing into Major Leaguers. The risks posed by the Draft are different because of the gap between the 16-year-olds being signed internationally and the 18-year-olds coming out of high school into the Draft; there's a lot of room for error in those two years, and for discovery by scouts. Clearly, many organizations consider it worth the risk.
The A's set a franchise record in February 2008 for the signing of an international player with their $350,000 bonus to Dominican shortstop Robin Rosario, then smashed that bar five months later with a $4.25 million pot for 6-foot-7 Dominican right-hander Michael Ynoa.The same year, the Reds signed Dominican outfielder Juan Duran for $2 million. Boston signed Cuban infielder Jose Iglesias for $8.2 million. Two years earlier, the Giants had signed Dominican first baseman Angel Villalona for $2.1 million. And so on. And those are merely the conspicuous leaders of a lengthy parade, which has overhauled the demographics in organized baseball. The Twins alone signed more than 70 foreign players in a three-year period through 2008. "You have to get your talent somewhere," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice-president of human resources. "We believe focusing on entry-level talent is the best competitive strategy, particularly for smaller-revenue clubs. We think that's a very good thing." It's a potential gold mine, and not only for the club which could gain long-term control of a breakout career. For instance, the $3 million due Chapman in the final year of his five-year contract will be considered quite a bargain if he develops as expected. But also consider the long-term prospects of players who sign so young: They could hit free agency at the end of those six years at such a still-young age as to be in position to negotiate extreme deals. That isn't a hypothetical scenario: The Marlins signed Miguel Cabrera at 16, he was in Florida's outfield by age 20 and he entered his free-agent season at 24, encouraging the Tigers to lock him up with a $152 million deal. If anything, the cloak-and-dagger pursuit of international players is a flashback to the free-for-all days prior to the 1965 advent of the Draft, when teams simply had to out-hustle and out-bid each other for top-tier talent.
That was the age of the Bonus Baby, and this may be a throwback to that era, with some international intrigue added to the mix.