International signing day pivotal for team pipelines
Wednesday brings initial availability of many foreign-born prospects to big league clubs
A Major League organization cannot reasonably survive in the standings without a strong base of young talent.
In today's game, the free-agent field has become so watered down and so financially inefficient that you can't expect to buy a winner on the open market. Nor can you augment a club in-season, in today's parity-prone environment, without a hefty load of prospect chips.
Combine those realities with the steady growth of foreign-born players -- 21.6 percent of the players on Major League rosters and disabled lists on Opening Day were born in countries other than the Draft-eligible territories of the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and the closed society of Cuba -- and a somewhat unheralded but undoubtedly vital date stands out:
That's the day 16-year-old international players are first eligible to sign with big league clubs, and it's become increasingly competitive at a time when spending pools are both capped and record-dependent.
The results, at large, have not revealed themselves at the top just yet. However, the changes made in 2012, in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that tie teams' bonus pool amounts to their previous year's record are expected to eventually make a huge impact on the Major League playing field.
"The competitive-balance aspect is greatly underplayed," Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Because not only is there a significant financial difference in how much one team can spend on the Draft vs. another, but you also have the same thing internationally. Young talent is the pipeline for success into the future."
That pipeline has widened considerably in recent years.
The emergence of MLB's Amateur Prospect League, as well as leagues like the Dominican Prospect League and International Prospect League, have put more eyes on more players more frequently. Teams have invested greater amounts of time and resources not just in Latin America but also Asia, Europe and Australia. GMs compare the days leading up to July 2 to the scouting that goes into the NCAA Regionals and conference tournaments just before the First-Year Player Draft.
Come Wednesday, there will be a flurry of previously negotiated deals announced. The Astros, by virtue of finishing 2013 with MLB's worst record, have the largest bonus pool, at $5,015,400, while the Cardinals have the smallest, at $1,866,300.
The pool restrictions, however, have not stopped clubs from investing heavily on the international front.
Total spending in 2013, the first full calendar year of bonus pools, jumped to $97 million, a 15-percent increase over 2012. The Rangers and Cubs both blew past their pool restrictions, spending in excess of $8 million apiece, and accepted the applicable penalty in order to stock their system with the likes of Marcos Diplan, Jose Almonte and Yeyson Yrizarri (Rangers) and Gleyber Torres and Erling Moreno (Cubs).
Furthermore, a few teams that had gone the thrifty route in years past underscored the importance of this particular scene by setting new spending standards for themselves. The Dodgers, for example, invested just $177,000 in 2011, per Baseball America, but increased that total 25-fold in '13 to become the game's third-highest international investor.
"The people that come out here as members of the front office to evaluate talent are experts in their field and they are paid a lot of money to make these decisions that impact teams," Ulises Cabrera, co-founder of the DPL, told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez. "These decisions have consequences that impact their bottom lines currently and impact the long-term success of organizations. It's not to be taken lightly."
Beyond the money, what's made this period all the more intriguing for fans is the sheer availability of information on the players involved. Sanchez has worked sources with every organization to compile our Top 30 International Prospects list, which is rife with scouting reports and video, putting faces to the names.
The Yankees, fresh off a winter in which they re-established themselves as big spenders on the free-agent market, are reportedly on the verge of landing the top two players on that list -- shortstop Dermis Garcia and third baseman Nelson Gomez, both from the Dominican Republic. They are also the favorites to land Dominican outfielder Juan DeLeon (No. 5) and Venezuelan outfielders Jonathan Amundaray (No. 7) and Antonio Arias (No. 9).
Clearly, the Yanks are serious about stocking their system this summer, and they'll be taking their $2.193 million bonus pool amount as a mere suggestion, much like the $189 million payroll luxury-tax threshold.
But for most clubs in most years, the international market can become another source for the age-old quantity-vs.-quality discussion. Do you allocate a significant sum of your pool to a single player, as the Red Sox (No. 29 on the pool allocation list) might do with Dominican right-hander Christopher Acosta? Or do you divvy up your resources among several lower-profile commodities, as the Nationals have hinted they'll do?
It's big business with big stakes, because every team wants to be the one to find the next Miguel Cabrera or Felix Hernandez or Hanley Ramirez. And every team needs to keep that pipeline flowing.