It’s never easy to judge the quality of an international signing class when most of the top players who signed last year have yet to make their professional debuts.
However, at least one thing is clear: spending increased.
Excluding Cuban defectors and Japanese professionals, teams spent approximately $76 million on international amateur bonuses in 2010. That figure, according to Baseball America’s estimates, jumped to $89 million in 2011, an increase of 12 percent. Most of that money goes to players in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where teams spent a combined $79 million.
“This year was good,” said an international director with a National League club. “It was one of the deeper July 2s that we have had. Did we overpay a lot? I think it was a good year, we just paid too much money for some players the last couple of years. Every year we pay more money, but this year will be different because of the new CBA.”
Though Venezuela has nearly three times the population of the Dominican Republic, teams every year spend more money on Dominican prospects. Estimated spending on Dominican players increased 14 percent from $44 million in 2010 to $50 million in 2011, with 94 Dominican players signing for $100,000 or more, an increase from 92 in 2010.
The big increase in spending, however, came in Venezuela. After teams spent approximately $20 million on Venezuelan amateurs in 2010, they poured $29 million into the market in 2011, a 45 percent increase. After 33 Venezuelan players signed for six-figure bonuses in 2010, there were 55 Venezuelan players who did so in 2011. Yet despite the aggressive spending, some teams have cut resources in Venezuela. The Reds and Pirates have both pulled out of their Venezuelan academies and the Venezuelan Summer League, which means the 2012 VSL will feature just four teams: the Mariners, Phillies, Rays and Tigers.
“I’d say overall, I’d rank out the Dominican Republic ahead (of Venezuela),” said an American League international scouting director. “They were probably equal in terms of top heaviness, but the Dominican Republic was deeper.”
Mexico, Colombia and Panama each got a small piece of the pie with a handful of high-profile players each, while less heavily scouted countries in the region like Nicaragua, Curacao and Aruba all had at least one player signed for a six-figure bonus. Action in the Pacific Rim was modest, with notable signings coming from South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. It wasn’t a particularly noteworthy year in Europe, though teams still pulled players from Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Czech Republic.
Of course the biggest variable in the international market is always Cuba, since the available talent pool fluctuates wildly depending on which players leave the island. There were nearly 30 Cuban signings last year. Most were fringy prospects, but the best Cuban signed last year was Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin, who got a $5 million bonus as part of a $15.6 million major league contract. Cubans were making a splash early in 2012, with Oakland’s four-year, $36 million major league deal for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and the Cubs giving a reported $6 million major league deal to lefthander Gerardo Concepcion. Meanwhile, 20-year-old right fielder Jorge Soler and a handful of other intriguing names are still waiting on their residency papers and free agency to be able to sign.
“I actually thought 2011 was very overvalued,” said a second American League international director. “There weren’t any elite arms, I didn’t think. You were betting on some guys who I think there wasn’t a lot of consensus on. I thought it was a down year myself and I was surprised at those numbers for that talent.”
There was no consensus No. 1 player in last year’s class, but the majority of scouts who spoke with BA felt that Dominican outfielders Ronald Guzman and Elier Hernandez were the top players available. Guzman netted a $3.45 million bonus from the Rangers on July 2, while Hernandez signed the same day with the Royals for $3 million. Guzman is a tall, lanky corner outfielder/first baseman with an advanced offensive approach and a loose, fluid swing, while Hernandez is a lean, strong righthanded hitter with terrific bat speed and a hard line-drive swing.
Yet neither Guzman nor Hernandez received the most money last year. Instead, that went to Dominican outfielder Nomar Mazara, who set a new international amateur bonus record on July 2 when the Rangers gave him $4.95 million, eclipsing the old mark set by Athletics Dominican righthander Michael Ynoa, who got $4.25 million in 2008. Mazara showed huge raw power in batting practice, but many teams were wary of his propensity to swing and miss in game situations, so the signing was widely viewed throughout the industry as a significant overpay.
Mazara wasn’t the only big surprise. The Mariners gave $1.925 million to Venezuelan corner outfielder Jose Leal, who many teams considered a raw project. Teams were surprised when rumors emerged before July 2 that the Royals might go to $1 million for Dominican shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, so it was even more surprising when they signed him for $2 million. Colombian outfielder Harold Ramirez scoring a $1.05 million bonus from the Pirates was another one that seemed like a stretch for many other clubs.
“In last year’s class, there was some difference of opinions on some of those premier guys,” said a National League international scouting director. “I’m not sure everyone was as convinced as the teams that ended up with them, but that’s not all that unusual.”
Among infielders, Dominican shortstops Dorssys Paulino (Indians) and Dawel Lugo (Blue Jays) stood out for their bats. Some teams also liked the offensive potential of Dominican shortstop Luis Acosta (Cubs) and Venezuela’s Wuilmer Becerra (Blue Jays). Both players spent time showcasing at shortstop, but Becerra is already an outfielder and Acosta will probably end up in left field. Venezuelan center fielder Carlos Tocci (Phillies) is a potential two-way threat who has received strong early reviews for his play at instructional league and in the Liga Paralela, the minor league version of the Venezuelan League.
Venezuela had a strong catching crop, led by the offensive-oriented Mark Malave (Cubs), the more defensively-polished Jose Ruiz (Padres) and the solid all-around play of Jose Garcia (Mets). Pitching is always difficult to project at 16, but the two best current arms are Venezuelan righthander Victor Sanchez (Mariners) and Mexican righthander Roberto Osuna (Blue Jays), both of whom have touched 94 mph and were standouts for their respective countries in international tournaments.
No team made more noise in the international market than the Rangers, whose estimated $12.8 million in international spending (not including the major league deal for Martin) was more than $5 million ahead of the second-biggest spender, the Blue Jays ($7.6 million). The Blue Jays and Royals have both been aggressive internationally in recent years, and both revved up their spending last year. The Mariners are always a threat to sign top players from any country, and they continued that trend last year. The Pirates and Cubs both spent heavily again in 2011, with the Cubs going after Cubans harder than any other team in baseball. The Padres, Tigers and Indians all increased their international expenditures from 2010 and were among the top 10 in bonuses awarded in 2011.
Several teams also shuffled leadership positions in their international scouting departments after the 2011 season. The White Sox hired Marco Paddy away from the Blue Jays as a special assistant to the general manager in charge of international operations. The Blue Jays replaced Paddy by hiring Ismael Cruz away from the Mets and naming him a special assistant for Latin American operations. The Mets’ new international scouting director is Chris Becerra, who had been their west coast crosschecker.
Elsewhere, the Athletics promoted Sam Geaney from a scouting coordinator to coordinator of international scouting after his predecessor Dan Kantrovitz became the Cardinals’ scouting director. Eddie Romero moved up from Boston’s assistant director of international operations and international scouting to become the team’s new international scouting director after the Red Sox parted ways with former vice president of player personnel and international operations Craig Shipley. New Orioles general manager Dan Duquette brought on board Fred Ferreira as Baltimore’s new director of international recruiting and named Ray Poitevint the team’s executive director of international baseball, though David Stockstill remains in the organization as the team’s director of international operations.
The league office made changes as well. A year ago Kim Ng left her post as an assistant general manager with the Dodgers to become MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations, putting her in charge of overseeing the league’s international efforts. Former Puerto Rican attorney general Jorge Perez-Diaz had been serving as an interim replacement for Sandy Alderson, who left his post with MLB overseeing the league’s Latin American reforms in November 2010 to become the GM of the Mets. After the 2011 season, MLB named Rafael Perez its new director of Dominican operations. Perez had been the Mets’ director of international operations and had previously worked for MLB from 2002-2005 as the league’s senior manager of Latin American operations. The league has also added additional personnel to its international operations staff as it prepares for an international draft that commissioner Bud Selig has termed “inevitable” and could be in place within the next few years.
As the league moves toward its goal of an international draft, it has increased the presence of the MLB scouting bureau in Latin America and organized its own showcases. MLB held a successful showcase in Venezuela last April that featured many of the country’s top prospects. MLB has tried to organize similar showcases in the Dominican Republic, and while team officials say they have scouts show up to be supportive of the league, those events typically haven’t attracted the best talent. That changed this year in February, when MLB coordinated an event at the Mets’ Dominican academy featuring games between a team of top Dominican prospects and top Venezuelan prospects. Scouts praised the event and said many of the best players from this year’s July 2 class were in attendance.
While MLB tries to become more involved in organizing the showcasing of players, other trainers have joined forces to form their own leagues, most notably the Dominican Prospect League founded by Brian Mejia and Ulises Cabrera in the fall of 2009. Last year some of the DPL’s trainers—most prominently Enrique Soto, Amauris Nina and Astin Jacobo—parted ways with the DPL and formed another circuit known as the International Prospect League. Of the players who got the top 20 bonuses from the Dominican Republic last year, eight of them were DPL players, not counting players like Hernandez and Tigers third baseman Adelyn Santa who played in the league early in the year before their trainers moved them to the IPL.