Having a strong international program is the sign of a team that generally knows what it's doing when it comes to producing homegrown players.
Given the way teams delineate their scouting departments, it’s not necessarily an intuitive idea. Some clubs have their top American scouts get involved evaluating international players, while others adhere to a strict separation of their international and domestic amateur scouting operations. For the most part, the international scouting department does its job without too much influence from the rest of the organization, with Japanese and Cuban free agents probably the biggest exception.
Yet even though most players still come from the draft instead of the international market—it's about a 70/30 split on domestic/international players in the Prospect Handbook—the teams with the strongest international programs tend to produce the best farm systems.
The challenge is how to figure out which teams have done the best job procuring talent from the international market. Given that players sign at 16 years old and might take seven years just to get to the big leagues, it's not an easy task.
One of my favorite ways to get a snapshot of how teams are doing in the international market is to see how many international players each organization has signed who appear in the Prospect Handbook.
The chart below credits every international player who appears in the Prospect Handbook with the team he signed with as an amateur, regardless of his current organization. So the Cubs get credit for signing Hak-Ju Lee, who they traded to the Rays in 2011, and the Tigers get credit for Danry Vasquez, who they shipped to the Astros last year.
The list itself isn't a ranking of how teams have fared internationally. There are judgment calls on players at the back of a Top 30 that could swing the numbers slightly, and teams who have a stronger farm system through draft picks and trades leaves less room for international players. Still, it's not hard to see that the teams at the top of the list have generally been the most productive. There are some exceptions, most notably the Cardinals, who lack the depth of some other clubs but have impact talent in Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez that's hard to match, with righthander Alex Reyes a potential helium guy as well.
To take it one step further, we ranked the top five international programs based on the players they have signed since 2006, including major leaguers like Jean Segura, Wilin Rosario and Starlin Castro. It's not a coincidence that the teams with the top three farm systems in baseball all appear on this list or that all of the teams have a top 10 farm system overall.
|Prospect Handbook International Signings|
|Red Sox||15||Xander Bogaerts, Manuel Margot, Rafael Devers|
|Rangers||14||Rougned Odor, Edwin Escobar, Jorge Alfaro|
|Twins||13||Miguel Sano, Lewis Thorpe, Jorge Polanco|
|Pirates||12||Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Harold Ramirez|
|Royals||12||Yordano Ventura, Raul Mondesi, Jorge Bonifacio|
|Tigers||12||Bruce Rondon, Eugenio Suarez, Domingo Leyba|
|Phillies||12||Maikel Franco, Miguel Gonzalez, Domingo Santana|
|Yankees||12||Gary Sanchez, Arodys Vizcaino, Luis Severino|
|Dodgers||11||Julio Urias, Alexander Guerrero, Onelkis Garcia|
|Reds||11||Yorman Rodriguez, Carlos Contreras, Ismael Guillon|
|Mariners||11||Luiz Gohara, Victor Sanchez, Julio Morban|
|Indians||11||Dorssys Paulino, Ronny Rodriguez, Jose Ramirez|
|Mets||10||Rafael Montero, Wilmer Flores, Amed Rosario|
|Rockies||10||Rosell Herrera, Raimel Tapia, Emerson Jimenez|
|Padres||9||Rymer Liriano, Franchy Cordero, Gabriel Quintana|
|Cubs||9||Jorge Soler, Hak-Ju Lee, Arismendy Alcantara|
|Blue Jays||9||Franklin Barreto, Roberto Osuna, Alberto Tirado|
|Braves||7||Christian Bethancourt, Mauricio Cabrera, Jose Peraza|
|Angels||7||Ariel Pena, Ricardo Sanchez, Jose Rondon|
|Nationals||6||Pedro Severino, Eury Perez, Ivan Pineyro|
|Giants||6||Adalberto Mejia, Keury Mella, Kendrys Flores|
|Rays||6||Enny Romero, Alex Colome, Felipe Rivero|
|Marlins||5||Jose Urena, Arquimedes Caminero, Jesus Solorzano|
|Cardinals||5||Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Alexander Reyes|
|D-Backs||5||Jose Martinez, Sergio Alcantara, Geordy Parra|
|Orioles||5||Eduardo Rodriguez, Scharlon Schoop, Henry Urrutia|
|Astros||5||Michael Feliz, Teoscar Hernandez, Leo Heras|
|White Sox||4||Jose Abreu, Carlos Sanchez, Micker Zapata|
|Athletics||4||Michael Ynoa, Renato Nunez, Ronald Herrera|
5. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have eight of their own international signings in their Top 30, but they have more international signings sprinkled throughout the Prospect Handbook because they traded away seven Latin American players who rank in a Top 30 for other organizations. The Red Sox have done a fine job in the last few years on the international market under international scouting director Eddie Romero, but the trades of players such as White Sox righthander Francellis Montas, Athletics righthander Raul Alcantara and Rangers righthander Roman Mendez, among others, do skew the numbers here.
The crown jewel of Boston's young international talent is Xander Bogaerts, a potential MVP candidate signed out of Aruba in 2009. Dominican second baseman Wendell Rijo is 18, the same age as a high school senior, and is off to a terrific start in low Class A Greenville. Dominican center fielder Manuel Margot is an explosive athlete with a huge ceiling and Dominican third baseman Rafael Devers was one of the premium players on the 2013 international market.
They also have two big leaguers in Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, who the Red Sox signed out of Cuba in 2009, and Japanese righthander Junichi Tazawa, who signed as a 22-year-old in 2008.
4. Minnesota Twins
The Twins have a loaded farm system. Having a terrible major league team gave them the premium draft picks to get Byron Buxton and Kohl Stewart, while allowing them to trade away big leaguers to acquire Alex Meyer and Trevor May. Much of the rest of the system—both the potential cornerstone players and the depth at the lower levels—are a credit to their international program, led by Latin American scouting coordinator Fred Guerrero and international scouting coordinator Howard Norsetter.
Oswaldo Arcia, who signed out of Venezuela in 2007, is coming off his rookie campaign last year. Miguel Sano is out for the year with Tommy John surgery, but he's become one of baseball's premium prospects. The $3.15 million the Twins signed him for in 2009 looks like a bargain in retrospect when teams at the time were ecstatic about him but weren't willing to go to $3 million to sign him. Catcher Josmil Pinto, signed out of Venezuela in 2006, received little hype coming through the minors but is one of the game's most underrated young catchers. Shortstop Danny Santana (Dominican Republic 2007) could be the next Twins international signing to make his major league debut.
Dominican shortstop Jorge Polanco was a defensive-oriented shortstop when the Twins signed him in 2009, but he's hit over .300 at every level since 2012 and is off to a fast start as a 20-year-old in high Class A Fort Myers. There's plenty of depth in the lower levels of the system as well. Australian lefthhander Lewis Thorpe had a spectacular pro debut as a 17-year-old in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League after signing for $500,000 in 2012. Fernando Romero and Felix Jorge are both promising young righthanders the team signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2011.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
Other teams want to emulate what Pirates Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo and his staff have been able to do in the Dominican Republic. With Starling Marte, a 2007 signing, the Pirates already have one of the most exciting up-and-coming Dominican stars in their outfield. Next month they're going to add another one as soon as they promote Gregory Polanco, who's put himself in the conversation as one of the top five prospects in baseball. Neither player was a high-profile signing, and both players struggled when they first got to professional baseball. Now fly balls in Pittsburgh are going to be must-see TV with those two running around. Shortstop Alen Hanson is another Pirates’ Dominican signing who ranks among the game’s Top 100 prospects.
Pirates ownership has been willing to invest money in the Latin American market, including $3 million for Mexican righthander Luis Heredia, who's shown promising flashes at time but has struggled with injuries and conditioning. When the Pirates signed Colombian outfielder Harold Ramirez for $1.05 million in 2011 (along with Venezuelan outfielder Elvis Escobar for $575,000, also from Hugo Catrain), that raised eyebrows from other teams. Two years later, Ramirez just ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the short-season New York-Penn League. Colombian infielder Dilson Herrera, who the Pirates spotted early on and signed for $220,000, was flipped to the Mets last year to add Marlon Byrd for the stretch run.
Dominican center fielder Michael de la Cruz had his skeptics when the Pirates signed him for $700,000, but he's one of the most promising players from the 2013 Dominican Summer League.
2. Kansas City Royals
A few years back, the Royals had one of the most loaded farm systems we had ever seen, built largely on talent acquired through the draft. Yet what the organization has come up with since general manager Dayton Moore, assistant general manager Rene Francisco and Latin American scouting coordinator Orlando Estevez joined the organization in 2006 is impressive as well.
Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez wasn't a headline signing in 2006 and spent time in the minors hearing about how he was going to be Wil Myers' backup once he got to Kansas City. Now he's an all-star catcher. Dominican righthander Kelvin Herrera, another 2006 signing, has a triple-digits fastball in the bullpen. Yordano Ventura might have the best arm speed in baseball, a 22-year-old Dominican flamethrower signed for $28,000.
With Ventura losing his prospect status, the team's next three top prospects after Kyle Zimmer—shortstop Raul Adalberto Mondesi, outfielder Jorge Bonifacio and righthander Miguel Almonte—were all signed by the Royals from the Dominican Republic. There's depth beyond them too, with players like Dominican outfielder Elier Hernandez and young Italian shortstop Marten Gasparini, among others.
1. Texas Rangers
The Rangers have an enviable combination of premium players and depth from the international ranks, with former international directors A.J. Preller (now the organization's assistant general manager), Mike Daly (now the farm director) and current international director Gil Kim overseeing the team's international procurement. The player with the biggest ceiling, Jurickson Profar, has been set back this year due to a shoulder injury, and while there's probably some prospect fatigue setting in from fans, he's still a 21-year-old potential franchise player. Lefthander Martin Perez was a talented but enigmatic prospect who should be at least a mid-rotation starter for years to come. Some teams thought Leonys Martin was a fourth outfielder when the Rangers signed him out of Cuba, but he looks like a steady everyday center fielder.
Then there's the farm system, which has No. 1 prospect Rougned Odor (a Venezuelan second baseman) and Colombian catcher Jorge Alfaro. Venezuelan shortstop Luis Sardinas made his major league debut last month, and while it's debatable whether he's going to be an everyday player, his speed, defense and contact skills should make him at least a utility man.
They've traded away three of their better international signings as well, with the 2010 deal that sent Venezuelan lefthander Edwin Escobar to the Giants (now the organization's No. 2 prospect) for Rule 5 pick Ben Snyder after Escobar's first season the one they will regret the most. Mexican third baseman Christian Villanueva (sent to the Cubs in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal) and Dominican shortstop Leury Garcia (shipped to the White Sox last August for Alex Rios) also signed with the Rangers as amateurs.
For a team that's had so much success in the international market, it's notable that the Rangers haven't really stood out in the Dominican Republic, with most of their top international signings coming from other Latin American countries. First baseman Ronald Guzman, righthanders Jose LeClerc and Marcos Diplan and shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri (Venezuelan born but signed out of the Dominican Republic) could change that.