It takes years to build a quality international program.
It's a process that involves hiring the right people—both to evaluate players and to make sure those players are being handled and developed the right way—and being consistent in the market year after year, almost always with the support of ownership committed to international players.
This year we gave BA subscribers access to scouting reports on nearly 200 of the top international signings from 2010, but it will be years until we're able to sort out how each team fared abroad last year. Some teams stepped up their international spending in 2010, but it takes more than a one-year splash to create a pipeline of international talent for the major league club.
So which teams' international operations have had the greatest impact on their farm system in recent years? We're going to repeat the process we used last year to try to gauge that influence.
I went through the 2011 Prospect Handbook and counted each international signing made by an organization. The player's current organization doesn't matter; the Cubs get credit for signing shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (now with the Rays), while the Yankees get credit for righthander Arodys Vizcaino, a Braves farmhand.
Our analysis isn't a ranking of which teams have done the best job internationally or have been the most efficient with their resources. There are other variables that can influence how many international players appear in an organization's Top 30. A team with a run of poor drafts might have more space in its Top 30 for international signings than a team that drafts well. In general, though, if a team is signing and developing quality international prospects, those players should find their way into a Top 30 by the time they're in full-season ball, if not sooner. What the list does is give give us an indication of how much international talent each team has funneled into its farm system over the last five or so years.
TEAM TOP 30 NOTABLE PROSPECTS Mariners 13 Michael Pineda, Guillermo Pimentel, Greg Halman Reds 13 Aroldis Chapman, Yorman Rodriguez, Juan Francisco Mets 12 Jenrry Mejia, Wilmer Flores, Cesar Puello Rangers 12 Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar, Luis Sardinas Cubs 11 Hak-Ju Lee, Rafael Dolis, Alberto Cabrera Red Sox 11 Jose Iglesias, Felix Doubront, Engel Beltre Twins 11 Miguel Sano, Wilson Ramos, Liam Hendriks Braves 10 Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Carlos Perez Tigers 10 Francisco Martinez, Mauricio Robles, Avisail Garcia Yankees 10 Jesus Montero, Gary Sanchez, Manny Banuelos Rockies 9 Wilin Rosario, Juan Nicasio, Hector Gomez Blue Jays 8 Carlos Perez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Henderson Alvarez Padres 8 Simon Castro, Edinson Rincon, Juan Oramas Phillies 8 Jonathan Villar, Sebastian Valle, Domingo Santana Royals 8 Yordano Ventura, Cheslor Cuthbert, Robinson Yambati Angels 7 Jean Segura, Alex Torres, Fabio Martinez Giants 7 Francisco Peguero, Ehire Adrianza, Rafael Rodriguez Indians 7 Felix Sterling, Hector Rondon, Chen Lee Rays 7 Alex Colome, Enny Romero, Braulio Lara Astros 6 Ariel Ovando, Fernando Abad, Jorge DeLeon Dodgers 6 Rubby de la Rosa, Kenley Jansen, Pedro Baez White Sox 6 Dayan Viciedo, Eduardo Escobar, Gregori Infante Cardinals 5 Carlos Martinez, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas Marlins 5 Jhan Marinez, Marcell Ozuna, Arquimedes Caminero D-Backs 4 Wagner Mateo, Raul Navarro, Pedro Ciriaco Nationals 4 Eury Perez, Yunesky Maya, Adrian Sanchez Pirates 4 Starling Marte, Luis Heredia, Diego Moreno Athletics 3 Renato Nunez, Michael Ynoa, Pedro Figueroa Brewers 3 Wily Peralta, Amaury Rivas, Adrian Rosario Orioles 3 Jonathan Schoop, Luis Lebron, Pedro Florimon
Teams that have signed the most international prospects tend to have the best international programs. Quality rules over quantity, but the teams at the top of the list have generally fared better in the international market than the ones at the bottom.
Perhaps more interesting though is that teams with the most international signings in the Prospect Handbook tend to have the best farm systems. In fact, just knowing how many international signings a team has made from the Prospect Handbook is a better predictor of farm system health than the quality of an organization's recent drafts.
This impact is something we can quantify. For international signings, I simply took the numbers from the chart above. For the draft, I used our draft grades in the Prospect Handbook for each team's 2007-2009 drafts and calculated a GPA for each team. I tried weighting the draft grades more heavily for recent years and then vice versa, but it had a negligible effect on the outcome.
Obviously this method ignores 2010 draft picks since it's too early to give an honest grade to each team's draft class, and teams with prospects that reached the big leagues in a hurry like Jason Heyward or Buster Posey will have those players reflected in their draft grades but not their farm rankings. Still, the grades give us a good assessment of an organization's recent draft performance and should be reflected in the quality of a team's farm system, including three straight A grades for the Royals.
We can measure the influence of the draft grades and international signings on farm system rankings by calculating the correlation coefficient for each both, where an r = 1.0 would indicate a perfect correlation, while an r = 0 would indicate no relationship.
Talent pool r International: 0.43 Draft grades: 0.23
The results seem counter-intuitive. International prospects account for just 24 percent of players in the Prospect Handbook. Despite the growth of baseball in Latin American countries and other areas across the world, the United States (and thus, the draft) is still the predominant source of talent at the minor league and the major league level. No team can truly build a farm system through international free agency, and yet the number of international signings—even looking strictly at volume, regardless of quality or current organization—is a better indicator of farm system strength than the quality of a team's recent drafts.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think the numbers make sense. Ultimately I believe the results mainly boil down to this: there is a larger spread in the ability of teams to sign and develop international prospects compared to the ability of teams to draft good players. And there are two reasons why I think that's the case.
The draft forces teams to add prospects. Compensation picks juggle things around a bit, but in general, draft picks are distributed evenly, with almost every team getting a first-round pick and the opportunity to pick one player in each round. Some teams are more aggressive going after players who fall for signability reasons, but the majority of the impact is in the first round; nearly half of this year's Top 100 Prospects who came through the draft were first-rounders, and 75 percent went in the first three rounds.
International signings don't work that way. In the international market, a team can spend as much or as little as it wants. Money doesn't always equal talent, especially for international signings, but the Mariners awarded five of the top 30 international amateur bonuses in 2010. On the other end of the scale, the Angels, Dodgers, Marlins, Nationals and White Sox didn't give out any of the top 100 international bonuses last year. You won't see either of those two outcomes happen in the draft. The Dodgers' most expensive international signing last year cost them $50,000, while the Yankees spent more than $5 million on international amateurs last year. Sure, the Dodgers could find some bargain arms who develop into legitimate prospects like righthander Rubby de la Rosa (a $15,000 signing in 2007), but so could the Yankees, Mariners, Pirates or any of the international big spenders from last year.
The second reason I believe there's a greater spread in ability to sign quality prospects internationally than through the draft is the degree of difficulty involved. Scouting in the United States is hard work and a demanding job. It's not easy evaluating 18- to 21-year-old players in the United States, but it's another animal trying to identify future big leaguers in Latin America when they're 15-17 years old (and then hoping they really are that age). The U.S. has a more organized infrastructure to identify talent with high school showcases, summer leagues, major college programs that play 70-80 games per year and statistics available to analyze. Teams still see Latin American players in games and moreso than in the past, but not to the same degree, and the views are often private information in their own academies. There are 16-year-olds who signed for more than $1 million last July who teams admit they hadn't seen since March, and that's not uncommon. Yet it's hard to imagine a team would allow an area scout to not see a potential first-rounder for months before the draft.
Making it more difficult is that international signings are a year-round process (though again, this can be an advantage for teams that scout well abroad). Kids in Latin America essentially have to wait until the July 2 after they turn 16 to sign, but they can sign any time thereafter, which means scouts often have to stay on players well after July 2, maintaining relationships with the player and his family, feeling out other teams' interests and continuing to evaluate the player. Of course the biggest difference in the degree of difficulty between scouting U.S. players compared to Latin Americans might be the off-field work involved, not just in predicting how a player will adapt to a new culture but with the other headaches, including age fraud, steroid use and even monitoring the financial conduct of a team's own scouts.
Then there's the rest of the world outside of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the predominant sources of international talent. Every team has scouts in the U.S. to cover even the least fertile areas of talent, but there are still teams that do not have a scouting presence in places like Colombia, Panama, South Korea, Taiwan and Europe. The elimination of these markets for some clubs (which, by no coincidence, tend be the clubs near the bottom of our international signings list) only enlarges the gap between the haves and the have-nots overseas. Two decades ago, no team took advantage of this gap better than the Astros, who were pioneers in Venezuela and signed Bobby Abreu, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and Johan Santana from 1990-1995.
The draft is still the most important source of homegrown talent because of the volume of players it produces. Yet it's arguably even more crucial for a team to build a formidable international operation to exploit the spread in teams' ability to develop foreign talent. The three best farm systems—the Royals, Rays and Braves—have generally combined quality drafts with good international signings, supplementing with trades along the way.
Of course, I could be wrong. It could be simply correlation without causation, that having a good international program is indicative of a team that is generally well-run and knows what it's doing throughout all of scouting and player evaluation. It could also be the case that teams with more international prospects excel at player development, which is of critical importance with younger, more raw Latin American teenagers, and that advantage in instruction would carry over to all players. Still, it seems that the teams that are best able to conquer the challenges of the international market have a significant advantage that can't be exploited the same way through the draft.
Now, on to a look at some of the highlights of the list:
Mariners: According to Wins Above Replacement (WAR) calculations on Baseball-Reference.com, the No. 2 and No. 12 performers in baseball last year were Shin-Soo Choo and Felix Hernandez, a pair of Mariners international amateur signings added during vice president of international operations Bob Engle's watch. The Mariners seem to find talent in every country that plays baseball, they commit considerable resources to international signings, are always involved for top players and usually seem to secure the players they target.
Reds: Cincinnati spent big money to land Aroldis Chapman, Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran, but Reds Latin American scouting director Tony Arias and his staff have found plenty of promising young international players for mid-range prices. Shortstop Junior Arias, lefty Ismael Guillon and righthander Jonathan Correa were all Top 20 prospects in the Arizona League last year.
Rangers: Under former international scouting director A.J. Preller (now the team's director of player personnel) and now Mike Daly, the Rangers have used Latin America to find up-the-middle players like shortstops Jurickson Profar and Luis Sardinas and catcher Jorge Alfaro. Venezuelan lefthander Martin Perez and Dominican righthander David Perez are both high-upside arms with polish beyond their years.
Mets: We've already documented the results of the Mets international program , particularly a 2007 signing class that includes three of the Top 100 prospects in baseball. Spending big money on top bats in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela has netted them four of their Top 10 prospects with shortstop Wilmer Flores, outfielders Cesar Puello and Fernando Martinez and third baseman Aderlin Rodriguez.
Braves: Atlanta's international program has yielded baseball's best pitching prospect (Julio Teheran), the game's top Panamanian prospect (Randall Delgado) and the No. 1 prospect last year from the Rookie-level Appalachian League (Carlos Perez). This method doesn't even give them credit for Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz, a pair of 2005 signings who zoomed to the big leagues.
Cubs: The Cubs are willing to spend for top talent anywhere in the world, but they have managed to build their international program under vice president Oneri Fleita and international scouting director Paul Weaver without seven-figure signings. The organization has become a leader in South Korea and developed one of the game's best young shortstops in Starlin Castro, who like Jesus Montero was a 2006 signing.
Red Sox: Boston's international program is just beginning to graduate talent to the big league level with shortstop Yamaico Navarro and lefthander Felix Doubront, while Dominican outfielder Engel Beltre and righthander Roman Mendez have already been used in trades to try to bolster the big league club. The Red Sox are among the more active teams scouting beyond just Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, which helped them land Cuban shortstop Jose Iglesias, their No. 1 prospect, and Aruban shortstop Xander Bogaerts, a high-upside offensive threat who will make his U.S. debut this summer.
Twins: Under international scouting director Howard Norsetter, the Twins have been one of the busiest teams signing players from Europe, Asia and Australia, which has netted the club righthander Liam Hendricks and German outfielder Max Kepler. The franchise's more recent aggressive efforts in Latin America could pay off down the road, not just with Miguel Sano but others like righthander Adrian Salcedo and outfielder Oswaldo Arcia.
Tigers: Detroit has emphasized Venezuela during Tom Moore's tenure as director of international operations. Latin American scouting director Miguel Garcia helped sign Miguel Cabrera out of Venezuela with the Marlins in 1999, and of the 10 Tigers international signings in the Prospect Handbook, nine of them hail from Venezuela.
Yankees: Though they dropped from the top spot a year ago, the Yankees arguably have the most impact international talent of any organization. Four of the club's international signings are Top 100 prospects, and all of them have star potential, while the team figures to have more on the way after spending around $5.3 million on international amateurs last year.
Rockies: They haven't spent more than $1 million on an international bonus since Chin-Hui Tsao in 1999, but their Latin American track record under director of international operations Rolando Fernandez is as strong as anyone's over the last decade. Jhoulys Chacin is their latest young Latin American arm to make an impact in Colorado, which also has a bevy of power arms that have yet to hit full-season ball.