Clubs Assume Great Risk In International Market




CHICAGO—On the evening of Sept. 19, authorities in the Dominican Republic allege that Angel Villalona fatally shot a man after a dispute broke out over a seat in a bar. Villalona is in jail awaiting trial on murder charges that could land him 20 years in prison.

A first baseman in the Giants system, Villalona was the best player on the international market in 2006 and received a $2.1 million bonus. Even before his arrest, his prospect status had taken a hit after he batted a soft .267 in high Class A.

Three days after the Villalona incident, the Cardinals voided the franchise-record $3.1 million bonus they gave Dominican outfielder Wagner Mateo in July. St. Louis had the right to terminate the contract if he failed a physical within 90 days of the signing, and a subsequent exam gave the team concerns about Mateo's vision.

Mateo's bonus had been the highest among Latin American prospects this summer. It was eclipsed on Sept. 29 by Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano, who took three months to sign because MLB couldn't pinpoint exactly how old he is. The Twins gave him $3.15 millon, a record for a Latino position player, and will get their money back if he can't secure a visa.

The hype for Villalona, Mateo and Sano was nothing compared to the fanfare surrounding Michael Ynoa a year ago. A 6-foot-7 righthander with a low-90s fastball at age 16, he smashed international amateur bonus records when he signed with the Athletics for $4.25 million. Oakland has yet to get a single inning in return, as Ynoa sat out 2009 with a tender elbow.

Playing the international market is riskier than investing in penny stocks.

Murky Crystal Ball

All it takes is a glance at any list of first-round picks to see how tough it is to project the skills of 18-year-old high school and 21-year-old college players. The proliferation of showcases and the growth of college baseball and summer leagues—giving scouts more chances to see prospects in game action against quality competition—have done little to drive up success rates.

When it comes to 16-year-old Latin Americans, the crystal ball is exponentially murkier. Latin prospects are signed based on workouts, when it's a lot easier to stand out. They haven't faced anything close to pro-level hitting or pitching.

And not only do teams have to determine how these players will adapt to better competition, but they also have to guess how they'll adjust to a new culture in the United States, a process complicated by a large signing bonus.

Further complicating matters is the uncertainty surrounding the ages and identities of Latin American amateurs. The Nationals trumpeted the signing of 16-year-old Domincan shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million in 2006. When it came out this spring that his real name was Carlos Alvarez and his real age was four years older, it helped cost GM Jim Bowden his job.

Despite better efforts to verify information, records are spotty and it's easy to forge documents. MLB vetted Dominican shortstop Jose Ozoria last summer before the Indians signed him for $575,000—only to find out this spring that he's really Wally Bryan and three years older. Cleveland now will request DNA tests on any international amateur it will pay a significant bonus, and other clubs are following suit.

Not all international prospects go bust, but the track record of the biggest Latin American bonus babies is daunting. Of the 15 players who received the largest bonuses before this summer, Miguel Cabera ($1.8 million, Marlins, 1999) is the only star. The next best are Willy Aybar ($1.4 million, Dodgers, 2000) and Wily Mo Pena ($2.44 million, Yankees, 1999). Outside of slugger Jesus Montero ($1.65 million, Yankees, 2006), the rest are struggling or failed prospects.

Beware International Draft

Sentiment is growing for including international players in the draft, but there are many unresolved questions: Will international players go into the current draft, which will give many of them a better sense of how teams judge their worth? If the idea is to distribute talent more equitably, how would a combined draft help smaller-revenue clubs if they have to use picks to sign mid-level Latino players they previously could acquire as free agents? Or will there be a separate draft, creating a second set of first-round picks for which agents will be thankful?

Will 16-year-old Latin Americans continue to be eligible for pro ball, and if so, will that eventually lead to earlier entry for U.S. draftees? Or will Latinos now have to wait until they're high school seniors, like Puerto Ricans did after they were folded into the draft in 1990—a move that scouts blame for drying up that pipeline of talent?

Will unselected Latin Americans be allowed to sign as free agents after the draft, like other undrafted players currently can? If so, how is MLB going to possibly monitor the ensuing shenanigans with teams and agents conspiring to hide players? MLB already can't keep up with deals getting brokered before the signing period officially begins on July 2.

An international draft will create more problems than it will solve. Latin America isn't going to get any less volatile than the stock market.