Anyone involved in international scouting has July 2 circled on his calendar.
The date, which starts the international signing period when 16-year-old international players become eligible to sign with major league clubs, marked the signing of six Latin American players to bonuses of at least $1 million in 2008. Dominican outfielder Rafael Rodriguez and Venezuelan outfielder Yorman Rodriguez made it eight later on during the time frame when they signed on their 16th birthdays.
While the majority of the high-bonus players sign on or soon after July 2, scouting Latin America is a year-round process. Once a player becomes eligible to sign on July 2, he remains eligible to sign at any point. Several promising young big league players from Latin America—Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Pablo Sandoval, to name a few—waited until after the international signing period ended to sign.
Talented players can make it through the international signing period unsigned for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a player will have a strong offer from a club, but his agent will hold off from having his client sign, perhaps in an attempt to get him a little bit stronger to show more power or fastball velocity, or to allow him to recover from an injury. Other times an agent has put a price tag on a player that no team is willing to match, forcing him to finally come down from his steep asking price to a level more in line with the player's talent. Other players experience rapid growth, either physically or with their skills, some players don't have knowledgeable representation, while others simply fly under the radar.
Rolando Fernandez is in his eighth season as the Rockies' director of Latin American operations and his 16th season overall with the organization after serving four years as the team's roving Latin American Coordinator, coaching in the Rookie-level Arizona League from 1994-97 and in the same role at high Class A Visalia for half the year. During Fernandez's tenure heading the team's efforts in Latin America, the Rockies have consistently imported Latin American players into the organization and developed them into quality prospects.
Their strategy, however, hasn't been to throw piles of money at players on July 2. Instead, the Rockies have had success waiting until after the the international signing period bubble to sign quality prospects. In April 2001, the Rockies signed righthander Ubaldo Jimenez. In November 2002, the Rockies signed lefthander Franklin Morales. In September 2004, Colorado landed Venezuelan righthander Jhoulys Chacin, and in February 2006 the club agreed to terms with Dominican catcher Wilin Rosario. All of these players were 16 at the time of signing except for Jimenez, who was 17.
Chacin and Rosario are the No. 2 and No. 4 prospects, respectively, in the organization. Four other Latin American players in the Rockies' top 30 this year—righthanders Esmil Rogers, Aneury Rodriguez, Juan Morillo and third baseman Jonathan Herrera—all signed at age 17, well after their international signing periods began and ended.
In the last four months, the Rockies have been the most aggressive team in Latin America, signing five players to six-figure bonuses. The top sign was Dominican outfielder Julian Yan, who signed a mid six-figure bonus in November. A wiry 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, the righty-hitting Yan is a good athlete with baseball bloodlines. Yan, 17, has good raw power and can hit the ball to all fields, showing average to solid-average speed. With his youth and frame his speed could still slightly improve, but his plus arm would still play well in right field and his bat could also profile well in a corner because of his raw power.
In addition to signing Venezuelan righthander Alving Megias in November, the Rockies also added three Dominican righthanders in January, each with a similar profile. Jose Belen, 17, has a highly projectable 6-foot-2, 160-pound frame and already pitches at 88-91 mph. With his wiry body and loose, quick arm action, Belen could add 30-40 pounds and have at least a plus fastball in the future. He throws a curveball and a changeup, though he's still fairly raw.
Ramon Hurtado, 17, has a projectable 6-foot-3, 175-pound frame that should fill out and add velocity to his 88-90 mph fastball. Hurtado has a loose arm and a sound delivery, with some feel for his curveball and changeup. Manuel Montilla, 17, is 6-foot-3 but more physically mature than Belen and Hurtado, with a fastball that already regularly peaks at 92. He projects as a future power arm, complementing his fastball with a curve and a change.
The Cardinals' presence in Latin America has been steadily growing. The organization was one of the top-spending teams in the region in 2008, highlighted by the $1.1 million signing of Dominican third baseman Roberto de la Cruz, one of the best available bats last year with good bat speed, power and feel for hitting.
In December, the Cardinals landed one of the toolsiest players available since the end of the 2008 international signing period, inking Dominican center fielder Jose Pena to a $350,000 bonus. Pena, who turns 17 on May 26, has a solid physique at around 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, showing a little more room to fill out an already well-developed frame. Pena is an above-average runner with an average arm and has a line-drive swing with gap power from the right side.
In November, the Blue Jays gave $300,000 to Garis Pena, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic. Pena, who turns 17 on March 10, has grown two inches since signing and is now 6-foot-1, showing a strong arm and athleticism. His power is below-average, though he could grow into average power in time. The righthanded-hitting Pena is a polished player relative to his peers and might start his career in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
While the Brewers' laid relatively dormant during the 2008 international signing period—having seven of the draft's top 100 picks probably didn't help the international budget—they have signed three Dominican prospects to six-figure bonuses since November.
Milwaukee gave $225,000 each to shortstop Andres Martinez in November and righthander Heri Olivo in February. Martinez, who turned 17 on Jan. 26, is an athletic shortstop and a 65 runner on a 20-80 scouting scale, showing 4.15-second speed from home to first. A righthanded hitter, Martinez's defense is further along than his hitting. He projects to stay at shortstop, showing good hands, an above-average arm with a quick release and more steadiness than flash at the position.
Olivo, who turned 17 in June, has a fastball that sits at 90-91 mph and ranges from 89-93. At 6-foot-3 and around 180 pounds, Olivo shows some feel for a curveball and has a changeup, though he lacks control of those offerings. Olivo has a loose, quick arm and throws from a three-quarters arm slot with a solid delivery for his age.
The Brewers also handed out a low six-figure bonus to Dominican center fielder Juan Barrini. A 6-foot-2, 175-pounder with 65 speed, Barrini is athletic with a 55 arm and occasional gap power. He turned 17 on Jan. 1.
Padres Stay Active
San Diego has become one of the most active teams in the international market the last two years, signing Dominican shortstop Jonathan Galvez for $750,000 in 2007, then landing three players—righthander Adys Portillo, outfielder Luis Domoromo and shortstop Alvaro Aristy—for seven-figure bonuses on July 2 last year.
The Padres have three more players for six-figure bonuses since, including Dominican righthander Eugenio Reyes for $200,000 in December. Reyes, 18, is older than most Latin American signings, and turns 19 in February. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Reyes is physically mature and already throwing 90-93 mph with some life and touching 94-95. Reyes has a curveball, though it's a below-average pitch and he could ultimately switch to a slider with his power arm. His changeup is also below-average, so he could end up in a bullpen role.
San Diego also gave low six-figure deals to Venezuelan righthander Carlos Pimentel and Dominican shortstop Jairo Gomez in November. Pimentel, 17, is 6-foot-2, 175 pounds with a fringe-average fastball at 87-90 mph, a loose arm and feel for a curve and a changeup from a high three-quarters arm slot. Gomez, who turned 17 in January, is 6-feet, 170 pounds. He's not the toolsiest player—he's an average runner with gap power from the right side who could outgrow shortstop and move to second base—but he has good hands, feel for the game and a body with some projection remaining.
Guatemalan righthander Marlon Calveira isn't the same caliber of prospect as San Diego's three other signings, but his signing was unusual because teams have rarely signed any players from Guatemala, a country of about 13 million people. Calveira, 18, is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with an 86-89 mph fastball.
Other Notable Signings
The Pirates signed Jean Carlos Ozoria, a righthander from the Dominican Republic who turns 17 on March 16. Ozoria has good size at around 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, throwing 88-91 mph with some sink and good control for his age. With a good delivery and a loose arm, Ozoria also throws a curveball and a changeup, showing feel to spin the curve.
Oscar Taveras doesn't have the same tools as Jose Pena, but the Cardinals landed the Dominican outfielder for a low six-figure bonus in November. The lefty-hitting, lefty-throwing Taveras turns 17 in June and is a wiry 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. His best tool is his bat, as he's a contact-oriented hitter with a good approach. He could start out in center field but his speed and arm strength might be better suited for left field, where his below-average power doesn't profile as well.
In the Far East, the Diamondbacks are getting more involved, most recently with the signing of South Korean catcher Kae-Yun Kim. Kim, 17, played for his country's junior national team. Kim's receiving skills are highly advanced for his age, showing good mobility behind the plate and blocking skills with a 50 to 55 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale.