International Year In Review
Wrapping up an eventful year abroad for MLB
See also: International Spending By Team
See also: Top 30 International Bonuses Of 2010
See also:Top 20 July 2, 2010-Eligible Bonuses
See also: Top 20 All-Time International Bonuses
It might take another decade to sort out how the 2010 international signing class compared to recent years.
For now, however, international scouting directors generally agree that while the 2010 class had some solid depth, there wasn't an elite talent in Latin America on par with Miguel Sano and Gary Sanchez in 2009 or Michael Ynoa in 2008. While no player's signing bonus surpassed the $3 million mark, there were 12 players who received bonuses of at least $1 million, a mix of 16-year-old July 2 prospects and 18-year-olds who had to work through issues regarding their ages and identities.
"We just thought the market was overpriced," said one Latin American director. "Talent-wise, I think it was a down year, but bonus-wise it didn't show up that way. Guys were still getting money."
The $2.8 million bonus for Blue Jays righthander Adonys Cardona was the highest bonus of the year, a Venezuelan record and the fourth-highest bonus ever for an international amateur. Dominican outfielder Ariel Ovando (Astros) and Mexican righthander Luis Heredia (Pirates) each received $2.6 million, tied for fifth-highest of all time. Esteilon Peguero would have topped them all with a $2.9 million bonus in December, but the Mariners changed the Dominican shortstop's bonus to $1.1 million for undisclosed reasons.
"It was a down year," said one executive. "I thought the year started out with some potential. We anticipated some of the guys being potentially impact, high-upside guys, but I think overall a lot of those guys disappointed for one reason or another. A lot of them disappointed, but a lot of them got money. I think in most of the industry there were a lot of overpays and a lot of inflated bonuses for guys at the end who didn't show what we were expecting."
Many scouts, however, said the 2010 class had quality depth among mid-range players, particularly in the Dominican Republic. The numbers bear that out, as Venezuela had 33 players get a bonus of at least $100,000, compared to 92 from the Dominican Republic. Teams spent approximately $44 million in the Dominican Republic, more than double the estimated $20 million spent in Venezuela. In all, the industry spent approximately $76 million on bonuses for international amateur prospects in 2010, a figure that doesn't include Cuban defectors.
Follow The Money
While the Dominican Republic and Venezuela remain the primary sources of amateur talent in Latin America, Colombia's piece of the pie has been increasing. Last year was a big one in Colombia, where teams spent $3.1 million on bonuses in 2010, led by the Rangers' signing of catcher Jorge Alfaro for $1.3 million in January and the Mariners' signing of righthander Jose Torres in July for $851,000, edging the bonus the Braves gave fellow Colombian righthander Julio Teheran in 2007 by $1,000.
The Cuban market continued to burst open as well. Reds lefthander Aroldis Chapman displayed the tantalizing combination of immediate impact and upside that Cuban players can provide, while other signings showed why some teams still view Cubans as overpriced gambles with a high level of uncertainty.
The Mariners were the top spenders for international amateur talent with an estimated $6.5 million budget, awarding three of the 10 highest bonuses for July 2-eligible prospects with Peguero, Torres and $2.2 million for Dominican outfielder Phillips Castillo. The Mariners didn't have a first-round pick in last year's draft and became the only team that spent more on international amateurs than it did on draft picks ($4 million) in 2010. They would have spent $8.3 million had Peguero's bonus not been reduced.
Like Seattle, the Yankees continued their run as one of the most aggressive teams internationally. The Yankees didn't hand out any million-dollar bonuses, instead spreading their approximate $5.3 million around to several top and mid-range prospects.
Last year was a breakthrough year abroad for the Pirates and Astros, both of whom opened new Dominican academies and spent around $5 million apiece on international prospects. After a strong pursuit in 2009 for Sano, the Pirates landed their top target in 2010 by signing Heredia in August. The Astros were busy adding top eligible Dominican players prior to July 2, then on July 7 signed Ovando, giving him the top bonus in 2010 for a Dominican player.
The A's showed that their international amateur record $4.25 million bonus for Ynoa in 2008 was not a one-year aberration, signing five of the top players in Venezuela and giving top Dominican center fielder Vicmal de la Cruz an $800,000 bonus. In signing Cardona, the Blue Jays added Venezuela's top pitcher and one of the country's top position prospects in third baseman Gabriel Cenas, as the club focused on adding high-upside Latin American talent rather than spreading their money for depth. The Cubs continued to show that they blanket the world as well as any team in baseball, spending heavily in Latin America, Asia and Europe while dipping into the Cuban market.
Off-field issues, however, continued to plague baseball in Latin America. In March, Sandy Alderson began his role as a consultant to oversee Major League Baseball's efforts to reform its Latin American operations. By November, Alderson had left his role to take over as general manager of the Mets. MLB tapped former Puerto Rican attorney general Jorge Perez-Diaz as Alderson's interim replacement.
Under Alderson's direction, MLB began a pilot program to have 40 of the top Dominican prospects for July 2 register with the league, which included a background check into their ages and identities and consenting to a drug test. The most notable names that became public among players who tested positive were outfielder Edwin Moreno, who signed with the Padres for $500,000, and third baseman Hector Veloz, who signed with the Orioles for $300,000.
Several international sources said that nearly half of the players tested had positive tests or issues with their paperwork, while some said they believed that other players simply stopped taking steroids early enough to avoid a positive test. Prior to July 2, MLB slapped 50-game suspensions for positive steroid tests on Padres Dominican third baseman Duanel Jones, who signed for $900,000, and Dominican righthander Michael Feliz, who agreed to terms with Oakland for $800,000 before his failed test, then signed with Houston for $400,000.
After years of complaints from team officials about the inadequacy of MLB's investigators in Latin America (ranging from shoddy work to outright accepting bribes), MLB's new investigative unit has been well-received by teams.
While the public perception may be that age fraud is not an issue in Venezuela, veteran international scouts have long known that to be inaccurate. Last year MLB caught several Venezuelan players misrepresenting their ages, including lefthander Jose Tovar, who had agreed to terms with the Rockies, and shortstops Anderson Gonzalez and Francisco Silva, who had agreed to terms with the Phillies. Those players never had their contracts approved and were not paid their bonuses.
As investigations have become more thorough, they have also become more time-consuming. Some international prospects who agreed to terms last summer only recently had their contracts approved. Other international directors said they have been waiting for contract approval on players they signed nearly a year ago.
Investigations delayed the signings of several top prospects from previous July 2 classes, including Braves shortstop Edward Salcedo ($1.6 million), Cardinals righthander Carlos Martinez ($1.5 million), Royals shortstop Orlando Calixte ($1 million) and Yankees righthander Jose Rafael DePaula ($500,000), whose bonus and contract approval are still pending DePaula's ability to secure a visa. Martinez and Calixte originally agreed to terms before the Dominican Summer League season began, but both players were able to participate in the DSL while awaiting contract approval. MLB has since changed that rule, which means players must wait until their contracts are finalized before playing in the DSL.
MLB implemented a rule in May 2008 to suspend a player for one year if he had misrepresented his age or identity. Team officials say the league has been flexible with that rule, offering leniency to players who cooperate with MLB or willingly come forward to admit fraud. Some of those suspensions, however, have had unintended consequences. Martinez, previously known as Carlos Matias, had agreed to terms with the Red Sox for $160,000 before MLB suspended him for a year. During his suspension, Martinez's market value soared as his fastball leaped up to the high-90s and he hit the open market, signing and securing a visa using the same date of birth he had originally presented to teams.
Club officials said they have had other players who more than doubled their original bonuses after getting caught for age fraud, some of them even benefiting from working with the team's player development staff while awaiting contract approval. A rule-change proposal from more than a year ago that would prevent a player from signing for more than his original bonus terms or offer the original signing team the right of first refusal has not been passed, according to one team official.
Bonus skimming was also in the news when former White Sox executive David Wilder was indicted in November on seven counts of federal mail fraud. Wilder ended up pleading guilty to one count of federal mail fraud in February 2011. Some international sources said they believe that MLB's investigative unit may help cut down on age fraud and steroid use, but that kickbacks are more difficult to police.
Going forward, trainers, agents, club officials and even scouts remain concerned about the possibility of an international draft coming after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December. The Major League Scouting Bureau began covering Latin American amateurs last year, and while team officials are mixed on whether some type of international draft is ahead, some prominent trainers believe it is imminent.
The Dominican Prospect League, founded by agents Ulises Cabrera and Brian Mejia, opened in the fall of 2009 and went through its first July 2 last year. Of the top 15 Dominican signings in 2010, eight players participated in the league at some point. Scouts have generally been receptive to the league, which allows teams to see several of the top Dominican players in game situations every Wednesday. The cost to the players to participate in the league is two percent of their signing bonuses, though scouts have said the league has raised players' prices significantly.
Other leagues have popped up around the Dominican Republic, most notably the Dominican International League, which was founded last fall and features players from La Academia, the Arias and Goodman academy, Edgar Mercedes' Born To Play academy and agent Hugo Catrain. Teams can see these leagues' players at other showcases and in their own academies as well.
This year has already opened on a sour note for a pair of notable Dominican trainers. In January, Dominican police arrested Victor Baez and charged him with fraud and falsifying identifying documents. In February, Dominican police arrested Enrique Soto and charged him with sexual molestation of two former players from alleged incidents in 2003. Dominican sources described Soto and Baez as two of the more vocal adversaries of MLB's recent efforts in the Dominican Republic and opponents of a potential international draft.