A new era for international baseball is about to begin.
When July 2 arrives, so too will the new rules on international spending, and indications are that prices are falling in Latin America.
With teams limited to spending $2.9 million each (with a handful of minor exemptions) before penalties kick in, aggregate spending in the international amateur market is expected to drop. While three international amateur free agents signed for at least $3 million last year, the top players in this year's class are unlikely to get anywhere near that mark. There might not even be a player who eclipses $2 million.
The more skeptical view in the international community is that the money won't significantly change, it will just be passed under the table now. It will be up to MLB to police, but several sources have reiterated that they believe the teams will try different tactics (previously detailed in Baseball America) to circumvent the new international spending limits.
"I understand what (MLB is) trying to do and I support it, but the more restrictions you place on these people, the more they're going to try to cheat," said one Latin American director. "The restrictions create a sense of, 'Oh man, we've got to beat the system.' "
Most of the action for the top players will involve the usual big international spenders, though the White Sox and Diamondbacks may become bigger players in the market, and the Nationals could be among the other sleepers ready to make a bigger move.
It's always hard to gauge the overall level of talent available, but Venezuela has several players who have track records of hitting in games. The Dominican Republic doesn't have any position players on par with some of the recent top players like Miguel Sano, Gary Sanchez, Ronald Guzman or Elier Hernandez, and the pitching crop is also thin at the top.
That hasn't stopped the players' representatives from asking for what scouts view as exorbitant prices (although that is nothing new), particularly in the Dominican Republic. With the new rules, players with outlandish asking prices may be left in the dust by the end of July, however, after teams have already spent a good chunk of their $2.9 million—especially because many teams don't plan to use their entire budgets.
We'll have more reports on players as July 2 approaches, but here are some of the bigger names to watch.
Franklin Barreto, SS/CF, Venezuela
Scouts love history on a player, and nobody has a better or longer track record than Barreto, who has been a standout player in international tournaments since he was 10. In 2006, Barreto helped lead a Venezuelan team to a 10-and-under Criollitos de America championship over Cuba.
In September 2008 at the COPABE Pan American 12-and-under tournament, Barreto led Venezuela to a championship while winning MVP honors and leading the tournament in home runs. Later that month he led an undefeated Venezuelan team to a Criollitos de America title and was named the 2008 athlete of the year by the Corporación Criollitos of Venezuela.
Barreto added another tournament MVP trophy to his collection in July 2010 at the 14-and-under Pan American championship before exploding for the Venezuelan team in Mexico last August at the 16-and-under World Championship. Barreto was Venezuela's best hitter and batted .515/.568/.978 (17-for-33), tied for the tournament lead with three home runs (including two against Team USA) and led the tournament with eight stolen bases in eight attempts. Barreto also played briefly in the Venezuelan Parallel League this winter, going 5-for-11 (.455) with four stolen bases in four tries.
Barreto, a 16-year-old from Miranda, now trains with Ciro Barrios and has continued to draw attention for his righthanded bat. His stature (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) and lack of physical projection are concerns, but his bat makes him one of the top prospects in this year's class. He recognizes pitches well, has great hand speed, has a short path to the ball and uses the whole field. He's small but strong, hitting hard line drives and showing surprising power in game situations, with the potential for 15-20 home runs a season.
With plus-plus speed, where Barreto ends up defensively is still up in the air. He's played both shortstop and center field and has worked out for teams at both spots. While he has spent considerable time at shortstop, his footwork and actions there aren't great, so many scouts believe he'll end up moving to either center field or second base. The most optimistic comparisons range from Rafael Furcal with less defense to Shane Victorino.
Barreto is expected to command one of the biggest bonuses in Latin America this year, possibly in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. The Blue Jays have signed several of Barrios' most expensive players in recent years, and they were believed to be the frontrunner to sign Barreto.
Luis Torrens, C, Venezuela
Like Barreto, Torrens is no stranger to the international circuit. Torrens, a 16-year-old from Carobobo in Valencia, is a longtime teammate of Barreto's on Venezuelan travel teams, including the 10-and-under Criollitos de America championship team in 2006, the team that won the 12-and-under Criollitos de America title in 2008 and at the 14-and-under Pan American championship in 2010. Torrens also played at the Junior Caribbean Series in April 2011 in Barquisimeto, though he didn't go to Mexico with the 16-and-under team for the World Championship.
Torrens trains with former Yankees international scouting director Carlos Rios, who in addition to representing amateur players was also the general manager of the Diablos Rojos in the first year of Panama's new winter league. Torrens played for the Diablos Rojos in Panama last winter and hit .255/.275/.303 in 66 at-bats, showing he could already hold his own as a 15-year-old.
For most of his life, Torrens played shortstop, but he moved to third base about a year and a half ago. Scouts have long pictured Torrens, who is 6 feet, 170 pounds and not blessed with great speed, as a future catcher. For awhile it seemed that Torrens wanted to stay at third base, the position he played in February at the MLB showcase in the Dominican Republic, but he decided to move behind the plate later that month and will sign as a catcher.
That will obviously increase Torrens' value if he can stick there, but he's always drawn interest for his ability to hit. He has a loose, fluid swing and a good idea of what he's doing at the plate for someone who turned 16 on May 2. He has good plate coverage, hits from right-center field over to his pull side and can generate loft. He shows doubles power in games now and could develop average power in time once he fills out, but his game will be more about hitting for average and getting on base. Torrens' defense is obviously in the early stages, but he caught a little bit when he was younger, so he does have a background that should help him with the transition.
Some scouts prefer Torrens to Barreto, and their bonuses figure to be around the same area. The Yankees have a history of taking premium international catchers, including Gary Sanchez of the Dominican Republic in 2009 and Venezuela's Jesus Montero in 2006 (a player Rios signed when he was with the Yankees), and they have been the team most strongly linked to Torrens at this point.
Gustavo Cabrera, OF, Dominican Republic
In August 2010, first baseman Ronald Guzman and outfielder Nomar Mazara led the Dominican Republic to a junior division RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) World Series title in Jupiter, Fla. The following July 2, the Rangers signed Guzman for $3.45 million and Mazara for $4.95 million, the two highest international amateur bonuses of all time. Cabrera also played in the RBI World Series last summer, leading his Dominican team to the 2011 championship at Target Field in Minnesota. Cabrera earned MVP honors, going 2-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base in the championship game.
In terms of raw tools, there may not be a player this year who can match Cabrera. A 16-year-old from La Romana, Cabrera plays in the Dominican Prospect League and works out in Santo Domingo with Cristian Batista, who is known as "Niche" in the Dominican Republic. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Cabrera has a thick build but is one of the better athletes and fastest runners in Latin America. He has plus-plus speed, which gives him good range in center field, and a strong arm. His body type has scouts questioning how much of his speed he'll retain as he gets older. At the plate, Cabrera also has above-average raw power, making him an intriguing player with power and speed.
For all of his tools, Cabrera still leaves scouts wanting to see more from him at the plate in games. There's some length to the swing and his hitting mechanics will need to be ironed out to help him get better balance. Cabrera does a lot of things that grade out well on the 20-80 scale, but he will need to show scouts that his tools will translate. Some teams think the Royals may make a play for Cabrera.
Jose Mujica, RHP, Venezuela
Former big league shortstop Carlos Guillen established a Venezuelan academy in 2010, and he had enough money to build one of the best facilities and attract the best players in the country. His first gem is Mujica, whom many scouts consider the best pitcher in Latin America this year.
Mujica, who turns 16 on June 29, was one of the top performers at the MLB showcase in February in the Dominican Republic, where he threw two scoreless innings with no hits, one walk and a strikeout. His raw stuff isn't quite as powerful as that of Victor Sanchez, the Venezuelan righthander who signed with the Mariners last year for $2.5 million, but Mujica combines quality stuff with clean arm action and loose, fluid mechanics, though he can get a bit upright in his delivery. He's a strike-thrower who has touched 93 mph with heavy action, and he should eventually sit with a plus fastball. He's a bit stiff-wristed and his breaking ball gets slurvy, but he already flashes a good changeup with sink that some scouts think could be a plus-plus pitch in the future.
Mujica should be able to command a bonus just north of $1 million, with the Blue Jays the team most frequently linked to him.
Luis Castro, SS, Venezuela
For some scouts, the player in Latin America with the best chance to hit and hit for power is Castro, a 16-year-old who trains with Jose Aguiar. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Castro has shown ability to hit in games and has represented Venezuela in international tournaments, including the Junior Caribbean Series in April 2011 and the 16-and-under World Championship last August. Castro shined in Mexico, where he went 14-for-24 with four doubles, four walks and two strikeouts for a .583/.655/.750 slash line, tying for the tournament lead in OBP and doubles while tying for second in batting average. His performance included a 4-for-5 game with two walks and two stolen bases against Team USA.
Castro combines a sound approach to hitting with good bat speed. He's not especially athletic, but scouts think there's projection in his body and he has more size than Barreto, so he has a chance to hit for both average and power. Castro's a fringy runner at best, so a lot of scouts expect him to slide over to third base, where he spent a lot of time at the World Championship. He'll probably never have outstanding range, but scouts have said he can field cleanly and has a solid arm with good instincts. Some scouts have even thought about putting him behind the plate, though he's expected to sign and develop as an infielder. The Rockies have shown the most interest in Castro, who will likely sign for close to $1 million.
Alexander Palma, OF, Venezuela
The top position player in Guillen's academy this year is Palma, another Venezuelan who has proven himself on the international circuit. Palma, a 16-year-old from Miranda, played with Barreto and Castro at the 16-and-under World Championship last August and hit .429/.462/.514 in 35 at-bats. He was a standout at the MLB showcase in February in the Dominican Republic, where he went 3-for-7 with a double and three walks.
At 6 feet, 200 pounds, Palma is one of the more advanced hitters in Latin America. He has shown he can hit in games and some scouts think his righthanded swing is cleaner than Castro's. He makes a lot of contact, and while some scouts want to see him show more power in games given that he's a corner outfielder, others contend he has plenty of juice in his bat. Palma has a thick lower half and will have to maintain his conditioning, but he's an average runner with a good arm that will play well in right field.
Palma's bonus could come close to $1 million, with the Yankees making the strongest push to sign him.
Jose Castillo, LHP, Venezuela
Among the Top 100 Prospects in baseball entering the 2012 season, only two players were born in Venezuela, a somewhat disturbing figure as teams continue to pull their academies out of the country. Both of them, Mariners catcher Jesus Montero and Rangers lefthander Martin Perez, trained with Felix Olivo, who now has a hot lefthander in Castillo as July 2 approaches.
Castillo, 16, pitched at the MLB showcase in the Dominican Republic in February and threw two scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and four strikeouts, the most of any pitcher at the tournament. At the time, he drew attention for his performance, clean mechanics and a projectable 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, but scouts wanted to see more from him than a mid-80s fastball. He's peaking at the right time, with scouts reporting that he has been up to 91-92 mph, though there have been some issues with his command. He's mixing in a changeup and a curveball as well.
The Padres and Red Sox may be the most active teams pursuing Castillo, who may also be able to command a bonus around $1 million.
Amed Rosario, SS, Dominican Republic
Before Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara signed for $4.95 million last year on July 2 out of Ivan Noboa's program, he grew up playing in La Javilla youth league in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. One of his longtime teammates growing up was Rosario, and while they're only seven months apart in age, Rosario's November 1995 birthdate put him in a different signing class. He trains with John Carmona, who also is the president of La Javilla.
Rosario, 16, was one of the top performers at the MLB showcase in February in the Dominican Republic, where he went 4-for-7 with a double and a walk. He has grown in recent months and is now around 6-foot-3, 170 pounds with long limbs and a lanky build. Rosario is an average runner and some scouts think he may end up at third base, but right now scouts have said he shows terrific instincts at shortstop, with good hands, a strong arm and the ability to make the barehanded play.
He has good bat speed and flashes promising raw power in batting practice that should continue to develop. He may have to make some adjustments at the plate. He has a leg kick that gets him out on his front foot against offspeed stuff, and some scouts think his stroke tends to get too uphill at times. Scouts praise Rosario for his makeup and background. His father is a lawyer who is expected to be influential in the signing, and Rosario is scheduled to graduate from high school shortly before July 2.
Luiz Gohara, LHP, Brazil
It was 20 years ago that the Blue Jays signed Brazilian righthander Jose Pett for $700,000, a record at the time for an international amateur player (Pett never reached the big leagues). Now Gohara, a big-bodied 6-foot-3 Brazilian lefty, is generating buzz.
Gohara may be the biggest wild card in this year's July 2 class. Some teams have said he won't leave Brazil, a country that few teams scout and few player sign out of. However, Gohara has a track record, having played in Brazilian amateur national tournaments since he was 10. He represented his country at the 14-and-under Pan American championship two years ago and again last August at the 16-and-under World Championship. Gohara made four relief appearances there and was named the best pitcher at the tournament after throwing 7 1/3 innings with one run (it was unearned), three hits, two walks and eight strikeouts.
If Gohara came out of the Dominican Republic, every team in the league would have seen him, but several clubs have yet to get a recent look at Gohara, though many of them did fly down to watch him pitch in a recent tournament in Brazil. Gohara's velocity and command have been inconsistent, but he has reached the low 90s with his fastball, an increase from the 86-87 mph he was showing last summer.
A few sources have speculated that the Mariners may be pursuing Gohara, who will be able to sign when he turns 16 on July 31. Seattle is one of the teams that does have history signing Brazilian players, including righthander Thyago Vieira for $65,000 two years ago, and the Mariners haven't been noted in connection with any other high-profile players this year despite being a perennial big spender.