Prospect Pulse: July 26

International signing period kicks off with big money signings




No scout, no journalist, no front-office executive, even no agent could ever remember seeing it.

A signing bonus, trumpeted in a press release by a major league club. A big signing bonus, $1.4 million. For a 16-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic.

No wonder the Nationals have a nickname for Esmailyn Gonzalez: Smiley. It fits his first name, and it has to fit a description of his visage after he signed the second-largest reported bonus since the July 2 international signing period began.

"He's always got a smile, he's got the good face," Nationals scouting director Dana Brown joked when discussing Gonzalez.

But Gonzalez didn't bring smiles to the faces of other organizations. It was the most blatant example of what to many seemed to be an over-inflated international market, one that heated up in the first week of July.

Plenty of good talent was still available, such as shortstop Carlos Truinfel (represented by Scott Boras) and infielder Balbino Fuenmayor, as well as plenty of players with lower profiles. In fact, Mariners Pacific Rim coordinator Ted Heid said, "July 2 is only one day. It's a beginning, not an end."

The international signing period begins in July and ends at the end of August, with players who turn 16 during the period eligible to sign when they are 16. In other words, timing counts, and the right mix of player, tools and organization can result in some stunning signing bonuses.

Gonzalez got $1.4 million from the Nationals, which several scouts from other clubs said was not a true reflection of his talent. It's not often a 5-foot-9 player gets such a bonus, but Brown said he would concentrate on what Gonzalez can do--defend up the middle, switch-hit and run above-average--rather than focus on the negative.

"Our philosophy is to add good, impact players to our system," Brown said. "Now everybody knows that we will be aggressive in strengthening our system. And this sends a great message to our scouts, that we are going to be a player (in the draft and internationally). I'm like a kid in a candy store."

Eight Is Never Enough

The consensus top talent was a catcher, but prior to the July 2 date, speculation was that Francisco Pena would garner the top bonus. The son of Tony Pena (now a coach with the Yankees) and younger brother of Braves shortstop Tony Pena Jr., catcher Francisco Pena has a mature 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame and raw power potential. And he did pull a large bonus, signing for $750,000 with the Mets.

But the catcher getting the top bonus was Jesus Montero, who snagged $2 million from the Yankees. International scouting director Lin Garrett said the Yankees weren't trying to send a message to anybody, but few organizations have the resources to go for both quality and quantity in the July 2 period. Aside from signing Montero, the Yankees added eight players total, three from Venezuela and five from the Dominican Republic. (The Rangers had signed the most players at press time--reportedly 18). Garrett said he hopes the organization was not done yet, as general manager Brian Cashman authorized the international scouting department to be aggressive this summer.

"I would say we went to Brian early and said we thought this was a special year, and we needed to be heavily involved," Garrett said. "It's the quantity of the quality that is so impressive. It's like three years wrapped into one."

While the consensus of other scouts involved internationally disputed Garrett's claim--one said flatly, "It's average--there's just a lot of money for teams to spend."--the consensus also held that Montero was the prize catch of the international period. Garrett termed him a "special case," explaining why the organization was willing to sign on for a seven-figure bonus for a 16-year-old catcher with a 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame some have termed as mature.

Another reason to splurge: The Yankees have little catching depth in the farm system, a problem ever since they traded Dioner Navarro, now with the Devil Rays, to the Diamondbacks in the Randy Johnson deal in January 2005.

While two scouts from National League organizations said they believed Montero's future lies elsewhere on the diamond, Garrett said the Yankees have confidence he can remain a catcher as he moves up the ladder. And Garrett enjoyed hearing that many scouts had touted Montero's raw power as pegging the 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

"That's a fact," Garrett said of Montero's power. "His signing is the result of two years of evaluating this player. We've seen him in drills, in workouts, in games, in Venezuela, in the Dominican, in Tampa, with in-home visits . . . There has been a thorough evaluation of his physical attributes but also of his makeup.

"I'm pretty well convinced he can catch. His makeup and work ethic will allow him to (maintain his body). He has the intelligence and the aptitude for the position, and overall, the bat will play."

One of the NL scouting directors said of Montero, "He was hitting home runs to center field in Valencia, which is pretty tough to do. The question is where does he play? The body is pretty maxed out. He looks like Travis Hafner at age 16."

The Yankees also signed Venezuelan shortstop Jose Pirela for a reported $300,000. Pirela has good hands and an above-average arm, but his speed might be his best tool. The third Venezuelan the organization signed is catcher Francisco Arcia. New York also nabbed five Dominicans: outfielders Carlos Martinez Urena (who reportedly signed for $350,000) and Arielky LaPay, shortstops Jimy Paredes and Jose Toussen and righthander Hairo Heredia. Garrett said Heredia had "now stuff," which prompted the Yankees to make him the only pitcher they have signed so far. He also characterized Toussen and Urena as players with present offensive skills and future power potential.

"You try to sign what you can out of the elite group of players," Garrett said. "But you also need quantity when you talk about 16-year-olds. No one's that good of an evaluator."

High-Stakes Wagers

That was the estimation of two veteran talent evaluators who were involved in the international marketplace this summer as well. So they had a hard time contemplating the large sums thrown around. But that didn't mean they lacked explanations.

The Mets signed two of the top players last summer and gave out the largest bonus of last year's period to outfielder Fernando Martinez, who got $1.4 million. Martinez got the largest bonus of the international signing period, but the Mets balked at giving a bonus in that neighborhood to junior college draft-and-follow Pedro Beato, who signed for $1 million. That got one scout to thinking.

"I think it's a direct result of this de facto slot system we have in the draft," said one American League scouting director, who also was involved internationally. "The teams that are spending big money internationally are often the same teams that play by the edict of the commissioner on this slotting system in the draft. The Mets are one; the Brewers are another.

"Teams are deciding they'd rather not put themselves and the kids they draft through this ringer with the commissioner yelling at the owner and holding that process up. I think they've just decided to draft guys for slot and then spend internationally instead, where it's more wide-open, and I think that's a part of this inflation. I'm hearing there are around eight or 10 signings of $500,000."

In fact, Baseball America had hard information on seven: Montero, Gonzalez and Pena; Korean righthander Jung-Yun Il, whom the Angels signed for $1 million; two Red Sox signees in Dominicans Angel Beltre ($575,000) and Oscar Tejeda ($525,000); and Mariners signee Mario Martinez ($600,000), a Venezuelan.

"There's definitely some depth of talent this year," said an American League international scout, "but these guys are all 16, with zero pedigree. That's what makes it so difficult to see the kind of money spent on some of these guys. It's more hype than substance. I don't want to run down anyone's players because that's not professional, but there's one guy out there with one real tool, one real special tool, and that's Montero with his power.

"There are just so many unknowns. There are good players, like (Scott) Boras' clients--those are good players. But you hear a $3 million price tag and I just shake my head. It doesn't make sense for my organization to spend $3 million when the separation between a player you sign for that is not very much from a player you can sign for $100,000."

Far East Rumblings

The Braves and Indians made significant splashes in the Far East in the first week of the period, with both teams signing pitchers out of Taiwan, while the Braves locked up a Japanese high school catcher and the Indians signed an Australian shortstop.

The story of the Braves' signee out of Japan, 16-year-old Ryohei Shimabukuro, is the most unusual one, because American organizations are not allowed to sign Japanese high school players. They are subject to the Japan League draft. But Shimabukuro was eligible to sign because his high school in Osaka didn't have a high school program, and he had dropped out of high school after baseball had been discontinued in his freshman season. The school's coach was embroiled in a scandal for unusual methods of discipline.

"Our scout there (Hiroyuki Oya) had seen him when he was 14, when we were scouting Takumi Hamaoka," said Australia-based Phil Dale, the Braves' top Pacific Rim scout. "He liked Shimabukuro then, and he stayed with him. It was a really good job by him, because usually we can't sign Japanese high school players. He was known to be one of the best junior-high hitters in Osaka, but then he didn't get to play this year.

"The bat's beautiful. Dave Nilsson and Pat Kelly and Rod Carew are all down here at the baseball academy in Australia, and they are all saying he's got the best swing here. He's a little bit better than we thought we had (offensively)."

The Hamaoka signing has worked so far for the Atlanta. Signed in 2004 as an 18-year-old, Hamaoka was off to a 5-for-16 start in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Now it has led them to sign Shimabukuro. Dale said Shimabukuro's receiving skills behind the plate are fair, but his arm strength, which is below average, will have to improve for him to remain a catcher.

The media in Japan swarmed Shimabukuro (listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds) when he signed, necessitating a press conference. Shimabukuro, whose mother is from Argentina and who speaks Spanish well, is the youngest Japanese player to sign with an American organization and told the Japanese media that he had dreamed of playing in the major leagues. He'll get his first experience in Australia, where major league organizations pool their players in an informal league modeled on the Rookie-level Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues.

Shimabukuro's signing bonus apparently wasn't too significant, as Braves officials said they didn't have much competition for his services. He will come to the U.S. for instructional league in the fall and then for the first time long-term for spring training next year. Because he is fluent in Spanish, the Braves have options with him for 2007. He could go back to Australia, play in either the VSL or DSL, or play in a U.S. league, which would require a visa.

Dale said the Braves also were excited about the signing of a prep righthander from Taiwan, righthander Chen-En Hung. Area scout Jeremy Chu did the legwork on the signing, with Dale and international scouting director Rene Francisco also scouting Hung, a slender 6-foot-1 with a projectable build from Kaoshiung.

"He touches 90 (mph) already and has nice secondary stuff, and his arm works easy," Dale said. "He kind of reminds you of Chien-Ming Wang the way his arm works."

The Indians signed Australian shortstop Jason Smit for a reported $350,000 bonus. Smit has two potentially above-average tools in his bat and his throwing arm, and he has some athletic ability as well. He's considered the top prospect out of Australia eligible to sign this summer.

The Indians also signed Taiwan's top amateur pitcher, Tseng Sung-Wei, for a similar bonus. The 21-year-old Tseng pitched for Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic, was the No. 4 prospect in the Alaska League last summer while pitching for the Anchorage Bucs, and pitched six shutout innings against USA Baseball's college national team in his first start, and allowed up three runs in the second outing. Indians scouting director John Mirabelli was at both starts and confirmed the club had signed Tseng, though he did not confirm the signing bonuses.

"We were able to see both players against American competition," he said, "and that was a reason we felt comfortable spending some money on them. We had Smit in our extended spring camp, and he swung the bat well against low-90s fastballs and 80-mile-an-hour sliders. That was what sold us. And the 5-foot-11 Tseng pitched well in Alaska, which was when we started to follow him, and against Team USA. That was important."

Team USA manager Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt) said Tseng had a very clean arm action on a fastball that topped out in the 90-93 mph range, to go with a hard slider in the low 80s range.

"He was outstanding," USA national team general manager Eric Campbell said. "That guy is very refined. He has a good fastball, and knew how to pitch both sides, up and down."

Refined players are hard, if not impossible, to come by in the international ranks. Clubs are spending money based on the hard work of their scouts, on the projections they make for mostly 16-year-old players. And this year, they are spending a lot based on those projections.

QUICK HITS

• Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton might have been the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, netting a $6.1 million big league deal, but scouts that have seen him as a pro in the low Class A Midwest League have been relatively unimpressed. Upton, who was drafted as a shortstop, but was moved to the outfield before the regular season began, was hitting .278-7-39 in 263 at-bats. A scout from a National League club who followed Upton for two weeks described him as more or less being on auto-pilot. "He's just lethargic right now," the scout said. "I don't know if he's waiting until he gets to the big leagues to turn it on or what. I mean, I've seen him a bunch and the fastest I've gotten him down the line is a 4.2--and we all know he's got more speed than that. So just right now, the tools aren't playing like they should. They're just not playing. I'm not going to say he's lost--all I can say is his play does not do his ability justice right now. I don't known if it's lethargy, lack of interest or what have you, but when you leave the ballpark after seeing him, you're frustrated. You just want to see something--something that I can say, 'There it is.' There's no question it's there--this guy can hit balls out of freakin' stadiums. He's just not letting anyone see it."

• Keeping on the Diamondbacks' tip, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez was one player who left a lasting impression on scouts who saw him at the Futures Game. Gonzalez, who didn't make the California League all-star team despite hitting .315-14-75 in 314 at-bats, was signed out of Venezuela in 2002. "Gonzalez was the guy we were all talking about," a front office executive from an American League club said. "He can hit, run, throw--the bat speed is plus and the power is in there. His running is just OK, and he'll probably slow down some more as he gets bigger, but that's OK with me. He's really quiet in his approach--there's no wasted movement there. He's got such quick hands to the ball because of that hand-eye coordination and he has that big-time natural raw power. He doesn't try to hit home runs. Home runs are a result of his approach."

Contributing: Chris Kline.