International Signings Carrying Mets Farm System
Six teams' top prospects coming into the 2010 season were from Latin America.
It should be of little surprise that two of those teams were the Mets and Yankees, two of the biggest spenders in Latin America. The only team whose top three prospects came exclusively from Latin America, however, was the Mets.
It was no one-year fluke. The three best Mets prospects heading into the 2011 season are again all Latin American, as are five of their top 10 prospects overall.
The Mets' underwhelming recent drafts can explain part of that ratio. From 2008-2010, just four teams spent less money on bonuses than the Mets. None of the team's top four picks from the 2007 draft are likely to factor into the organization's future plans.
Yet the Mets' international program has kept the system stocked with intriguing Latin American talent and has already produced three big leaguers signed since 2005. Their 2007 international signing class in particular might be one of the best years any team has had in Latin America in recent history.
While the Mets transition from Omar Minaya, baseball's first Latino general manager, to new GM Sandy Alderson, who has spent the last year trying to clean up baseball's problems in Latin America, other teams have noticed what the Mets have accomplished in Latin America.
Eddy Toledo, a former Dominican supervisor with the Mets, joined the Rays after the 2006 season. In December 2007, the Cardinals hired Juan Mercado, who had been a Mets scout in the Dominican Republic, as their Latin American supervisor. After Ramon Pena and the Mets parted ways in September 2009, Pena, who had been a special assistant to Minaya in charge of overseeing the organization's day-to-day operations in the Dominican Republic, hooked on with the Indians as their director of Latin American operations later that year.
In December, Alderson filled the Mets' vacancy at scouting director by hiring Chad MacDonald, who had previously worked as the Diamondbacks international scouting director. Despite a regime change that has included heavy front office turnover, Alderson did retain international scouting director Ismael Cruz. A study of the Mets' recent international track record might help explain that decision.
It was July 2005 when the Mets made their first big impression in the Latin American market. When the international signing period opened on July 2, the Mets signed Deolis Guerra, a 16-year-old righthander from Venezuela, for $700,000. Nine days later, the Mets signed Dominican outfielder Fernando Martinez for $1.3 million. While the Mets would continue to sign top talent each year out of Latin America, Martinez's bonus was the highest during Minaya's tenure.
The results of the Mets' first two big Latin American signings have been mixed. Martinez made his major league debut as a 20-year-old. Guerra was a key component of the trade that brought Johan Santana to New York before the 2008 season.
Yet neither player has developed quite as the Mets had hoped.
Martinez has been in pro ball for five years, but the 90 games he played in 2008 are a career-high thanks to a diverse portfolio of injuries. While his bat was lauded as an amateur, scouts now wonder whether he's a tweener who doesn't stand out in the field and doesn't hit quite enough to be a regular in left field.
Guerra hasn't posted an ERA under 4.50 in the last three seasons. Despite an imposing 6-foot-5, 200-pound frame, his fastball sits below 90 mph and his breaking ball has never come along. He still has the ability to throw strikes that he has shown since he was 16, but those pitches in the strike zone haven't missed many bats.
"Guerra was being shopped around everywhere," said a Venezuelan supervisor who followed him in 2005. "I always thought he was at best a No. 3 or 4 starter in the future, but some guys were very high on him. I didn't see his fastball being a plus pitch, but he was a kid who had good control and knew what he was doing on the mound for his age. He had an average fastball, average changeup and good presence, so he was one of the better pitchers (in Venezuela) when the Mets signed him."
The Mets made more changes in their international program the following year, bringing aboard Cruz from the Nationals to oversee their international scouting efforts. Sandy Johnson, a special assistant to the GM, became vice president of scouting at the end of 2006, serving as a mentor for Cruz and evaluating the team's top international signings each year.
The Mets tried to build an organization they could sell to Latin American players and their families. While the Mets wanted to be financially aggressive in Latin America, they also didn't want to be an ATM for agents.
"Everything changed coming from the Nationals, a small market, to a big-time market, trying to follow what Omar dictated to us," Cruz said. "We wanted to get the best players at our prices—prices that we felt were right, not the agents' prices. To do that we had to show we could take care of a player better (than other teams) through the whole system."
Francisco Pena was, at least at the time, the highlight of the Mets' 2006 international signing class. The son of former big league catcher Tony Pena, Francisco Pena was also the catcher on the infamous 2001 Little League World Series team that featured a young pitcher named Danny Almonte, who it turned out wasn't quite as young as he had led people to believe. It was there in Williamsport, Pa., Cruz recalls, that Minaya really liked Pena.
Tony Pena was in his first year as the Yankees' first base coach in 2006, but the Mets also had a connection with the family. Cruz's father had originally signed Tony Pena, and Cruz had known Francisco since he was a little boy. Pena signed with the Mets for $750,000 on July 8.
"He was a very good catch-and-throw guy who could swing the bat," Cruz said. "He came from a great baseball family." While Pena was a high-profile signing, he has struggled to get out of the low minors.
As it turned out, the more important signing came three days later. Prior to Minaya's arrival, the Mets had been almost non-existent in Panama. The Mets wanted to have a stronger presence in Panama, so their scouts followed a defensively gifted 15-year-old infielder with a plus arm who would come in and close games for his team with his 86-87 mph fastball. Four years later, that shortstop—Ruben Tejada—made his major league debut for the Mets at age 20.
"He was very advanced for his age," Cruz said. "We knew he was a defensive guy and he didn't strike out much—he was very selective at the plate. At that time, he was the best infielder in Panama for July 2."
That August, the Mets also signed Dominican righthander Maikel Cleto based on the recommendation of Ramon Pena. Cleto, who now touches the high-90s for the Cardinals, helped the Mets acquire J.J. Putz in a three-team deal with Seattle and Cleveland.
A Year To Remember
Some teams consider it a success to get one big leaguer out of each year's Latin American signing class. The Mets already have their big leaguer from their 2007 class and could have several more on the way.
New York's biggest signing at the time was Wilmer Flores, a skinny 6-foot-3 shortstop from Venezuela who signed for $750,000 when he turned 16 on Aug. 6. Some scouts wondered why the Mets were willing to give Flores so much money. He could handle the bat and he had a plus arm, but he wasn't a great runner or athlete and didn't profile as a shortstop.
Since signing, however, Flores has shown an incredible feel for connecting the barrel of his bat with the ball. Playing almost the entire 2010 season at age 18, Flores hit .289/.333/.423 between low Class A Savannah and high Class A St. Lucie.
"I remember him hitting against our guys that we had signed," Cruz said. "He was 15 and he was hitting the ball on the barrel every time he swung the bat. Everyone was shocked, seeing this lanky kid hitting the ball hard."
In the Dominican Republic, the Mets' top target was third baseman Jefry Marte, who signed for $550,000 on July 2. Marte's performance has been a mixed bag, though he shows flashes of ability at the plate and the raw power that drew the Mets to him. Ivan Noboa, Marte's agent who had also negotiated Martinez's contract with the Mets two years earlier, also had a 16-year-old outfielder named Cesar Puello who was athletic and had a strong arm. The Mets signed Puello that same day for $400,000, but not every scout was sold on Puello's tools. Even the Mets only had Puello clocked at 7.2 seconds in the 60-yard dash.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Puello has since developed into a plus runner, finishing fifth in the low Class A South Atlantic League with 45 steals. Perhaps more important, Puello overhauled his hitting stance, leading to a solid year at the plate. If he learns to add loft to his swing, a breakout could be on the way.
"He's the real deal," said a Latin American director who saw Puello this season. "He's got some real good tools. He hasn't shown home run power, but he can hit them a long way. You look at him and you don't think he can run because he looks like a smaller version of Carlos Lee, but he can run. He has the most tools to make an impact in the system."
Three months earlier, the Mets watched a 17-year-old righthander touch 91 mph (though without great movement on his fastball) and show a decent curveball and changeup. The Mets signed him for $16,500, but the pitcher said he didn't care about the bonus amount. He told the Mets he would make his money when he reached the big leagues. Three years later that pitcher, Jenrry Mejia, opened the season at age 20 in the Mets bullpen, where he showed a mid-90s fastball with filthy movement.
Mejia wasn't the only future fireballer the Mets signed in 2007. The Mets signed righthander Jeurys Familia on July 13.
"You've got to take your hat off to our development department," Cruz said. "I remember one time going to the (Dominican) complex at 6 a.m. It's almost dark still and I see Mejia running. Before practice even begins. Then a week later it's Mejia and Familia. They're 17 years old, doing that every day."
The Mets signed more less-heralded players in 2007. On June 6, the Mets needed to fill out a roster spot for their Dominican Summer League team that was scheduled to begin the season in a few days, so they signed 19-year-old Jordany Valdespin to play second base. Valdespin reached Double-A in 2010 and played in the Arizona Fall League.
The same day they signed Valdespin, the Mets signed another 19-year-old, righthander Armando Rodriguez. The Mets watched Rodriguez throw 10 pitches in a tryout, then stopped him. They told him that was all they needed to see to sign him. Rodriguez has developed into a legitimate prospect after a solid year in the Savannah rotation. In September, the Mets also added righthander Yohan Almonte, who at 20 years old this year led the short-season New York-Penn League with a 1.91 ERA.
"It was a great year," Cruz said. "In Latin America, it's hard to get two guys to the big leagues out of one year of signings. But thank God for that year for us. We have a good scouting staff and a good development staff in Latin America, and we work as a family."
Since that landmark signing class, the Mets have continued to add talent from Latin America. In 2008, the Mets spent $600,000 on Dominican third baseman Aderlin Rodriguez, a similar player to Marte only with more power and better feel for making contact.
In 2009, the Mets were pursuing Venezuelan lefthander Juan Urbina, the son of former major leaguer Ugueth Urbina, who is serving a 14-year jail term in Venezuela. With Ugueth Urbina behind bars, Juan Urbina's mother played a significant role in the negotiations for her son. The Mets had followed Urbina since he was 13 and developed a strong relationship with him and his mother. "I treat him like my son," Cruz said.
As July 2 approached, Cruz said other teams offered Urbina more money. On July 2, Urbina signed with the Mets for $1.2 million.
The Mets didn't spend as heavily in 2010, but they added more power bats to the system with Venezuelan outfielder Vicente Lupo, Dominican third baseman Elvis Sanchez and Colombian third baseman Pedro Perez. The Mets also signed 17-year-old Alfredo Reyes, a 6-foot-2 Dominican shortstop who could stick at the position and shows advanced feel for making contact.
Like any high roller in the international market, the Mets have spent heavily on some players who haven't developed as they had hoped. Few organizations, however, can match the organization's inventory of young Latin American talent or the results of their 2007 signing class.