The start of what should be an expensive international free-agent market began earlier this year, when the Reds signed 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Juan Duran for $2 million.
Duran was born Sept. 2, 1991, leading to a blanket assumption in the international scouting community that he was ineligible to sign until this July. Reds assistant general manager Bob Miller saw his birthdate and realized that the Reds—or any other team—could sign the power-hitting outfielder right away thanks to a technicality in the rules.
But Duran's bonus almost certainly won't be the highest payout given to an international teenager this season, with reports that at least three players could surpass his $2 million price tag in the coming weeks.
Sources have told Baseball America of at least eight players who are expected to collect signing bonuses of at least $1 million. Last year, three players received $1 million or more: Red Sox third baseman Michael Almanzar ($1.5 million), Yankees outfielder Kelvin De Leon ($1.1 million) and Mariners shortstop Jharmidy DeJesus ($1 million).
Wily Mo Pena's $2.44 million bonus from the Yankees in 1999 is the record for an international amateur signing, excluding Cuban defectors. There are at least two and possibly three players who could break that record. The big money is expected to trickle down, with players who might typically be considered more marginal prospects in line to receive higher bonuses than comparable players from last year's signing period.
"The money," said one international scout, "is getting bananas."
Players who are at least 16 are eligible to sign during the international signing period, which lasts from July 2 until the end of August. Players who turn 16 during the international signing period can sign on their birthdays.
Some international scouts say some teams are spending their money simply to make a statement. Others see it as teams reevaluating the value of international players, who still are generally cheaper than drafted players. And like all homegrown talent, these players can be cost-controlled for their first three years of service time, followed by three seasons at below-market value in their arbitration years.
"Teams who have not had much success in Latin America can point to teams like the Rockies and Arizona," said one international scout. "Teams going to the playoffs are the ones signing Latin American guys who go to the major leagues. But they don't spend that much money—it comes down to scouting and how you allocate the money. You see all these teams now, they have done nothing in Latin America and they're saying they have to do something about it."
The teams showing more interest in big-money international signings this year than in the recent past include the Reds, Athletics, Padres, Astros, Cardinals and Indians, with the Padres strongly linked to at least three players who could sign for seven-figure bonuses. In the weeks leading up to July 2, Baseball America will give subscribers more insight on some of the players expected to command the highest bonuses.
Arguably the market's top talent is righthander Michel (not Michael, as first reported) Inoa, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound righthander from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Inoa's fastball works at 91-94 mph, and scouts see even more projection with his size, athletic bloodlines, fluid arm action and easy mechanics.
Several teams have been linked to Inoa already, including international heavyweights such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Mariners, while the Athletics have also popped up as a serious contender. Sources have indicated that Inoa will receive a bonus in excess of $2.5 million, and one international scout said agent Adam Katz of Wasserman Media Group, who represents Inoa, is "starting the bidding" at $3.5 million.
While the A's have never been big spenders on the international front, new money in the international market is shaping up to be one of the themes of this year's signing period. Oakland made its mark in Latin America in early February, when the club signed 17-year-old outfielder Robin Rosario for $350,000, a franchise record for a bonus spent on an international player.
The Indians could also leave a large footprint on this year's international signing class, though one formerly hot name who had been linked to them seems to have lost much of his luster. Several international sources have said the Indians had agreed with Dominican shortstop Edward Salcedo for a $2.9 million deal earlier this year, but months later no deal has been announced.
Nearly a dozen international scouts, agents and front-office officials have told Baseball America they believe Salcedo is older than his reported age of 16. Agent Scott Boras, whose Scott Boras Corp. represents Salcedo, said in March that Salcedo's documents are in order, but for now he remains unsigned.
Major League Baseball acknowledged two and a half months ago that it was investigating Salcedo's personal documentation—a routine process for Latin American signees—while rumors of Salcedo's signing with the Indians began back in February. The Indians have not acknowledged any agreement with Salcedo, and all indications are that Salcedo is no longer generating big buzz on the international scene.