International Signing Season Set To Open

As the July 2 start date for international free agent signings approached, word continued to spread through the scouting community that clubs were ready to spend significant amounts once again in Latin America for premium talent.

That would leave the industry picking up where it left off last year, when clubs such as the Braves, Rockies, Brewers, Rangers and Mets were among those using six- and seven-figure signing bonuses to sign players out of the primary Latin American hotbeds of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The Mets made the biggest splash last year, signing outfielder Fernando Martinez ($1.4 million) and righthander Deolis Guerra ($700,000) for two of the largest bonuses of the year.

This year’s top targets include some big names, both in terms of length and in terms of big league name recognition. Dominican catcher Francisco Pena has received the most attention, as the youngest son of former big leaguer Tony Pena, now a coach with the Yankees. Pena has been pursued by teams such as the Yankees, Mets, Nationals and Reds, and rumors swirled that he was expected to sign for a bonus as large as $2 million. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Pena has power and arm strength behind the plate, like his father. He’s not considered as athletic as his dad or brother, Tony Pena Jr., now a shortstop in the Braves system.

One international scouting director termed Pena’s body as “heavy and thick.” Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo, who knows the Pena family well, told the Kansas City Star in a recent interview that Pena “throws almost as well as me, and he has good size. I knew from seeing him he would be a professional. Tony Pena has baseball in his blood, and his kids are the same.”

Another big name involved is Scott Boras, the agent whose domestic clients so often are major factors in the draft. Boras takes much the same approach to Latin America as he does to the draft, signing only a few players his talent evaluators consider to be elite talents. The player he represents generating the most talk this year is infielder Carlos Truinfel, a shortstop with a large body at 6-foot-2 and present offensive potential. Boras also represents righthander Jose Luis Areas, a 6-foot-8 righthander who Boras said already throws in the low 90s, and third baseman Carlos Villanoa, though he said they were still waiting on paperwork to determine the proper spelling of Villanoa’s name.

“We call him Big V,” Boras said jokingly. “What I do know is he is the best third baseman we’ve seen in the Dominican since Adrian Beltre,” another Boras client.

Boras added that while Martinez set the top end of the market last year at $1.4 million, he expected at least Truinfel (if not his other players) would garner at least as much if not more in this year’s market. One international scouting director said the asking price he’d heard for Truinfel was $3 million.

Three other names that had emerged as hot prospects who could sign significant contracts were Venezuelan third baseman Balbino Fuenmayor, Nicaraguan righthander Danilo Alvarez and Venezuelan catcher Jesus Montero. While Alvarez and Montero have been making the rounds since spring training with workouts for clubs, Fuenmayor was garnering the most interest because of his line-drive bat and excellent hands, which work well at the plate and in the field. Fuenmayor’s speed is below-average, likely limiting him to first or third base.

“Of that group, Fuenmayor probably has the best chance to be something special,” another international scouting director said. “He reminds me a little of (Angels infielder) Kendry Morales in that he doesn’t have good range and is limited defensively, but unlike Morales, I think he has enough power, arm strength and soft hands to stay at third.

“I like Montero’s bat some, but I don’t know if he can catch long term. He’s kind of stiff-bodied and probably winds up moving to first or maybe right field. Pena’s definitely the better catcher of the two.”