Can you predict the future of a 16-year-old?
That is, ostensibly, the job of an international scout, with major league teams able to sign amateur players from Latin America each year on July 2 if the player is 16.
Even though the Collective Bargaining Agreement—agreed to after the 2016 season—changed the international signing rules, the official signing age remains the same.
But in practice, everything has shifted younger. Early deals have long been common practice in Latin America, but as teams hunt for any competitive edge they can get, the market has accelerated to an unprecedented pace. Since the beginning of the calendar year, teams have been busy reaching agreements to sign 2018 prospects. Players for 2019—mostly 14-year-olds who won't play in an official professional game for three years—are starting to go off the board.
Can you predict the future of a 14-year-old?
"We now have to scout 2017, 2018 and 2019," said one international director. "That's just the reality in terms of how we operate as an industry. You have to cover a number of signing classes in order to keep up with the information and the market. It used to just be one year. Then it became where you need to cover two years. Now you need to cover three and four years."
The people who develop and represent these players are the trainers, who often identify players to bring into their programs at 13 or 14. A trainer might find a player through youth leagues in his area, from players coming to him or from other tips. Once a player is in his program, the trainer provides the player with coaching, equipment, travel expenses, food and sometimes housing, in addition to other things the player and his family may need. When the player is ready, the trainer shows him to teams and negotiates his contract in exchange for a commission on his signing bonus. The new speed of the market has changed the game on the trainer and player side as they try to keep up with the demand from teams.
"It's ridiculous," said one trainer. "You can't even get the kids and develop them. I used to get kids at 13 and 14. Now I'm getting kids who are 11 and 12. If I need to get them ready at 14, I need to have them in my program by the time they're 11 or 12. It's unbelievable. It's like I'm running a kindergarten."
Can anyone predict the future of an 11-year-old?
New Rules, New Market
By design, international scouting draws in some of the most hyper-competitive scouts in baseball. In the draft, if your team has the No. 15 overall pick, you wait around until 14 players are gone, make your pick, then wait for another 30 or so players to go off the board before it's your turn to choose another player.
In the international market, teams can sign or agree to sign a player 365 days a year. There is no waiting around. If you like a player, you can go out and sign him. You can get in early to beat your competition to a player in an arena where there is less available information on players compared to their counterparts in U.S. high schools and colleges.
The natural extension of teams looking for a competitive advantage in international scouting is to try to identify, evaluate and agree to sign players at younger ages. Given where some of the big-ticket international signings from recent years are today, the potential rewards are huge. The No. 2 through 6 prospects on Baseball America's Top 100 list—Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Gleyber Torres, Amed Rosario, Eloy Jimenez and Rafael Devers—were all million-dollar, 16-year-old international signings in their July 2 classes from 2012-15.
If you can beat your competition to the punch by locking up the next Rosario or Devers 18 months before he's eligible to sign and he becomes a top 10 prospect in the game, as an international director, you've delivered one of the most valuable players in the game at a bargain price to your club. With the exception of the Orioles, 29 out of 30 teams are fighting for the top players and searching for any kind of edge they can get, so the competition is fierce.
"If you don't do early deals, you're going to get fired because you're not going to get the players," said another international director. "So it's forcing the whole market to do early deals. Now everyone's doing it. It's common practice. If you don't, you're going to be left behind."
Early deals have always occurred, but just how early and how many of those early deals are happening have shaken up the market over the last nine months. The market for the 2017 class slowed down last year because teams didn't know what the new international rules for this year would be until the CBA was agreed to in December. Once teams knew the rules, there was a rush to lock in 2017 players.
The new rules, which placed hard caps on international spending, have contributed to the speed of the process. Under the previous rules, teams were able to exceed their bonus pools, with a penalty of being unable to sign any player subject to the pools for more $300,000 for the next two signing periods. A team under that scenario would be more hesitant to reach a $1 million agreement to sign a player who's two years away from being eligible to sign if it thought it might go over its bonus pool the next year and thus be unable to offer the player more than $300,000. Now, however, teams know they can't exceed their 2018 bonus pools, so they know they can promise a 2019 player $1 million and not have to go back on their word.
Teams also know almost exactly how much money they will have in their bonus pools in the upcoming seasons. Under the previous system, bonus pools were determined based on reverse order of MLB winning percentage from the previous season. The team with the worst record would get around $2 million and the team with the best record would get around $5.5 million. A team wouldn't have a feel for what its pool would be until around this time of year leading into the next signing period.
Now, teams either have $4.75 million, $5.25 million or $5.75 million in their bonus pools. The teams with $4.75 million in their 2017 pools know they will have around $5 million in 2018, $5.25 million in 2019 and $5.5 million in 2020. If a team didn't know whether it might have a $2 million pool or a $5 million pool in 2019, it would hold back on making a 2019 player an offer for $2 million and potentially swallow up its whole pool space. Now, teams no longer have to worry about that uncertainty, leading to more aggressive early agreements.
Then there are the teams that went over their bonus pool in 2015-16 and in 2016-17 before the new rules kicked in. The teams that went over in 2015-16 are still under the penalty for this year (2017-18), so they can't sign anyone for more than $300,000 until July 2, 2018, and the teams that went over last year (2016-17) are under that penalty for two more signing periods until July 2, 2019. The teams that have been penalized until 2018 have already been targeting top 2018 players for the last two years. And since teams under the penalty until 2019 can't go after the big fish for two more years, they're already bearing down on 2019 players while other clubs focused more on the 2018 class.
Add in the perception among several teams that 2018 is a down year—to the degree that you can tell this far away with kids who are 14 and 15—and you have a situation where teams want to jump early on a top player when he separates himself from the pack.
Changing The Game
The expedited pace of the market affects players and trainers in several ways. One is that trainers are recruiting players into their programs younger than ever. If teams are going to reach agreements with players at 14 and 15, it makes more sense for trainers to invest their time and money into developing a kid who is 10 to 12 years old, especially since he will have to show the player to teams at a younger age than before.
"In one tryout, I saw a 2016 guy, a 2017, a 2018 and a player for 2019," another international director said in March. "It's like seeing a freshman, a sophomore, a junior and a senior all in one workout."
Some of that is also due to the crisis in Venezuela, where players are dropping out of school earlier and turning to baseball at a younger age as they look for a way to a better life, but the trend toward trainers developing younger players is happening in the Dominican Republic as well. Just as the competition has increased among teams to find players at 14 and 15, there's more competition among trainers to discover and develop kids who are age 10-12.
"We're going in now," said a third international director, "and every agent, when you go to see their guys, they're showing you like, 'Here's my 2019 guys, my 2020 guys, my 2021 guys.' So everyone's at least monitoring those guys, because as soon as the point comes where a player starts to become a guy, he might get done."
Bringing kids into a baseball trainer's program at a younger age could have several effects. The quality of instruction and development can vary wildly among programs, but one theory, some believe, is that players will better at a younger age. Ten years ago, the model was for trainers to bring players into their program, focus on batting practice and fielding fungos at shortstop, but with little game experience. Today, with trainers pooling their players together to play more games, those players are getting more game experience. They're also facing better velocity at a young age. Kids who are 12 years old in a trainer's program will face pitchers who throw mid-to-upper 80s and sometimes topping 90 mph, all while swinging a wood bat.
It also adds more pressure on players to stand out at a younger age and places greater rewards on early physical maturation. Traditionally, by the time a player in Latin America is 18, he's considered old. Now, a 2017 prospect who is 16 and still unsigned is looked at as a "passed over" player with lower value, especially if teams have already spent most of all of their bonus pool money for the signing period.
While there are signs that teams are getting better at identifying the top amateur prospects in Latin America, it's only natural to believe that clubs will make more mistakes when they're making decisions on players at age 14 and 15 instead of 15 and 16.
Yet while both trainers and scouts have expressed uneasiness over the direction of the international market, the actions of many teams show they think the risk is worth the reward. If a team whiffs on a player with a $3 million bonus, the owner is out the same amount of money it costs to sign a middle reliever in his 30s for a season. Get it right and a team could have the next Gary Sanchez or Miguel Sano.
"You see something you believe in and you can grab him, you grab him," said another one high-ranking club official. "It's like college recruiting. Florida State is recruiting a 2020 guy and it's on Twitter and everyone is patting them on the back. If we do it and it gets published, it's like we're shunned.
“We're just trying to acquire talent."