Nats, Yanks Make First Foreign Splashes

The international signing period got going with a bang, with the Nationals and Yankees signing a player apiece to seven-figure bonuses.

Their methods were quite different. The Nationals sent out a press release–an unusual step with international free agents–to announce the signing of shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez out of the Dominican Republic, and even announced the $1.4 million signing bonus in the release. The Yankees signed Venezuelan catcher Jesus Montero for what one source said was a $2.2 million bonus. Yankees senior VP of baseball operations Mark Newman reportedly disputed that amount, saying it was an even $2 million.

Nats signee Gonzalez will work out at the organization’s Dominican facility before coming to the U.S., first for fall instructional league, then for 2007 spring training. It’s too early to tell whether or not he will be ready for full-season ball next year, as the top 2005 international signees (Atlanta’s Elvis Andrus, the Mets’ Fernando Martinez and Deolis Guerra) have been.

The signing of Gonzalez, a switch-hitting shortstop one scout said resembled Rafael Furcal physically, sends a loud message that the Nationals will be significant players internationally under its new well-heeled ownership group, headed by Ted Lerner. The Nats have followed a game plan the Brewers executed in 2005’"organizations believe they had to make a splash with a large signing bonus to get the attention of player representatives (known in the Dominican as buscons).

Consider Gonzalez’ signing bonus one part payment for his talent, one part advertisement to buscons for future players. As scouting director Dana Brown told the Washington Post, “You have to have credibility in Latin America. (Agents) won’t show you the players unless they know you can be players in signing them. In the past, we haven’t been able to compete for players. Now this makes a statement, and the agents will know we can.”

“This signing is symbolic of (the organization’s) pledge to become an industry leader in scouting and player development,” general manager Jim Bowden said in the press release. “The baseball operations department will continue to execute this vision going forward. The Nationals are willing and able to compete . . . for the best amateur baseball talent.”

Spearheading the Nationals’ efforts were scouting director Dana Brown, Bowden and special assistant to the general manager Jose Rijo (who owns an academy in the Dominican that the Nationals tried to use for instructional league last fall). Brown said Gonzalez would have been “at the top of any year’s draft,” and Rijo raved about Gonzalez’ above-average arm, range at shortstop and switch-hitting capability.

The Yankees are reported to have signed Montero, whose physical frame gives him more present power potential than most of the players available this year. Several clubs were in on the bidding, but the Yankees abandoned their recent restraint on the foreign market. The organization has concentrated more recently on signing a larger number of players for bonuses more in line with the $500,000 paid to outfielder Jose Tabata, now the Yankees’ top position player prospect.

While his bat and power potential made Montero a hot commodity, his future behind the plate may be in doubt, according to scouts with other clubs. One scout said Montero was already 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and disparagingly compared his body to that of Henry Blanco; another said he was too stiff and lacked the athleticism to catch at the big league level.

“He has above-average raw power, a lot of power, but where do you put him?” the scout said. “I don’t think he’ll catch. He’s a big-hipped kid and he’s going to get bigger; he may have to end up at first base.”

One director of international scouting for a National League club rated Montero’s power as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and raved about his approach at the plate. “He was hitting home runs to center field in Valencia, which is pretty tough to do,” the scouting director said. “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 Venezuela shortstop Jose Pirela for $300,000. Pirela has good hands and an above-average arm, but his speed might be his best tool. New York, who signed eight players in all, also nabbed Dominican outfielder Carlos Martinez Urena for $350,000. reports the Red Sox have signed two players, though for smaller bonuses, in outfielder Angel Beltre and shortstop Oscar Tejeda. A source told Baseball America that Beltre signed for $575,000, while Tejada received $525,000.

“The Red Sox came away with the most for their money in those two players,” the scouting director said. “Beltre to me is a young (Barry) Bonds–all five tools. He can do it all. He’s going to be terrifying when he fills into that body.

“Tejeda is (Alfonso) Soriano with better hands. I don’t know if they’re going to keep him at shortstop because he isn’t real clean there right now, but at age 14 he had an average big league arm. And he just rakes.”

In other signings, the Mariners signed Venezuela shortstop Mario Martinez for $600,000 and the Padres signed Venezuela lefthander Jesus Viloria for $160,000.

Meanwhile, ESPNDeportes also reports the Cubs signed Venezuelan pitcher Larry Suarez ($350,000). Baseball America columnist Tracy Ringolsby reports that the Rockies have signed Venezuelan pitcher Ricardo Ferrer ($250,000).

ESPNDeportes also reported the Indians signed Venezuelan third baseman Balbino Fuenmayor for a $1 million bonus, but the club has denied the reports coming out of Caracas.

“Fuenmayor takes a great BP–you just fall in love thinking what he might be,” the scouting director said. “He’s a thicker version of Chipper Jones for me.”

BA will continue to update international signings as events warrant.