Major League Baseball has reduced the aggregate amount of bonus pool space available for teams to spend on international players this year, but there still could be a dozen or more players who sign for at least $1 million when the 2013-14 international signing period opens on July 2.
With July 2 seven weeks away, there's no one player who has separated himself as the clear top player in this year's class. However, when it comes to players who are 15 and 16, the speed at which they can change--both physically and from a skills perspective--can result in rapid rises up teams' boards, which has been the case for a few players this year who have developed quickly since January. The market for most of the top players has already established itself, although there is always room for a late riser leading up to July 2, as was the case last year with Venezuelan lefthander Jose Castillo, whose jump in velocity helped him net a $1.55 million bonus from the Rays.
The Astros, who have baseball's biggest bonus pool at $4.9 million, are expected to spend more aggressively than they did a year ago, although they will likely spread out their money rather than splurge on one or two big signings. The Cubs, who are second at $4.6 million, will also be very active but will likely award bigger bonuses to two of their top targets and perhaps trade for even more pool space.
The Red Sox, Royals, Blue Jays and Twins all have top 10 pool allotments and should all be in the mix to sign seven-figure players this year. The Yankees and Rangers, despite each having $1.9 million pool spaces that rank among the lowest in baseball, are also expected to sign some of this year's top talent.
These ten prospects have all separated themselves as some of the best players in the class, with each one expected to sign for at least $1 million. All players are 16, unless listed otherwise.
Eloy Jimenez, of, Dominican Republic (video): At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Jimenez is a righthanded hitter with similarities to Royals outfielder Elier Hernandez, who signed with the Royals for $3 million in 2011 and, like Jimenez, also trained with Amaurys Nina. Jimenez, who plays in the International Prospect League, has a strong, projectable body, a quick bat and a swing path that results more in hard line drives than loft power, although like Hernandez, some scouts haven't seen him dominate in games. He's run above-average times in the 60-yard dash when he's at his best, but he projects as a corner outfielder. Expectations are that his bonus will be the highest in this year's class, perhaps in the $2.6-$2.8 million range, with the Cubs the heavy favorite to sign him.
Gleyber Torres, ss, Venezuela: Some scouts think Torres, who trains with Ciro Barrios, is the best prospect in Venezuela this year. Torres' frame (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) doesn't offer much projection but he's a steady player with present skills. Scouts highest on Torres see a righthanded hitter who can stay at shortstop with good hands, a strong arm and the ability to hit in games with projectable power that's surprising for his size, although some think he might fit better at second or third base. The Cubs have a history of signing players from Barrios, including third baseman Mark Malave for $1.6 million in 2011, and they are the frontrunners to sign Torres, probably for comparable money to Malave.
Rafael Devers, 3b, Dominican Republic (video): Devers might be the best hitter on the international market. With good bat speed and a compact lefty swing, Devers has strong hitting instincts and feel for putting the barrel to the ball. After going from 5-foot-11, 190 pounds in January up to around 6-foot-1, 215 pounds today, Devers has shown solid game power as well. He has the arm strength to play third base but given how much bigger scouts expect him to get, there's a chance he has to move to first base. Devers, who is represented by Rudy Santin and plays in the IPL, has been linked to the Red Sox as their primary target.
Leonardo Molina, of, Dominican Republic: Now that Obispo Aybar confessed to using a false identity, some scouts think Molina is the best athlete in the class. The top prospect in the Dominican Prospect League, Molina will be able to sign when he turns 16 on Aug. 1 and already has a broad tool set along with a projectable 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame. He's a plus-plus runner with a strong arm, giving him the tools to be an excellent defender in center field once he refines his routes. At the plate he shows good bat speed from the right side with a bit of funkiness in his swing that leads to some inconsistency at the plate, but some teams have seen him hit well in games. Sources have said the Yankees are the most likely landing spot for Molina, who trains with Decarte Corporan.
Luis Encarnacion, 3b, Dominican Republic (video): If Devers isn't the best offensive prospect in Latin America, that title might belong to Encarnacion, who trains with Juan Herrera, plays in the IPL and won't be able to sign until he turns 16 on Aug. 9. Encarnacion is 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, hits in games consistently and already has plus power from the right side. While Encarnacion earns widespread praise for his offensive upside, scouts are even more sold on him having to change positions soon after signing, either to left field or first base. Sources say the Phillies have been enamored with Encarnacion and have emerged as his most likely destination.
Micker Zapata, of, Dominican Republic: Zapata, a righthanded hitter who trains with Moreno Tejada and also works out at La Academia, might have the most raw power among players in this year's July 2 class. He's physically imposing at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and is relatively athletic for his size, with average speed that should slow down and the arm strength for right field. Zapata has a pull-oriented approach and can put on a performance in batting practice, but his power is going to come with a high strikeout rate. The White Sox and Padres, two teams whose top scouts have a history of being aggressive for power bats in Latin America, have been connected to Zapata.
Yeltsin Gudino, ss, Venezuela (video): When scouts grade out Gudino's tools, there isn't a 60 on his scouting report, but he's a well-rounded player with success on the international circuit and strong baseball instincts. Gudino, who trains with Carlos Guillen, excelled at the 15U World Championship last August in Mexico and has continued to show an advanced hitting approach for his age. Gudino's game will benefit from additional strength, which is a positive because there's room to project more power and perhaps arm strength from his 6-foot, 150-pound body. He's an average runner and a good fielder who projects to stay at shortstop. Oakland and Texas were tied to Gudino at one point, but now it looks like the Blue Jays are the leaders to sign him.
Marcos Diplan, rhp, Dominican Republic (video): Diplan's size (5-foot-11, 160 pounds) scares off some teams, but he also has arguably the best stuff of any pitcher in this year's class. Diplan's fastball sits at 89-92 mph and he's touched 93-94, unusual velocity for a 16-year-old, particularly for his size. Diplan has good depth on his mid-70s curveball, another potential above-average pitch, and while he doesn't need to throw his changeup much yet, it already flashes average at times. Diplan was crisp and efficient at the MLB showcase back in January, although his control has been erratic at other times. Some sources believe the Rangers are the team most likely to sign Diplan, who pitches in the DPL and trains with Luis Polonia.
Yeyson Yrizarri, ss, Dominican Republic: Yrizarri wasn't high on many teams' boards coming into the year, but he went from a sleeper to a high-demand prospect for a handful of clubs. A nephew of former big league shortstop Deivi Cruz, Yrizarri was born in Venezuela but has been living in the Dominican Republic, where he is represented by Rudy Santin. He has a wide, athletic build (6 feet, 175 pounds) with a good hitting approach from the right side, using the middle of the field with a short stroke and doubles power. He has a cannon arm, but some scouts think he might end up at second or third base because of his size and hands. Some sources believe the Rangers might be in on Yrizarri. If they were to sign him and Diplan, that means they would likely trade for additional pool space from their allotted $1.9 million, which would not be a surprise.
Jose Herrera, c, Venezuela: The top July 2 catcher on the market is Herrera, who is represented by Felix Olivo. Herrera was teammates with Gudino on the Venezuelan team that won the 15U World Championship in August in Mexico and made the tournament all-star team. Herrera's swing generates loft and he has good power from both sides of the plate. Some scouts aren't sure he'll be able to hit for a high average, but he has a good eye at the plate. A former shortstop, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Herrera moved behind the plate last summer shortly before the World Championship, so his receiving is still a work in progress but he should be able to stick at catcher. Sources believe the Astros may be in the lead for Herrera, although the Diamondbacks are another team that could be involved.