Last June, I explained why certain teams would be wise to blow out their international bonus pools in 2016. There are 10 teams already on the sideline already for 2016—including typical big international players such as the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox—unable to sign any pool-eligible players for more than $300,000 in the upcoming signing period as a consequence for exceeding their pools in previous years.
Considering organizations such as the Orioles, Athletics and others haven't been a factor in recent years when it comes to seven-figure signings, you can wipe out essentially half the teams in the league when it comes to competing to sign the premium talents in the 2016 class.
At the time, there were rumblings that the Braves were set for an international spending spree, that the Nationals could also go over their pool and that the Padres were considering going over as well. Now it’s become more evident that those three teams are all planning to exceed their international bonus pools in the 2016-17 signing period, with the Braves expected to make the biggest splash, aside from Cuban signings that could skew the overall numbers.
While teams don't know their exact bonus pools yet, they have a strong idea of what they will be based on where they finished in the 2015 standings and the corresponding pool space allotted to the team that finished in that spot a year ago. The 2016 market has been extremely aggressive in Venezuela already, a sharp reversal from the 2015 signing class, while things have progressed at a slower place in the Dominican Republic. One big variable is the Cuban market, with several talented Cuban players available who are or will be subject to the pools.
Things have become so supercharged that teams are already fighting it out over 2017 players (who are 14 and 15 years old), with some teams planning to spend wildly in 2017, even though we will have a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in December that could completely change the international signing system.
For 2016, expect these three teams to surpass their international bonus pools once July 2 arrives.
The Braves are planning to blitz the 2016-17 international amateur market with spending on par with what the Yankees did during the 2014-15 signing period, when they signed 10 of Baseball America's Top 30 international prospects for July 2 and spent around $17 million in signing bonuses, not including the 100 percent overage tax that nearly doubled their overall tab. Excluding any Cuban players they might sign (and those players would have to wait until July 2 to sign, so the Braves can stick with their 2016-17 spending plan), the Braves will probably end up spending a similar amount of money this year on 16-year-old Latin American prospects.
The crown jewel of Atlanta's targets is Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, perhaps the best 16-year-old July 2 prospect since Miguel Sano signed with the Twins for $3.15 million in 2009. Where Maitan ends up in the field remains to be seen, but several veteran evaluators have called Maitan a special talent at the head of the class because of his offensive ability. With the Braves the heavy favorites, Maitan's bonus is expected to surpass $4 million, which would be a record for a Venezuelan player. The Braves are also the favorites to land Abrahan Gutierrez, the catcher on Venezuela's 15U World Cup team a year ago. Gutierrez could command a bonus of more than $3 million, which would likely make him the second-highest paid player out of Venezuela this year. While Maitan and Gutierrez are standouts, the Braves should have several other top prospects and seven-figure bonus signings in their 2016 class, with Dominican switch-hitting shortstop Yunior Severino another target.
Four of the Nationals' Top 10 prospects are from the Dominican Republic, including fast-rising center fielder Victor Robles, an impressive feat given that Nationals vice president of international operations Johnny DiPuglia and his staff have done it without much financial backing from ownership until the last year or two. That's going to change this year, with the Nationals planning to exceed their 2016-17 bonus pool. They are the favorites for Dominican shortstop Yasel Antuna, who many expect will be the top-paid player in the country this year. They're also going to be among the more active teams in Venezuela, where it looks like their top target is shortstop Jose Sanchez.
San Diego Padres
When Padres general manager A.J. Preller was with Texas, the Rangers exceeded their international bonus pool in 2013-14. Now the Padres appear poised to completely blow past their pool in 2016. In Venezuela, alone, the Padres are the favorites to sign shortstops Gabriel Arias, Justin Lopez and Livan Soto for bonuses of at least $1 million, while catcher Alison Quintero could also come close to that mark.
While the Padres are planning to break their pool on traditional July 2 signings alone, they are also trying to put together a Cuban bonanza by convincing some of the pool-eligible signings to wait until July 2 to sign with them. There's a a huge quantity of pool-eligible Cuban players such as Jorge Ona, Norge Ruiz, Randy Arozarena, Vladimir Gutierrez, Adrian Morejon, Lazaro Armenteros, Ronald Bolanos, Cionel Perez and Jonatan Machado out right now, many of whom are still waiting for MLB clearance to sign. Sources expect the Padres to come away with multiple players from that group of young Cuban talent.