When I started covering the July 2 market in 2008, all of our information had to be built from scratch. There was no such thing as the Dominican Prospect League, the International Prospect League or players having to register with Major League Baseball before they signed. Tracking down even basic information like the spelling of a player's name, his height, weight, date of birth and other vitals was a challenge, let alone figuring out who the players were who I needed to ask about.
In my seventh year covering July 2, it's much easier than it used to be to acquire basic player information and spend more time talking with scouts to analyze the players themselves. Yet the 2014 signing class has created unique challenges in terms of our coverage and for scouts to be able to see and accurately gauge players.
Prospects aren't vanishing into thin air, but they may as well be, at least until July 2. Imagine if a scouting director in the United States with one of the biggest draft bonus pools hadn't seen Tyler Kolek or Brady Aiken since the summer of 2013. It would be unheard of. Yet for some of the top players on the July 2 market, there are scouts on teams with the biggest international bonus pools who haven't been able to lay eyes on those players since 2013.
This year, teams have become more aggressive reaching oral agreements with players to sign once they become eligible on July 2. These deals are technically not in accordance with major league rules, but it's long been industry practice for the top players to reach agreements before July 2, which MLB knows and tacitly accepts. Players don't play for school teams in Latin America, so once a player has an agreement, he stops going to showcases or tryouts at other teams' academies.
Except now there are more deals than ever being done well in advance of July 2. By the time MLB held its annual international showcase in San Pedro de Macoris in January, several of the top players there already had agreements to sign, while some of the other top prospects in the class didn't even show up. Those who were there, well, some of them weren't quite giving 110 percent. Why run or throw at maximum intensity and risk injury when you have nothing to gain?
"Not everybody gets to see these guys to the best of their abilities," said one international scouting director. "If you’re going off a showcase one time, you’re getting beat. If you’re some scout from the States who flies down and sees a guy one time, you’re already beat."
What that means is that there are top prospects for July 2 who most teams haven't seen since January. For some players, their absence dates back to the end of 2013. One trainer told Baseball America he locked into an agreement with a team last summer for a July 2 prospect for this year.
When we're talking about kids who are 15 and 16 years old, so much can change in two months, let alone six months or more. They can grow taller, gain weight, get faster and show skill improvement, while others might start to slide in the wrong direction. Sure, sometimes steroids are involved, but there's also just a normal, rapid development curve for players who are 15 and 16.
Take Ricardo Sanchez, who was a projectable 16-year-old lefty with an 88-91 mph fastball when he signed with the Angels for $580,000 on July 2 last year. A couple of months later, he was consistently hitting 94. A 16-year-old lefty with his delivery, curveball and international tournament track record might command twice that much money on the open market.
On the other side of the equation, there are teams already regretting some of their oral agreements with players after making commitments to them extremely early in the process. One trainer was stunned when one of his players who struggled hitting in games was able to lock in a healthy deal for himself after performing well in a game on a day when the team’s top American evaluators happened to be in town. The nature of international scouting has always led to aggressive tactics, but when decisions are being made so quickly and so early in the process, that elevates the risk and uncertainty on the table.
Then there's the turmoil in Venezuela, which has created new challenges for teams to navigate. American scouts always try to tread carefully in Venezuela, but the current situation in the country has put everyone on higher alert.
On Feb. 21, MLB issued a memo to clubs with what it termed a "SEVERE" travel warning to the country of Venezuela. Included in the memo: "Due to the current civil unrest throughout Venezuela, it is recommended that any planned travel there be postponed."
Some American scouts have scaled back on flying in to Venezuela to see players, placing even more importance on their Venezuelan supervisors and area scouts. Several trainers and agents say they have noticed a difference in their ability to get their players seen this year. Some of them have given part of their commissions to Dominican trainers and sent their players to the Dominican Republic to get them better exposure.
"Definitely, it’s hard for us," said one Venezuelan trainer. "Our program is four hours from Caracas. The scouts come to Venezuela and they stay in Caracas, so you have to move there. They don’t go around the country, they don’t come to our city, so it’s really hard for us."
Some players have still been showcased liberally, with scouts getting plenty of looks at them early in the process and more recently. Teams might disagree about a player like Dominican shortstop Pedro Gonzalez or Dominican righthander Huascar Ynoa, but every team has had the opportunity to see them play extensively, at least relative to the typical process. But for several other top players this year, getting recent evaluations of them has been more difficult than usual.