Teams Brace For More Expensive July 2

International signing period begins tomorrow

When the international signing period begins tomorrow, industry sources expect it to be the start of perhaps the most expensive international signing period ever.

"This entire market is going crazy," one scouting director said. "I would be inclined to sit out, but there is pressure from GMs and owners to get involved, and the industry as a whole has the funds to do it.

"Normally, I'd say wait until after July 2, when guys' signabilities become more reasonable, but I think a lot of teams are going to sign and overpay just to make their presence felt. I didn't think that I would say this three years ago, but Latin America is becoming more expensive than the draft."

Teams can sign players who are 16 years old during the international signing period, which lasts from July 2 until the end of August, although as the Reds proved by signing Juan Duran for $2 million in February, there is a small window in the first few days of September when players can still sign. Players who turn 16 during the international signing period can sign on their birthdays, as scouts expect 15-year-old Rafael Rodriguez to do when he turns 16 on July 13, most likely finalizing a rumored $2.5 million deal with the Giants.

The biggest reason the international market appears ready to explode is simple: Teams have money to spend. While Major League Baseball's revenues have increased, the commissioner's signing slots in the draft have not increased at the same rate, and certain teams that don't typically buck the slotting values may feel more free to spend in Latin America. Also, as more and more major league teams continue to lock up their young stars to long-term deals, the amount of high-caliber players still in their peak years in the free-agent market has declined.

And as more teams have joined the Red Sox and Yankees in aggressively investing in players who fell in June's draft due to signability—including Kansas City and Oakland this year—teams also appear to be ready to be willing to invest their increased revenues more heavily in bonuses for Latin American players as well.

Several veteran international scouts have indicated that some of the newer teams getting heavily involved in Latin America may be overpaying for players, either to make a statement in Latin America or because their inexperience has allowed savvier agents and buscones to take advantage of them in what are essentially auctions in which the bidder has imperfect information.

Trickle Down Economics

While Dominican righthander Michel Inoa appears likely to sign with the Athletics tomorrow for a record $4.25 million bonus, the increase in potential bonus money for the other players this year doesn't necessarily coincide with an increase in the quality of the Latin American talent pool. While players such as Inoa and Rodriguez appear set to break bonus records, international scouts expect the money to trickle down to other players as well, making them richer than they would have been had they been born one year earlier.

"It's not Inoa," said one international scouting director. "It's what it does to everyone behind him."

Inoa remains the most prized possession of this year's signing period, as the 16-year-old from Puerto Plata has drawn nearly unanimous praise for his low-90s fastball, projectable 6-foot-7, 205-pound frame, fluid mechanics that he easily repeats and athleticism that's nearly unheard of for someone his age and his size.

Several international sources indicated the Yankees appeared close to coming to terms with Inoa for a bonus of around $2.7 million, but the stories of what happened thereafter remain conflicting. One thing is certain: Abel Guerra, the Yankees' vice president of international operations, was involved in the club's efforts to sign Inoa until May, and a Yankees official confirmed Tuesday that he no longer works for the organization.

Whatever happened with the Yankees and Inoa, the A's stepped in and offered more money. Oakland's scouting director, Eric Kubota, declined comment on the Inoa signing Monday. He confirmed the club's interest in Inoa and said he believed general manager Billy Beane was en route to the Dominican Republic this week.

Among other players generating big buzz this year, the player whose reputation and asking price is most out of line with his true talent, according to the strong majority of international scouts interviewed for this story, is Venezuelan outfielder Yorman Rodriguez.

While scouts agree that Rodriguez has premium speed and athleticism, they say that he struggles in games against low- to mid-80s fastballs and against breaking pitches. The Reds and Yankees have been rumored to have interest in Rodriguez. Sources say the Cardinals and Mariners, two teams that Baseball America had previously linked to Rodriguez, may not be serious contenders at this time.

One international scouting director said that Rodriguez's agent called him two weeks ago to inquire about his interest in Rodriguez, possibly nixing the notion that Rodriguez may have already have a deal in place.

"I've known this kid for years," said another scout. "There's been so much hype on him that I think it's gotten to him mentally. He's got a big hitch in his swing—I don't know that he can hit."

While some players like Inoa, Rafael Rodriguez and Yorman Rodriguez are scouted extensively and receive the majority of the hype, others end up signing for far less money and fanfare. That was the case in 2003, when the Brewers signed Venezuelan shortstop Alcides Escobar for $33,000. Now 21 years old, Escobar has become one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball.

"I tried out just once and they signed me," Escobar said through an interpreter.

Escobar's cousin, pitcher Vicente Escobar, is now another prospect eligible to sign during the international signing period, and sources have linked him to the Red Sox.

While Baseball America has previously reported on some of the prospects eligible for this year's international signing period, teams and agents are keeping other names closer to the vest. There will be even more players popping up who sign for significant bonuses as the signings become official.

"A lot of people are hiding players," said one international scouting director. "You'll find out about guys being signed that no one knew even existed."

More Names To Watch

• Outfielder Ramon Flores, a lefthanded hitter, has a projectable bat with a short, compact swing. Flores has been connected to the Yankees, and scouts say he should command a bonus in the $600,000 to $800,000 range.

• Dominican Ezdra Abreu is an athletic outfielder with a wiry, projectable frame, but scouts have questioned his hitting ability. "He has real small hands," said one scout, "and he's got to cheat to catch up to a fastball. People were jumping up and down about him a year ago, but I think that's calmed down."

• In Nicaragua, righthander Jose Valdivia has drawn plenty of attention for his fastball-slider combination. At 6-foot-3 and "really, really skinny," according to one scout, Valvidia's fastball has touched 93 mph, though the scout also predicted that Valvidia will eventually end up in the bullpen.

"He has trouble pitching in a game because he walks a lot of guys and can't adjust, but he's got a good arm" said the scout. "He's got a slider that he can't throw for strikes, but it bites—it changes direction."

• Venezuelan outfielder Ruiz Cayones has been tough for scouts to get a look at, leading many to believe he has an oral agreement already in place, with a mid- to high-six-figure bonus being floated. Cayones has a stiff front arm in his swing, but scouts otherwise seem to think he has good potential with the bat.

• Venezuelan catcher Oscar Perez is a catcher who gets positive reviews for his defensive skills. One international scout said he thought Perez profiled as a backup big league catcher at best, but the buzz in Venezuela is that the Red Sox are on Perez for a possible bonus of $500,000 to $600,000.

• Another Venezuelan catcher, Moises Gomez, is a good defender with an average arm that projects to get a tick better. He draws praise for his approach at the plate, his quick hands and ability to put the barrel on the ball.

• Dominican outfielder Anderson Pujols is a cousin of Albert Pujols. Anderson Pujols is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds with a plus arm, although he is already 17 and thus already eligible to sign.