2014-15 International Reviews: Milwaukee Brewers
Top signing: SS Gilbert Lara, Dominican Republic, $3,097,500.
Six-figure signings: None.
Total signings: 2.
There's a common misconception that teams can either spend all their international money on one player or spread it around for a bunch of lower-level signings. The truth is that every team does both, to a certain extent. Sure, some teams might have a strategy of staying away from the $1 million-plus signings and top out in the mid six-figure range for a single bonus, but those $500,000 signings are still significant investments. And the teams that are spending the majority of their pool space on one or two players are still signing several players for smaller amounts, with most teams signing anywhere from 20-40 players annually.
The Brewers, however, took a strategy I have never seen before. They put their entire international bonus pool (and slightly more) into one player, Dominican infielder Gilbert Lara. After starting with a $2,611,800 bonus pool, the Brewers on July 7 traded Rodolfo Fernandez (an organizational arm from Cuba) to the Athletics for their No. 2 bonus slot value ($339,000), bringing their bonus pool to $2,950,800. Three days later, they officially signed Lara for $3,0970,000, the top bonus of the 2014-15 signing period, a franchise record for an international player and second in club history only to Rickie Weeks ($3.6 million as the No. 2 overall pick in 2003), putting the Brewers 4.97 percent above their bonus pool.
Going slightly over their bonus pool means the Brewers must pay a 100 percent tax on their pool overage (an extra $146,700 payment), but narrowly avoids the next penalty bracket of going 5-10 percent over their pool, which would have prevented the Brewers from signing any pool-eligible players for more than $500,000 during the upcoming 2015-16 signing period. Once a team goes over its bonus pool, it's no longer allowed to trade for additional slot values, so after the Brewers signed Lara on July 10, they couldn't acquire any additional pool space to sign more players, although all signings of $10,000 or less are exempt from the pools.
So the Brewers took a unique approach in 2014, putting all of their hope for the signing period into Lara. The only other international signing the Brewers made last year was Yoel Vasquez, an 18-year-old Venezuelan catcher who signed for a pool-exempt $7,500 on July 2. They didn't sign a single other international player in all of 2014, including the second half of the 2013-14 signing period from January to June, and didn't add any other pool-exempt players for $10,000 or less, although they could still fill out their DSL team with those signings the rest of the current signing period if they want.
All of the Brewers' hopes for the 2014 signing class are pinned on Lara, one of the most advanced offensive players in the 2014 class. Lara, a 17-year-old who trained with Enrique Soto and Jaime Ramos, played in both the Dominican Prospect League and the International Prospect League. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Lara is one of the most physically mature players in the class, with plus raw power that ranked second only to Yankees shortstop Dermis Garcia. Lara had much more success, however, when it came to taking his power into the game. At the MLB international showcase last year in January, Lara went 5-for-6 with a home run, a double and two walks.
Even though Lara's righthanded swing and hitting approach are unorthodox, he routinely finds a way to crush the ball against live pitching. He starts from an upright stance with his hands crunched up near his ear. He takes a deep leg kick and a grip-and-rip approach, swinging with maximum effort and a heavily pull-oriented style that leads to him pulling off the ball. He's prone to expanding the strike zone and will swing-and-miss a fair share, but he finds a way to make it work, with several scouts saying they have seen him perform as well as nearly anyone in the class in games. Lara's able to make of up for a lack of typical smooth hitting actions with good bat speed and excellent strength for his age, with an ability to get the bat head out front and drive the ball for power in game situations. More advanced pitching will test Lara's unconventional style, but given his amateur track record and present skill set, he shouldn't have any issues during his pro debut this summer in the United States.
Like many Dominican amateur players, Lara showcased as a shortstop, but scouts from other clubs were adamant that he would have to move off the position quickly. Lara surprised the Brewers with his athleticism after getting him into their system, so their plan is to let him start his career as a shortstop and see how long he can stay there. Realistically, the best-case scenario for Lara is to be able to play third base. He's a below-average runner who doesn't have the range for shortstop and lacks natural infield actions. His hands, footwork and internal clock will all need time to develop. Some scouts from other clubs gave Lara a below-average arm, though the Brewers are confident Lara has at least a solid-average arm that will play on the left side, along with a quick release despite funky throwing mechanics. Lara is already a large kid for his age and projects to be so big that many scouts project him as a first baseman or left fielder, though the Brewers will give him every opportunity to stick in the dirt.