International Forecast

With less than 24 hours until the international signing period begins, the market is beginning to take shape in Latin America. Between a down year for talent and uncertainty in the Dominican Republic, things have come together slowly, but teams’ intentions and players’ destinations are becoming clearer.

Still, “uncertainty” will be the watchword on July 2—the first date when 16-year-old international prospects can sign—and many international scouting directors believe the asking prices for players will have to come down for them to sign, which might mean some players will have to wait until after July 2.

Based on conversations with industry sources over the past several months, here is an idea of what to expect for all 30 teams when the international signing period kicks off.

High Rollers

These teams are expected to be the top spenders in the international market this year. They have all been connected to players expected to command bonuses of at least $1 million.

Toronto Blue Jays: In most years, the Yankees are the big dogs on the international market. This year, teams are waiting to see what the Blue Jays will do, and wondering just how much money they will spend in Latin America. The Blue Jays have been connected to a startling number of top prospects, with general manager Alex Anthopoulos reportedly in the Dominican Republic as the signing period begins.

The Blue Jays have been connected to Venezuelan righthander Adonis Cardona for $2.8 million and Venezuelan third baseman Gabriel Cenas for around $700,000. They are also believed to be one of the teams in strongest pursuit (along with the Pirates) of Mexican righthander Luis Heredia, who is expected to command a bonus of around $3 million. One twist is that Heredia can’t sign until he turns 16 on Aug. 16.

The Blue Jays have also been connected to Venezuelan lefty Angel Mejias and have shown interest in Venezuelan shortstop Rougned Odor. International sources say Toronto is in on other top Latin American players as well. Scouts wonder how the Blue Jays could possibly sign all these top players, even with a top-of-the-market budget, but all indications are that the Jays are ready to spend heavily to beef up their farm system.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners are annually one of the top teams in the international market, and based on their track record under the direction of Bob Engle, it’s not hard to figure out why. They didn’t have a first-round pick in June and figure to make up for it in Latin America. Their top target appears to be Dominican outfielder Phillips Castillo, a power bat whom scouts expect to sign with Seattle for around $2 million.

The Mariners are also expected to sign Colombian righthander Jose Torres for around $800,000 and Venezuelan third baseman Jordi Calderon for around $500,000. International sources believe the Mariners will also be players for other top prospects in the market, with Venezuelan center fielder Yorman Garcia and Dominican shortstop Esteilon Peguero possibly among their targets. Dominican righthander Rafael DePaula, a top prospect now claiming to be 19, is also on their radar.

New York Yankees: Every year the Yankees are one of the dominant teams internationally, and 2010 should be more of the same. Yet unlike last year, when they had clearly marked Dominican catcher Gary Sanchez as their top target for $3 million, it’s not clear who the Yankees have at the top of their list this year. Venezuelan shortstop Rougned Odor has hit well against their minor leaguers in extended spring training games, while the club has also been connected to Dominican outfielder Wilmer Romero, Dominican shortstop Javier Pimentel and Venezuelan lefty Angel Mejias, among others.

The Yankees also are believed to be interested in Mexican rigthander Luis Heredia, although the Pirates and Blue Jays appear to be the favorites there. In a down year for talent, the Yankees might wait until after July 2 to make a splash, especially given that a pitcher believed to be one of their top targets, 19-year-old righthander Rafael DePaula, recently addmitted to a new age and identity.

Oakland Athletics: Signing Michael Ynoa for what is still a Latin American record bonus of $4.25 million in 2008 made the Athletics a major player on the international scene. Their focus, however, seems to have shifted to Venezuela, where they went last year to sign top shortstop Wilfredo Solano and continued to have a strong presence this year. Their top signing is expected to be Venezuelan third baseman Renato Nunez, who could sign for a bonus of around $2 million. The A’s figure to be in on other top international players as well.

Texas Rangers: The Rangers’ best prospect is arguably Martin Perez, a lefthander who signed with the organization three years ago for $580,000. The club added to its collection of Latin talent last year by adding a pair of seven-figure shortstops, Curacao’s Jurickson Profar and Venezuela’s Luis Sardinas. The club was also high on Dominican outfielder Guillermo Pimentel, who ended up signing with the Mariners for $2 million, and this year their target appears to be another offensive-oriented prospect, Dominican shortstop Esteilon Peguero. The Rangers have experience dealing with Peguero’s trainer, Enrique Soto, signing his 25-year-old son Lee Soto in January the same day they signed another one of Soto’s players, Colombian catcher Jorge Alfaro, for $1.3 million. The Rangers figure to be competitive for other top prospects in Latin America as well, though perhaps not to the extent they were last year because it’s not clear whether their financial issues will affect their international spending the way it has in the draft.

New York Mets: The Mets have typically held to slot recommendations in the draft and made up for it in Latin America, including last year when they spent more than $1 million to sign Venezuelan lefty Juan Urbina, who has been brilliant in two Gulf Coast League starts. They should be one of the top players on the international market again this year, though unlike last year it’s not clear who their top sign will be.

Several sources have said the Mets were prepared to offer Dominican outfielder Edwin Moreno a seven-figure bonus, but after a positive steroid test that’s likely not happening any more. The Mets are expected to sign Vicente Lupo, a power-hitting outfielder from Venezuela, for a low to mid-six-figure bonus. The Mets have also shown interest in two other power hitters: Dominican third baseman Elvis Sanchez and Colombian third baseman Pedro Perez.

Pittsburgh Pirates: No, the Pirates didn’t sign Miguel Sano last year, but neither did 28 other teams, and Sano’s early success in the Dominican Summer League should be seen more as a testament to the Pirates’ scouting staff than a disappointment in not signing him. The Pirates already landed one of the top prospects left over from last year’s July 2 class in Dominican outfielder Willy Garcia, and they should be players for top international talent again this summer. International sources believe their No. 1 target is Mexican righthander Luis Heredia, the best pitcher on the international market who could command a bonus of around $3 million. Heredia won’t be able to sign until he turns 16 on Aug. 16, which is conveniently the same day as the signing deadline for the draft. The Pirates have also shown interest in power-hitting Dominican third baseman Elvis Sanchez.

San Francisco Giants: The Giants seem to love power bats in Latin America, having thrown big money at Angel Villalona and Rafael Rodriguez in the last few years while making a strong push to sign Wagner Mateo last year. This year they could go after another power hitter, Dominican right fielder Eskarlin Vazquez, while power-hitting Dominican third baseman Elvis Sanchez could be another target.

Kansas City Royals: The talk out of Venezuela is that the Royals are prepared to sign shortstop Humberto Arteaga for a bonus of around $1 million, a number that came as a surprise to many scouts. It wouldn’t be the first seven-figure bonus for the Royals, who signed Nicaraguan third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert for more than $1 million last year, but Arteaga would likely be their highest-dollar signing if that report is true. The Royals have shown interest in Venezuelan outfielder Vicente Lupo, though he figures to sign with the Mets. They should also be players for prospects looking for low to mid-six-figure bonuses as well.

A Run For Their Money

These teams have been connected to top players or have typically been strong players in the international market, though it’s not clear who their top targets are. Still, they all figure to be competitive for premium talent.

Cincinnati Reds: The Reds survived a scare in May when Major League Baseball finished a lengthy investigation into the 2008 signing of $2.5 million Venezuelan center fielder Yorman Rodriguez and found that his age and identity were accurate. The Reds should continue to be competitive for top Latin American prospects, though it’s not clear which players are their top priorities. They have been linked to Venezuelan lefty Angel Mejias, whose trainer, Ciro Barrios, also worked with Rodriguez, and could be a sleeper for Venezuelan shortstop Rougned Odor..

Chicago Cubs: Cubs scouts had to smile when Starlin Castro made his big league debut months after his 20th birthday. Castro, who signed four years ago for $50,000, has become the poster boy for what scouts in the Dominican Republic are trying to find: a cost-efficient talent with a good swing, tools and athleticism in the middle of the diamond. The Cubs will continue to be active in Latin America and the Pacific Rim, where they are one of the industry leaders. Sources in Venezuela have said they have shown interest in speedy center fielder Yorman Garcia.

Boston Red Sox: Boston’s top signing from last year, $2 million Dominican shortstop Jose Vinicio, is off to a strong start in the Gulf Coast League, but it doesn’t seem like the Red Sox will spend that kind of money on a player this year. While they have the budget to be big spenders in the international market, the Sox may take more of a wait-and-see approach, in hopes that prices on some of the top players come down. The Red Sox have been connected to Venezuelan catcher Argy Raga, though he is expected to sign with the Braves, as well as Dominican righthander Mauricio Cabrera.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays have become more active in Latin America in recent years, and the results are starting to show up at the lower levels with prospects in low Class A Bowling Green like Venezuelan righthander Wilking Rodriguez and Dominican righty Alex Colome. Two of their top signings from last year—Venezuelan third baseman Cesar Perez and shortstop Juniel Querecuto—are both already in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, and while the Rays figure to be active again this year, it’s not clear who they’re targeting. They have reportedly shown interest in Dominican center fielder Yoel Araujo.

The Sleepers

It’s not clear what these teams might do. They might be relatively quiet this summer or they could pop up and sign some of the top talent, but it’s hard to get a great read on them.

Minnesota Twins: The Twins were one of the biggest stories in the international market in 2009, spending not only on Miguel Sano but also on German outfielder Max Kepler and Dominican shortstop Jorge Polanco. Sano has thus far lived up to his billing as Latin America’s best prospect from a year ago, as at 17 he’s arguably already the best hitter in the Dominican Summer League. The Twins could be active again this summer, though their top targets aren’t clear yet.

Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles haven’t had much success funneling international talent to Baltimore, and their farm system is lacking in Latin American talent. There are signals they’re increasing their international presence, and the club was high on Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano last year but couldn’t get him signed. Baltimore could make a surprise move for a top player this year, but in a down year it might wait until a much better 2011 class to make a strike.

San Diego Padres: With players like Simon Castro and Edinson Rincon, the Padres are adding premium Latin American talent to a farm system that has typically been light on teenagers and heavy on college players. The Padres spent $900,000 to add Dominican third baseman Duanel Jones earlier this year, and while their name hasn’t popped up much in conversations about the top international prospects, they could still be active.

Arizona Diamondbacks: With seven picks in the first two rounds of the 2009 draft, the Diamondbacks had to temper their international spending a year ago. They became a bigger player in May when they landed Dominican outfielder Wagner Mateo for $512,000 and should be competitive this summer for some of the better international players, not just in Latin America but in Europe and the Pacific Rim as well.

Middle Of The Pack

These teams probably won’t give any bonuses of more than $1 million, but they should be competitive for more moderately priced prospects. Many of their top signings could come well after July 2, once the prices of middle-tier players fall, particularly in a down year for talent.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies never spend top-of-the-market dollars yet always seem to come up with quality prospects, be it big leaguers like Carlos Ruiz and Antonio Bastardo or lower-level prospects like Sebastian Valle and Jonathan Villar. They will likely take a similar approach this year on July 2, with their top target believed to be Anderson Gonzalez, a Venezuelan shortstop with excellent hands who will be able to sign when he turns 16 near the end of the month.

Atlanta Braves: The Braves likely made their biggest international signing of the year in February when they spent $1.4 million on 18-year-old Dominican shortstop Edward Salcedo, who has crushed Dominican Summer League pitching. The Braves figure to be among the top competitors for players in the mid-six-figure range, but they could surprise and are always among the more active teams in smaller countries like Panama and Colombia. International sources believe the Braves are the frontrunner to sign Venezuelan catcher Argy Raga, who could sign for a bonus of around $400,000. Dominican righthander Mauricio Cabrera could be another target.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have enjoyed tremendous success in Latin America by waiting until after the July 2 rush to sign players, with Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin and Franklin Morales as three prime exhibits of that model. The Rockies should be competitive for other mid-level players again this year, with international sources having connected them to Venezuelan lefthander Jose Tovar.

Houston Astros: The Astros have a new academy in the Dominican Republic and have already signed an intriguing core of talent this year that’s living in the complex and playing in the Dominican Summer League, including righthanders Michael Feliz and Jose Montero and outfielder Kelvin Vizcaino, all of whom signed for low to mid-six-figure deals. The Astros should be in the market for similarly priced players once the international signing period begins. They have shown interest in a pair of power hitters, Dominican third baseman Elvis Sanchez and Colombian third baseman Pedro Perez.

Detroit Tigers: In recent years the Tigers have signed several mid-market players, who are beginning to filter to the United States in the lower levels of their system. They haven’t been strongly linked to any of the potential seven-figure bonus prospects but should again be active for mid-tier players. Like many teams they could wait until after July 2 for prices to fall.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers had two key signings last year with Dominican right fielder Jose Pena and Dominican shortstop Santo Aybar, though Aybar’s deal was voided when he failed his background check. The Brewers should be active again, but likely for more moderately priced talent in the low six-figure range.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals were the story of July 2 last year when they announced the $3.1 million signing of Dominican outfielder Wagner Mateo, only to have that deal unravel in the fall when Mateo failed his physical. Still, the Cardinals have continued to be one of the more competitive teams in Latin America. The club agreed to terms with 18-year-old righthander Carlos Matias this spring for $1.5 million, though given issues with his paperwork (he had previously been suspended by MLB for one year), he’s still in the process of trying to get his visa and had not received his bonus yet. Early returns in the Dominican Summer League were promising and he had been clocked up to 99 mph. With Matias’ status still up in the air, the Cardinals may have to wait until after July 2 to make any major signings, though they have shown interest in Dominican shortstop Antonio Gonzalez.

Cleveland Indians: The Indians have a long history of signing and developing quality talent even through changes in personnel. This year the club hired longtime Latin American talent evaluator Ramon Pena, who most recently worked with the Mets, to lead their Latin scouting efforts. The Indians haven’t been strongly tied to any of the top talents but should be competitive for more moderately priced prospects.

Maybe Next Year

These teams don’t appear to be competing for any of the big-name prospects, and it’s possible they won’t hand out a single six-figure bonus this summer.

Chicago White Sox: The White Sox’ Latin American program is in need of renovations. The farm system is lacking in Latin American prospects, and the organization has not been mentioned in connection to any prospect in conversations leading up to July 2. The firing of former director of player personnel Dave Wilder in the wake of a federal investigation around allegations of bonus skimming has severely set back the franchise in Latin America.

Washington Nationals: Dominican shortstop Carlos Alvarez is third in the Dominican Summer League in OPS, but that’s not what the Nationals were expecting when they signed him four years ago for $1.3 million under the assumption that he was Esmailyn Gonzalez and four years younger than his real age, which is 24. The Nationals have since fired former general manager Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo and took the first major step toward turning around their program by hiring Johnny DiPuglia, one of Boston’s top talent evaluators in Latin America. DiPuglia and his staff could bolster Washington’s international program but it probably won’t show this year. The Nationals are probably saving cash for next month anyway to sign No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper.

Florida Marlins: International sources have not brought up the Marlins in conversations about the top players on the market. With outfielder Marcell Ozuna and flamethrowing reliever Jhan Marinez, the Marlins do have some homegrown Latin American talent, but they don’t figure to be major players this summer.

Los Angeles Angels: Since firing international scouting director Clay Daniel last year just before July 2 and then getting rid of many of their international scouts, the Angels are in rebuilding mode. The Angels were able to sign toolsy Dominican center fielder Luis Jolly, a top prospect from last year, when his price dropped to $150,000 amid scouts’ concerns about his bat, but the club hasn’t been linked to any of the top players yet from this year’s July 2 class.

Los Angeles Dodgers: With the divorce case of Frank and Jamie McCourt, the Dodgers don’t seem to be spending money anywhere, and that will likely be the case in the international market as well. The Dodgers are high on Luis Heredia, but it seems improbable that ownership would spend the likely $3 million it would require to sign him out of Mexico.

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