The international signing process has become messier than ever. Not that it’s ever been a clean, straightforward puzzle to put together before, but the combination of aggressive scouting, major league rules and external factors beyond baseball has pushed the arena to a new level.
Talk to an international scout about a top 2016 player who will be eligible to sign on July 2 and the response usually starts with some variation of, “Yeah, I saw him, but the last look I had on him was last summer, then he disappeared.” Several of the top players who will be officially eligible to sign on July 2 have had oral agreements in place since before July 2 last year. There are already around 10 players with deals in place for 2017, even though the new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t come out until Dec. 1 and could dramatically change the international signing system.
Even in February when high-level scouts and executives were in the Dominican Republic for Major League Baseball’s annual international showcase, trainers were more eager to show their 2017 players than their 2016s, with 2016 players already referred to as “passed over” or “left over” players, even though they wouldn’t become eligible to sign for another five months.
“Someone at a showcase the other day was showing a 2020 kid,” said one international director. “I’m watching a 12-year-old taking batting practice. What am I going to get out of that?”
Since players who are 15 and 16 can change quickly, a report from a player in September could change quite a bit by this time. Several players have broken through and will end up as bargains, while others who reached oral agreements last summer have either regressed or not taken the steps forward those teams were hoping to see.
The influx of Cuban talent has had an impact on the market. So has the economic crisis in Venezuela, where scouts say the talent is strong this year but club officials are wary to visit because of the danger, with some scouts now traveling the country with armed bodyguards wherever they go.
The 2016 class will also be unusual because of the amount of teams in the penalty box for exceeding their international bonus pools in previous signing periods and the number of teams planning to go over this year. The Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees will all be in the second year under the penalty and won’t be able to sign any pool-eligible players during the 2016-17 period. Joining them this year are the Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals, taking 10 teams out of the mix for players above $300,000.
While several perennial international heavyweights sit on the sidelines for the most expensive talent, the Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Nationals and Padres are all planning to blast through their upcoming international bonus pools. The Reds are also expected to exceed their international bonus pool to sign Cuban shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez for around $7 million, though it’s still conceivable that they could acquire enough international slot values from other teams to still stay under their pool and avoid penalties.
The most aggressive teams from the early going have been the Braves, Nationals and Padres. The Padres are planning to mix top Cuban talent with top players from the more traditional market for 16-year-old players throughout Latin America. Cuban lefthander Adrian Morejon and outfielder Jorge Ona expected to sign there once MLB clears them to sign, though it’s unusual that they haven’t been cleared yet.
Here is a look at some of the notable prospects to watch for July 2 this year, with a focus on the teams planning to exceed their bonus pools.
Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan trains with Henderson Martinez, whose program has produced Angels lefthander Ricardo Sanchez (2013) and Mariners center fielder Brayan Hernandez (2014). With teams scouting those high-profile players, they have also had several years worth of looks at Maitan, who many consider the top player in this year’s class and one of the best 16-year-old Venezuelan prospects to come along in years. At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Maitan is a switch-hitter with power, athleticism, above-average speed and a strong arm. While some scouts expect Maitan to outgrow shortstop and end up at third base, he should start his career at shortstop and some believe he can stick there. Overall, Maitan is one of the most exciting 16-year-old prospects to come along in a while with high-ceiling upside. The Braves are the favorites for Maitan, whose bonus will certainly surpass the $4 million mark and set a record for a Venezuelan amateur.
Venezuelan catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, who trains at Carlos Guillen’s academy, was a high-profile player last summer, having played on Venezuela’s 15U World Cup team in Mexico in August 2014 when he was still 14. Gutierrez, a big-bodied 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, is likely to sign with the Braves and command a bonus of around $3.5 million, which would likely be the No. 2 bonus in the country after Maitan, though several scouts said the righthanded-hitting Gutierrez didn’t make the progress they were hoping to see from him over the past year.
Dominican shortstop Yunior Severino is another seven-figure likely to sign with the Braves for a bonus that could get close to $2 million. Severino will probably move off shortstop, but he’s a switch-hitter who impressed scouts with his quick wrists, bat speed and power. The Braves are also the favorites to sign another shortstop, Livan Soto out of Venezuela, likely for just north of $1 million. Soto is a skinny 5-foot-11, 165 pounds with soft hands in the field and good bat control with a line-drive stroke even if there isn’t much power right now. Dominican righthander Juan Contreras should command a similar bonus to Soto and is expected to end up the top-paid pitcher in the class, aside from Cuban players. The Braves are the favorite to land Contreras, who has been up to 94 mph already and should throw even harder once he fills out his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame, though he will have to improve his erratic control.
San Diego Padres
Last year, Lucius Fox ducked out of the draft by moving from Florida to the Bahamas, then scored a $6 million bonus from the Giants. Luis Almanzar didn’t take quite the same path as Fox, but he did spend time going to high school in the United States before moving back to the Dominican Republic to become one of the elite prospects in the 2016 class. Almanzar was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, where he drew attention from an early age. Instead of staying in the Dominican Republic, Almanzar came to the United States and played for American Heritage High (Plantation, Fla.), one of the premier high school programs in the country. Almanzar hit well as a 15-year-old in his one season there in 2015, then after the season moved back to the Dominican Republic, where he trained with Ivan Noboa and is now expected to sign with the Padres.
Almanzar, 16, will be eligible to sign on July 2 and is one of the top prospects in the class. He’s an offensive-minded player who has earned praise for his ability to hit and control the strike zone from the right side of the plate with a line-drive approach but a chance to hit for power as well. At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Almanzar has a more physically mature frame than many shortstops his age and a thicker lower half, which leads a lot of scouts to project him as a second or third baseman, though others think he can stay at the position as a bigger-bodied shortstop. Almanzar should end up one of the top-paid players on the market, with a bonus that could push past $4 million.
The Padres are also the favorites to sign Gabriel Arias, one of the top shortstops in Venezuela and the likely recipient of a bonus in the $1.5-$2 million range. Arias, 16, has a physical frame (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and projects to be a big man once he fills out. Some scouts think he might outgrow shortstop, but others think he can stay at the position, where he shows a plus arm, good hands and footwork to go with strong defensive instincts. Some scouts also praised his righthanded bat and power potential.
Dominican outfielder Jeisson Rosario is one of the top outfielders on the board—maybe the top one overall—and another player likely to sign with the Padres, with a price tag that could come close to $2 million. Rosario, 16, is a 5-foot-11, 175-pound lefty with a quick, line-drive stroke and good exit velocity off his barrel with the ability to hit in games. He’s a well-rounded player with a good combination of athleticism and baseball skills. Some scouts think Rosario definitely stays in center field, where he has good instincts, while others thought right field since he’s an average runner rather than a true burner.
The Padres have been linked to 16-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Justin Lopez, who is expected to command a little more than $1 million. Lopez has a gangly 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame, so while he lacks much present strength, he has earned praise for his defensive actions, clean hands and strong arm. Lopez is a longer-range projection than his expected bonus might suggest, with the typical strength-based tools like speed and power still below-average right now and his defensive actions standing out more than his switch-hitting bat.
In Mexico, one of the top players this year is 16-year-old corner outfielder Tirso Ornelas, who is with the Mexico City Red Devils and another player likely to sign with the Padres for more than $1 million. Ornelas is a lefthanded hitter whose best tool is his bat. His lack of quick-twitch shows in his bat speed, which is just fair at best, but his proponents think he compensates for that with good timing at the plate and hitting instincts, even if his stroke does get long.
Among Cuban players, the Padres are still the favorites to sign Morejon, who has been up to 95 mph with an easy delivery and good feel for his secondary pitches, as well as Ona, a 19-year-old right fielder with a compact swing and plus power.
While Maitan entered the year as the consensus No. 1 talent in the class, several scouts feel that Dominican shortstop Luis Garcia is one of the elite 2016 players. Garcia’s father, also named Luis Garcia, is a former major league shortstop who played in eight games for the Tigers in 1999, getting one hit in nine at-bats. The father represents his son, who is expected to command around $1 million, and while other players will end up getting more money, Garcia checks all the boxes scouts look for in a player who just turned 16 this month. At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Garcia is a lefthanded hitter who has performed well in games with loud line drives. He’s also one of the best athletes in the class, with excellent speed, soft hands and a strong arm at shortstop.
The Nationals are also the favorites to sign Dominican shortstop Yasel Antuna, who is expected to command one of the biggest bonuses of the class at around $4 million. Several scouts preferred Garcia to Antuna, a switch-hitter who has shown solid feel for hitting for his age with a more advanced stroke from the left side, though his athleticism and other tools are just fair and he doesn’t project to stick at the position. The Nationals are also likely to sign another shortstop, Jose Sanchez from Venezuela, with Sanchez earning praise for his hands and footwork at shortstop along with his sound, line-drive swing from the right side and overall baseball IQ. Sanchez is still 15, so he can officially sign when he turns 16 on July 12.
St. Louis Cardinals
When the 2016-17 signing period opens on July 2, the Cardinals are expected to sign 17-year-old Cuban center fielder Jonatan Machado for a bonus in the neighborhood of $2 million. Machado is only 5-foot-9, but he’s a plus-plus runner with good outfield instincts and makes contact at a high clip from the left side of the plate.
Aside from Cuban players, the Cardinals’ top target is 16-year-old Victor Garcia, a power-hitting corner outfielder from Venezuela. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Garcia is a righthanded hitter with some of the loudest thunder in the class and had a strong showing at MLB’s Venezuelan national showcase last year. Scouts highest on Garcia liked his ability to hit in games and think he should grow into plus raw power, with his offensive ability having to carry him since he’s likely limited to left field.
Dominican outfielder Carlos Soler is another player the Cardinals are expected to sign for a mid six-figure bonus. Soler has a high physical upside at a lean 6-foot-3, 165 pounds with a promising combination of athleticism, arm strength and raw power from the left side, though some scouts had reservations about swing-and-miss.
The Astros are planning to break through their international bonus pool on July 2 with an agreement in place already to sign Cuban shortstop Anibal Sierra for $3.5 million. They have also been linked to Venezuelan shortstop Yorbin Ceuta, who scouts consider one of the better game hitters among shortstops this year with an expected bonus around $1 million. Ceuta is a smart, heady player who doesn’t dazzle with his athleticism but grows on scouts the more they see him because of his ability to manage the strike zone and consistently put the barrel to the ball. The Astros are expected to be busy signing several other players for mid six-figure bonuses, with Venezuelan righthanders Angel Macuare and Jairo Solis, Dominican catcher Nerio Rodriguez and Dominican shortstop Deury Carrasco all linked to Houston.
The Freudis Nova Wild Card
One of the top players in the class is 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Freudis Nova, who trains with Rudy Santin. At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Nova is a quick-twitch athlete with excellent bat speed, plus wheels and a strong arm. Nova is fast-twitch in everything he does and he has shown feel to hit in games from the right side of the plate, with over-the-fence power in batting practice too. That’s an exciting package and it looked like Nova was in line for a bonus in the $2.5 million area, with the Marlins long considered the favorites to sign him.
That’s no longer the case. Nova tested positive for anabolic steroids in February, prompting the Marlins to back away. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is already upset with Dee Gordon getting suspended for steroids in April after he signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension in January. After Gordon’s suspension, the Marlins weren’t going to sign a player linked to steroids. Nova has since taken multiple drug tests, including one last month, that did not come back positive for any banned substances. The footage in the Nova video above is all from this month.
Since most teams have already (unofficially) committed their pool allocation elsewhere at this point and 10 teams can’t spend more than $300,000 on a player, the most likely destination for Nova looks like a team that’s already over its pool, with the Padres and Astros looking like his most probable suitors.
The unfortunate truth is that a lot of amateur players in Latin America are on anabolic steroids years in advance of when they become eligible to sign, only to cycle off and avoid detection in time for the signing to come through cleanly. Another high-profile 2016 prospect had his agreement for close to $1 million disintegrate because he failed a steroid test.
And other players who have tested positive for steroids, be it Astros righthander Michael Feliz on an official MLB drug test or other players who tested positive on team-administered drug tests and didn’t have to serve any suspensions have turned into high-quality prospects.
It’s unlikely Nova will get more than $2.5 million any longer. It’s hard to know exactly how to account for steroids in an evaluation, other than taking it on a case-by-case basis, but scouts who have seen Nova recently said he is still one of the top players in the class. A player like that becoming available at this point in the game is unusual, making his case one of the more intriguing ones to follow as July 2 approaches.