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Numbers Game: Age Isn’t Everything On The International Market

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Major league organizations spend years scouting and eventually invest millions of dollars signing Latin American amateurs each year, primarily from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The highest bonuses go to the youngest international amateurs, who become eligible to sign professional contracts at age 16.

Demand for the top international talent can push signing bonuses well into seven figures. Just last July, the Rays signed Dominican shortstop Wander Franco, the top prospect in his signing class, for $3.85 million.

Yet even though signing bonuses correlate strongly with youth, future success is hardly guaranteed when it comes to signing 16-year-old players, and the reasons are myriad.

Players develop at different ages, both physically and emotionally. Some develop or refine skills more than expected. Some players just plain outwork the others.

Still, one could reasonably expect the best major league players to have developed from the brightest amateur prospects—in other words, those who signed at age 16.

Research by Baseball America reveals that this is only half true.

We analyzed the signing ages for Dominican and Venezuelan players in both the major leagues and full-season minor leagues on Opening Day, and a few themes emerged. To view the signing data, please see FIGURE 1 for players on major league Opening Day rosters and FIGURE 2 for full-season minor league rosters. Keep in mind that this data covers only active players who signed as international amateurs from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.

A little more than half (54.9 percent) of major league players who signed as Dominican or Venezuelan amateurs signed at age 16. But players who signed at 17 or older were almost equally represented in the majors as the 16-year-olds, even though they were passed over as amateurs when they were first eligible to sign. In some cases, they were passed over by international scouts in multiple years.

Some examples of big league stars who signed at age 16 include Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Gary Sanchez. On the other hand, the following players signed for much more modest bonus amounts at age 17 or older: Robinson Cano (18), Starling Marte (18), Victor Martinez (17), Jose Ramirez (17), Carlos Santana (18) and Luis Severino (17).

Robinson Cano
Robinson Cano

Digging into the data further, we see that major league position players who signed out of the Dominican Republic or Venezuela signed at either age 16 or 17 in the vast majority (93 percent) of cases. However, the six exceptions to the rule include impact players Cano, Marte and Santana as well as Wilmer Difo, Teoscar Hernandez and Breyvic Valera.

Dominican and Venezuelan pitchers who reach the majors have a much wider distribution of signing ages, with 45 percent signing after age 16. In extreme cases, players sign well after their 16th birthdays. Pirates reliever Edgar Santana signed a few days shy of his 22nd birthday, while Hector Neris and Richard Rodriguez signed at age 20 and Silvino Bracho, Luis Castillo and Juan Nicasio signed at 19. All but Castillo work as relievers.

The data indicates that, overall, major league organizations identify just about every teenage Latin American position player who will develop into a big leaguer, and most of the ones who succeed sign by the time they are 18.

Moreover, teams signal their preference for position players by their spending habits. Ben Badler, who has covered the international market for BA for more than a decade, estimates that for every 25 to 30 seven-figure signing bonuses handed out in Latin America, only one or two goes to a pitcher.

What’s more, Dominican or Venezuelan amateurs who develop into major league pitchers are much more likely to have signed for less than six figures, whereas it’s rare to find a major league position player from those countries who signed for less than $100,000.

On the minor league side, we see that Dominican and Venezuelan position players deemed ready for full-season ball signed at age 16 or 17 in nearly 90 percent of cases. Pitchers signed at those ages in only about 75 percent of cases.

High school pitchers are viewed as risky propositions in the draft, and so too are their teenage—though younger—counterparts in Latin America. Not only do scouts have to project velocity gains, breaking ball or changeup development and possible mechanical alterations for teen pitchers, but they also have to project arm health in a job rife with occupational hazard.

The riskiness of young pitchers plays a big role in the wide-ranging distribution of signing ages for Dominican and Venezuelan prospects. While many pitchers develop later in their careers, often when they reach physical maturity, the same is not often as true for young hitters, both on the international market or in the draft. A good young hitter immediately jumps out to scouts based on traits such as bat speed, swing mechanics or overall twitchiness, which all manifest at an early age.

In other words, it pays to be a position player on the international market.


Signing Data For Dominican And Venezuelan Professionals

Baseball America determined the signing age for every Dominican and Venezuelan player who appeared on a full-season roster on Opening Day this year. We present the major league results in FIGURE 1 and the minor league results in FIGURE 2.

Note: Five Dominican players are active in 2018 who misrepresented their age when they signed: Adrian Beltre, Santiago Casilla, Bartolo Colon, Nelson Cruz and Fernando Rodney. For the purposes of this examination, we used the age at which major league clubs believed the player to be, rather than his actual age when he signed.

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Starling Marte
Starling Marte


As the headline states: Age isn’t everything on the international market. A number of major league superstars were passed over on the international market before signing. In fact, Robinson Cano, Starling Marte and Carlos Santana were passed over at both age 16 and 17 before signing at 18.

The table below creates all-star teams of active Dominican and Venezuelan players who signed at age 16 one side and those who signed at 17 or older on the other.

All-Stars
Pos16 Years Old17 And Older
CGary SanchezWillson Contreras (17)
1BMiguel CabreraCarlos Santana (18)
2BJose AltuveRobinson Cano (18)
3BAdrian BeltreJose Ramirez (17)
SSJose ReyesJonathan Villar (17)
LFMarwin GonzalezMarcell Ozuna (17)
CFCarlos GomezStarling Marte (18)
RFCarlos GonzalezNelson Cruz (17)
DHHanley RamirezVictor Martinez (17)
SPFelix HernandezBartolo Colon (20)
SPAnibal SanchezCarlos Martinez (17)
SPCarlos CarrascoLuis Severino (17)
SPFrancisco LirianoIvan Nova (17)
RPFernando RodneyFelipe Vazquez (17)
RPKelvin HerreraJeurys Familia (17)

With the exception of shortstop, where seemingly all the top talent is signed as young as possible, the 17-and-older all-stars compare favorably with the 16-year-olds. Note that Felipe Vazquez was known as Felipe Rivero prior to this season.

Turn your eyes to the horizon, and the following young major leaguers signed at age 16 and have a chance to be big stars: Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers, Twins third baseman Miguel Sano, Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara, Mets shortstop Amed Rosario, Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia and Yankees third baseman Miguel Andujar.

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