Top International MLB Prospects Are Reaching The Majors Faster Than Ever Before
The significance and visibility of the international signing period increases each year as young players from Latin America burst onto the major league scene.
The 2015 international signing class underscored this point by making headlines in 2019. World Series champion Juan Soto, American League Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez and preseason No. 1 overall prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. all signed in 2015.
So too did Fernando Tatis Jr., who finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting—and might have won the award if his season hadn’t ended in August with a back injury.
Time will tell if the robust 2015 signing class will be viewed as an outlier or turning point in fans’ perception of the international signing period, which was pushed back to January 2021 this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Either way, awareness of 16-year-old Latin American prospects, particularly position players, has trickled down to fantasy baseball, where dynasty owners are increasingly attuned to the top amateurs who sign each summer from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and other Caribbean nations.
As a result, the most promising international prospects get pushed up draft boards in dynasty leagues, making bargains scarce in annual first-year player drafts.
This phenomenon is fueled not only by the big league success of the aforementioned 2015 signing class but also by the emergence of young Latin American stars like Ronald Acuña Jr., Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada and Gleyber Torres—not to mention the early proficiency demonstrated by minor leaguers like Wander Franco, Julio Rodriguez and Marco Luciano, who quickly became coveted prospects in dynasty leagues.
Next up is Dominican outfielder Jasson Dominguez, who signed with the Yankees in 2019 and has yet to play a pro game. The 17-year-old already is a hot commodity in dynasty leagues.
While it may seem at first blush that dynasty players are overreaching for unproven 16-year-olds, there is evidence to suggest that the very best international prospects today are realizing their potential more rapidly than they once did.
Since 1980, a total of 46 players have accumulated more than 100 career plate appearances in the big leagues through their age-20 seasons. In that sample, 27 of the players signed internationally, 17 signed out of high school and two—Bryce Harper and Jim Thome—were drafted out of junior college.
What’s notable about the sample of exceptionally young international big leaguers is that for those who signed in the 2010s, they already have reached the majors in greater numbers and while requiring less minor league time than those from the three earlier decades. Keep in mind that players from the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 international classes have yet to make their mark in the majors to accentuate the sample.
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Let’s take a closer look at the data, where the sample is 26 internationally-signed players who reached the big leagues for more than 100 plate appearances through their age-20 seasons. (Jose Oquendo is omitted from the display because he is a special case. Oquendo signed out of Puerto Rico in 1979 at age 15.) The MiLB PA column indicates the median value for the number of minor league PAs required before a player became a major league regular.
|Signed||MLB Regular at 20||Median MiLB PAs|
For the fast-moving international prospects signed in the 2010s, they reached the majors while requiring 300 to 400 fewer minor league PAs, on average, than players from past decades. This suggests that international prospects are being called to the majors early in their age-20 seasons, rather than receiving August or September callups. That there are already so many 20-and-under big league standouts from the 2010 through 2015 signing classes is a sign that young Latin American prospects may be realizing their potential at an unprecedented rate.
To give you a better sense for the 2010s players who reached the majors very young, here they are in ascending order of minor league PAs required before they became major league regulars: Juan Soto (512 PAs), Ronald Acuña Jr. (1,129), Fernando Tatis Jr. (1,205), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1,262), Rougned Odor (1,436), Rafael Devers (1,714), Ozzie Albies (1,744) and Adalberto Mondesi (2,299).
Note that the sample does not include players like Yordan Alvarez (1,080), Gleyber Torres (1,591) or Eloy Jimenez (1,725) because they didn’t establish themselves until age 21. Xander Bogaerts (1,623) signed in 2009, missing the cutoff by a year, and established himself at 21.
For the sake of comparison, here are the active domestic players who established themselves as big leaguers before age 21: Bryce Harper (536 PAs), Manny Machado (928), Justin Upton (957), Jason Heyward (1,003), Carlos Correa (1,262), Mike Trout (1,312) and Giancarlo Stanton (1,394).
The group of domestic players’ PA totals is lower because—with the exception of Harper—they were developing their skills in high school at ages 16 and 17, while their international counterparts had already signed with major league organizations and were taking advantage of professional training at instructional league, spring training, extended spring training and Rookie ball.
What this means for the dynasty owner is that 16-year-old international prospects are not as risky or as far away from the majors as they might appear, despite their youth. A realistic timeline for the very best international position prospects will see them in the big leagues four years after they sign, when as 20-year-olds they will be ready to assume regular roles.