Every team wants to be able to add a blue-chip international signing to its farm system.Miguel Sano
, Franklin Barreto
, Gleyber Torres
and Rafael Devers
were all highly touted players ranked at or near the top of their class when they signed, and those seven-figure bonuses have yielded a good return on investment so far. But in the international market, particularly in Latin America, the best signings often turn out to be the players signed for smaller bonuses. Part of that is because there are only a handful of players signed each year in the $1 million price range, while another 200 or so fall into the six-figure bonus territory and another roughly 600 players sign for less than $100,000.
Quality matters, but when we’re talking about Latin American players who are mostly 16-19 years old who are so raw and so far from the major leagues, success is still very much a numbers game to some degree. Players can change quickly—pitchers in particular—which is why so many teams’ best Latin American pitching prospects were lower-level signings who saw their stuff spike and their mechanics start to come together after signing. Position players who were afterthought signings to fill out a Dominican Summer League roster often surprise too, especially if they had more game skills than pure tools and didn’t stand out to scouts when they were doing tryouts. They can develop into legitimate prospects, providing value as trade chips or turning into productive big leaguers. Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia
, the No. 8 prospect in baseball, signed for just $95,000 in 2011, even though his brother was a high-profile prospect at the time with the Twins. So as we break down each team’s 2015 international spending numbers and write reports on every player who signed for at least $100,000 last year in our upcoming International Reviews series, it’s also instructive to look at the raw number of players each team signed last year. With the international bonus pools, teams sometimes have to make a choice between investing heavily in a small number of players or spreading out smaller bonuses among a larger volume of signings. The chart below lists the number of international players each team signed during the 2015 calendar year, overlapping the 2014-15 signing period at the beginning of 2015 and the 2015-16 signing period that opened last year on July 2, with the latter period accounting for the majority spending and signings. The chart excludes Cuban and Asian professional signings that were exempt from the pools, such as Hector Olivera
or Pablo Millan Fernandez, but it includes Cuban players who were subject to the pools, such as Yoan Moncada
, Yusniel Diaz and Omar Estevez. In the chart, I included a note on which teams were under the penalty during the 2015-16 signing period (and thus limited to signings of no more than $300,000), which ones went over their pool in 2015-16, and which clubs field multiple teams in the DSL or Venezuelan Summer League. Remember that the VSL folded in January, so the Cubs, Phillies and Rays will all now field two DSL teams. I included the Tigers in the multiple teams category since they were expecting to field a DSL and a VSL team, though they now will only have one DSL team and will go with two rosters in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Four of the top five teams in terms of signing volume were all under the penalty during the 2015-16 signing period. Those four teams didn’t have any restrictions last year until July 2, but 140 of the 193 players signed by those four clubs were signed on July 2 or later. Some of those signings were eligible players they convinced to wait until July 2 to sign, since a $200,000 in May would have cost them $400,000 with the 100 percent overage tax but on July 2 would cost just the $200,000 bonus. Either way, most of the signings were being made during the time these teams were under the penalty. The one exception among those teams was the Angels, who traded away all four of their slot values and retained a pool of just $700,000. Instead of essentially punting a year of international signings, the Diamondbacks, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees remained aggressive on the international market and spread their money around to sign a huge quantity of players, a strategy born out of necessity. When we look back at each team’s signing class in 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those clubs ended up having among the most productive hauls of 2015 despite their limitations. One thing that does seem counterintuitive is that the teams that went over their bonus pools during the 2015-16 signing period didn’t necessarily sign more players than other clubs. The Dodgers did, with a heavy emphasis on Cuban players but with a high volume of Dominican and Venezuelan players mixed in as well, while the Cubs were also aggressive in both spending and quantity. Yet the Blue Jays went over their pool (notably just shy of 15 percent over for a one-year penalty, not two) and did it primarily to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr., ranking 25th among total players signed. The Giants went over so they could sign Lucius Fox for $6 million, and while they signed nine other players for at least $100,000, they were No. 21 in total players signed. The Royals also went over, with Dominican outfielder Seuly Matias and shortstop Jeison Guzman their big additions, and were in the middle of the pack in signing volume. The biggest determinant of how many players a team signs is how many teams that have at the academy level in the DSL, or were planning to have between the DSL and the VSL. Ten of the 13 teams at the top of the chart have multiple academy teams, which means more available roster spots to give more players opportunities. More opportunities means more chances that a team will have a breakout signing from their lower bonus signs, whether it’s a position player surpassing expectations or a projection pitcher filling out and getting his fastball to jump. It’s a competitive advantage for a franchise to have multiple teams at the academy level. Not all teams have a Dominican facility that can house two DSL rosters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more organizations started to field multiple DSL teams in the future. We might even see some clubs expand to three or four teams in the DSL. Perhaps that sounds outrageous when nobody has done it before. With the bonus pools and the unknown of what the next Collective Bargaining Agreement will bring in December, there is a point where having to fill out more roster spots can hamstring a team’s flexibility. But even if a team is filling out an extra 35-man roster just using $10,000 bonus signings (those are exempt from the pools), that’s just a $350,000 investment in bonuses. There are additional costs to fielding an extra DSL team, but if even one of those low-dollar signings turns into the next Jose Altuve
or Yordano Ventura
or a prospect like Yankees righthander Domingo Acevedo
(a $7,500 signing), wouldn’t it be worth the investment? With more restrictions on how teams can invest in prospects from the United States because of the more rigid draft rules, teams can create more opportunities to develop homegrown prospects by signing more players in Latin America.