Why We’re Not Ranking The Top July 2 Prospects

Image credit: Bayron Lora (Photo by Stacy Jo Grant)

At this time of year, we typically publish our rankings and scouting reports of the top 50 international prospects for July 2.

We’re not going to do that this year. We’re going to do something different instead.

I have been following the 2019 class since 2017. Over the last year I have traveled to different programs throughout the Dominican Republic, seeing players at the fields where they train, getting to know a lot of the kids and some of their families. I love covering international signings, so it hurts to not be writing about these players the way we usually do leading up to July 2. But given what’s happening in the international signing process right now, I think it’s the right thing to do.

I wrote in more detail today here about how teams, in some cases, are reaching agreements to sign players two or more years before they are eligible to sign. There are a lot of people in the game who would like to see the signing process slow down. That includes scouts and trainers, those who want a draft and those against it, and I share those concerns. There’s also the practical challenge of trying to produce a ranking that has substance behind it because it’s based on reports that are fair, accurate and up to date on every player, at a time when the scouting industry has long moved on from following the most prominent 2019 players.

Let’s get into the practical side first. International free agency is a vastly different scouting process from the draft in the United States. The reality is that teams are not currently scouting the top 2019 international players, many of whom reached agreements to sign with major league teams when they were 14. That means, in many cases, the last time those players worked out for clubs outside of the organization they’re expected to sign with on July 2 was two years ago. So when I speak with scouts, they don’t have an updated read on the players going to the other 29 teams.

When a player commits to a team, he stops working out for other clubs. The player still practices at his trainer’s field and can go to a team facility for a certain amount of time, but he stops going to open showcases or tryouts. If a scout goes to a trainer’s field to watch other players in that program, he might happen to see a top committed 2019 player, but it’s usually a superficial look—a shortstop taking groundballs or taking batting practice, rather than a real game. Nothing that a team would make decisions on or that you would want use to build a substantive report.

It doesn’t work that way in the draft. In the U.S., top high school players commit to colleges when they’re freshmen. But a player committing to Vanderbilt or UCLA at 14 years old doesn’t suddenly shut it down from playing high school baseball, travel ball and going to showcases. Every MLB team still scouts those players right up to the day of the draft, and that fresh information is reflected in our draft reports and rankings.

Internationally, once a player commits, other teams generally stop watching him play. The exception, in past years, has been Major League Baseball’s own showcases. For the 2018 class, I went to the MLB Dominican national showcase, Venezuelan national showcase and then in February 2018, the annual MLB international showcase. A lot of the top 2018 players were there. Even though the players had commitments, it’s MLB, so they often felt compelled to go, which gave teams one last look at that year’s class.

For the 2019 players, MLB did not hold those showcases. MLB now runs their events through the Trainer Partnership Program, using uncommitted players from multiple classes. That change is fine. The MLB showcases before had value—a lot of the pitchers were still uncommitted and teams could see them face top competition—but it makes sense for MLB to focus its events on players who are all still looking to sign. So it’s not a criticism of MLB that they made that switch, but I say it to add more context on how little teams have seen of the top 2019 players over the last two years.

One year is a long time for a teenage player to develop. Keoni Cavaco, an 18-year-old high school shortstop from California, vaulted from under the radar last summer to become the No. 13 overall pick in the draft earlier this month. If you read a lot of our international coverage—especially our annual International Reviews series—you know how much players can change in three to six months. Two years is an enormous amount of time for players to change, especially in the window from age 14 to 16. Players can grow two or three inches, pack on 30 pounds and look totally different. There are players in the class whose fastballs have jumped five mph or more in that time, improved from below-average speed to a plus runner and from a 30-grade arm to a 60-grade arm on the 20-80 scouting scale. Those are major transformations to a player’s present ability and future projection.

So from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to write up our usual reports and rankings. I don’t want to put my name or Baseball America’s name on a list just for the sake of having a list. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, especially when we’re writing about kids who are 15 and 16 years old. I don’t think it’s fair to the players, I don’t think it’s fair to the teams and I don’t think it’s responsible for us mislead our readers by publishing surface-level information that would be heavy on uncertainty.

That’s why we have a new plan for how we’re going to cover the top 2019 international signings that’s different from what we typically do. Normally, we review each team’s international signing class the following year beginning in March, with scouting reports on every player who signed for at least $125,000. Those International Reviews end up containing around 300 scouting reports on international signings.

Instead, we are going to move those International Reviews earlier in the calendar to publish them later this year, after the end of the 2019 season. That gives us the opportunity to give you better information on these players. The reports will account for how players look in the Tricky League (an informal league for July 2 signings), U.S. instructional league and Dominican instructs. That means our July 2 coverage will be delayed a few months, but the end result will be more comprehensive coverage earlier and better quality information that, I hope, adds more value for our readers and is fair to everyone involved in the international baseball community.

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