Yesterday marked the beginning of the signing period for international free agents – those players no currently subject to baseball’s amateur draft. Teenagers from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and beyond inked their first professional contracts, quickening the pulse of prospect watchers and interested bystanders alike.
These signings are important – very important. Major League Baseball would be nothing without the very large contingent of international players, the vast majority of which entered the big league pipeline via this exact process. But this remains a process of finding diamonds in the rough – not picking premium clear, conflict-free diamonds out of a fistful of other, less valuable diamonds.
Both MLB.com and Baseball America created lists of the top 30 international prospects before July 2nd , with BA updating their list with all pertinent signing information as these big dominoes fall. The top name on of the BA list, Elroy Jiminez, remains unsigned but the second name, Gleber Torres, a shortstop from Venezuela, went to the Cubs. Yesterday the Cubs made a series of trades which netted them significantly more money to add to their bonus pool, giving them more freedom to spend under the more punitive spending cap introduced in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
It is wise of the Cubs to spend money this way because, even as international signing bonuses climb, they still pale in comparison to the bonus slots awarded in the traditional amateur draft. The talent coming into the league via the international market is undeniable, as is the risk.
There is an element of “coaching to the test” involved in the international meat market. A player’s tools are emphasized in unnatural scenarios, more akin to a lab than a baseball field. The standing belief being you can teach players the game as they develop and mature but you can’t teach arm strength and bat speed.
It isn’t to suggest this is a faulty process, just one which makes projecting teenagers as full-grown baseball men a dicey proposition. One so far removed from the fan experience, it is best left aside for the time being.
Allow the players to acclimate to American life and grow into their bodies and the inevitable exposure and failure which is an acknowledged part of the ascension up the baseball hierarchy. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about teenage Colombians or high school pitchers from California, scaling baseball’s ladder is a battle of attrition as much as it is a talent meritocracy.
Give these players time to ease into the upper half of your team’s prospect rankings list (the thinking man’s sideboob slideshow) before calling for the head of your the general manager and scouting director. So much stands before these young ballplayers and actual, tangible relevence in your life, it is a wise exercise in expectation management to take a step back and let these teenage prospects come to you.
The good ones, the healthy ones, the lucky ones, they’ll make themselves known in time. In a few years, after gaining a few pounds and gaining a few ticks on the fastball or finding their rightful home at “positions other than shortstop or center field.” Just give them time. Be patient and appreciate the fruits of international scouting labor, rather than lamenting every missed opportunity and flamed out flamethrower.
In his mid-season top 50 list, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus included 16-year old Dodgers prospect Julio Urias, currently pitching in low-A full season ball. Parks described Urias’ future as “abstract” because there is just so much road between the very young Urias and the big leagues. The list of possible outcomes for his baseball career is still very, very long. Just as it is with nearly every player signed on July 2nd (or 3rd or 4th.) It is important to never lose sight of this when announcing one signing is “huge” or worrying another team “missed out.” Patience is key.