Today is the first day for international free agent signings across Major League Baseball. The Nationals made big news by signing the No. 5 prospect in 16-year-old shortstop Armando Cruz for $3.9 million. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the usual July 2 signing date was delayed until Jan. 15.
In all, the Nats announced 10 signings. The list includes five pitchers, three outfielders and two shortstops. Five of the prospects hail from the Dominican Republic, four are from Venezuela and one is from Aruba.
“I’m really excited about their makeups,” said Nationals assistant general manager in charge of international operations Johnny DiPuglia. “I think we have a really good class of makeups.
“I think if Cruz pans out, he’s going to be a really good major league player. He reminds me a lot of José Iglesias when I signed him in Boston. I don’t like to put comps on kids at a young age because it’s just not fair. But this kid, every time you see him play, you like him more than the last time you saw him.”
What made DiPuglia so excited about the potential of Cruz in a Nats uniform was seeing him play on multiple trips to the Dominican. Each time, Cruz made a play at short or laced a hard-hit ball into the outfield, DiPuglia smiled even more.
“When you see a young player and you see him a lot, there are times you walk away and say, ‘Damn, why did I do that sign?’ because they are so inconsistent,” DiPuglia said. “But with him, every time I saw him, I said, ‘Wow! This kid is better than I thought.’ We did give him a lot of money, but he is playing a premium position and he’s got a skill set to be really good there. God willing, everything works out.
“We got a good one.”
DiPuglia is also excited about right-hander Gustavo Rivas from Venezuela, who received a $450,000 signing bonus. Rivas has high velocity potential with nice command.
“A right-handed pitcher with a really, really quick arm,” DiPuglia said. “I see him throwing 95 mph plus down the road. Got the makings of a power slider. He’s a really athletic kid. We really like the arm. It’s one of the quickest arms that we signed in the Jan. 15/July 2 day since I’ve been here.”
One of the other three right-handers the Nats inked is Genderson Zapata. He joins Rivas and left-hander Gabriel Agostini out of Venezuela.
“Zapata is a larger-framed guy than Rivas, but he’s got better pitch ability, really good breaking ball, downhill fastball,” DiPuglia said. “I see him being a starter. We like him, we like his upside.”
The Nats signed three outfielders: Enmanuel Ramirez, Cristian Batista and Jean Estrada.
“Middle-of-the-field guys, high upside on the tools,” DiPuglia said. “They just need to play. The same things we always look for. Middle-of-the-field guys with potential for five-tool skill package. But they need playing time. These guys haven’t played a lot of baseball with the pandemic. Hopefully, they’ll be able to get a season this year or else it’s going to be really bad for their development.”
That brought DiPuglia to a major point in all of these signings - and for baseball in general. The players need games. The coaches and coordinators need to see the kids play games. With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the entire 2020 minor league season, 2021 now becomes even more critical to get games in - if they can play them safely. The need particularly affects the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League, the first stop for many young prospects.
“I’ve heard they are going to play,” DiPuglia said. “I heard Gulf Coast League are going to have an extended program where it’s not going to be a valid season as far as somebody winning the championship. I haven’t heard what they’re going to do in the Dominican Summer League yet, but I pray to god that they play because they didn’t play last year and it’s not good that these young kids don’t play. They need at-bats and innings on the mound.”
But the top selection on this day was Cruz. DiPuglia said the shortstop has shown the ability to do it all, and it all begins with first-class defense.
“He’s a middle-of-the-field guy that we normally look for,” DiPuglia said. “Shortstop, elite defender. Really good makeup. A high-energy kid, loves the game. Has a really good history of the game. He knows all players present and past. He’s a baseball rat. He’s got really good ability at shortstop. Really light feet, plus arm. He’s not a physically big guy, but he’s big enough: 5-foot-10, probably about 160 lbs. now.
“He’s got a really good knack to barrel a baseball. He’s played a lot of baseball. He’s played in tournaments against U.S. competition. He traveled to the states. He’s what you are looking for to play shortstop to have those qualities. You got to be a leader. You got to have high IQ and he’s got a really good skill set. I’m really excited to add him to our pool of young Latin kids.”
Here is the complete list of Nats 10 international free agent signings with their respective signing bonuses:
SS Armando Cruz ($3,900,000)
OF Enmanuel Ramirez ($200,000)
RHP Doimil Perez ($200,000)
OF Cristian Batista ($75,000)
SS Winder Diaz ($20,000)
RHP Gustavo Rivas ($450,000)
RHP Genderson Zapata ($200,000)
LHP Gabriel Agostini ($170,000)
OF Jean Estrada ($90,000)
RHP Jefrem Leon ($10,000)
Nationals Dominican scout Modesto Ulloa signed Batista, Perez and Cruz. Riki Vasquez inked Diaz and Ramirez. Salvador Donadelli signed Agostini and Rivas in Venezuela. German Robles brought on Zapata, while Oscar Alvarado was responsible for signing Estrada. David Leer signed Leon in Aruba.