Today marks an important day on the baseball calendar, especially for teams looking to bolster their farm systems. The international signing period begins today, as opposed to the traditional July 2 opening, and runs through Dec. 15, allowing teams to sign young talent from foreign countries to their lower level minor league teams.
For the Nationals, this presents another opportunity to add young talent as they attempt to revamp their entire organization from top to bottom. But unlike the talent they acquired at last year’s trade deadline, these players are usually raw teenage talents, who are years away from making an impact at the major league level.
A good number of the players signed during this period are unlikely to even reach the top levels of the minor league system.
You’re familiar with players the Nationals have acquired through this process. Guys like Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Luis García were all signed during their respective years of eligibility, with varying timelines and degrees of success. No one is a sure thing and surprises come out of nowhere.
Currently, 11 of the Nats’ top 30 prospects and six in top 11 are from the international market.
Quick trivia question: Who is currently the longest tenured player in the Nationals organization that was originally signed as an international free agent? The answer is at the bottom.
So how does this system work?
First of all, it starts with years of scouting and relationship-building by the international department. For the Nats, that’s spearheaded by vice president and assistant general manager in charge of international operations Johnny DiPuglia.
Teams are assigned bonus pools, which act as hard salary caps, with which to sign players. They are not allowed to trade pool spaces during the signing period. Bonuses of $10,000 or less do not count toward the pools.
The Nationals find themselves in a group of 14 teams allotted $5,179,700 to sign players this signing period. There are 14 teams with larger pools and two teams with smaller pools (Dodgers and Blue Jays).
At last year’s opening, the Nationals signed 10 amateur free agents, including shortstop Armando Cruz, who was the class’ No. 5 prospect and signed for $3.9 million. That tied Yasel Antuna for the biggest signing bonus for an international prospect in club history.
Cruz is now 17 years old, the No. 5 prospect in the Nats system and projected to debut in the majors in 2025. He was scouted as his class’ best defender across the diamond and his glovework at a premium position gives him a lot of value as he continues his development. If his offensive development can catch up, Cruz might be the Nationals’ everyday shortstop of the future.
As for this year, the Nationals are expected to sign 17-year-old outfielder Cristhian Vaquero, widely considered the best prospect in this international class.
Originally from Havana, Cuba, Vaquero made his way to the Dominican Republic to further his baseball development. A natural left-handed hitter, he learned to switch-hit in the Dominican, which scouting reports say resulted in improved pitch recognition and more confidence at the plate. Already listed at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, Vaquero is said to be a potentially dynamic five-tool player with a lot of raw strength, power and speed.
He’s also received a lot of high praise for his maturity and his intelligence, having studied English already for three years and spending a portion of his youth living in the Republic of Angola.
It’s crazy to think that if Vaquero grew up in the United States, he would be a high school player on track to be a top-five pick in the First-Year Player Draft in a couple of years.
Vaquero has already signed with Scott Boras’ agency, an easy connection to the Nationals, and has been seen in photos with Soto and Robles at the Nationals’ Dominican academy.
Speaking of Soto, his younger brother, Elian, made headlines earlier this week when he reportedly flipped his intention to sign with the Mets to the Nationals. Elian, who turned 16 on Monday, had just recently been reported to be in agreement with the Mets but is now apparently prepared to join Juan with the Nats, thanks to some help from his older brother.
That should be encouraging news to any worrying Nats fans.
Elian isn’t eligible to sign the deal with the Nats until Jan. 15, 2023, so there’s still a year before it can become official. (Though the new collective bargaining agreement could change those rules.) The younger Soto demonstrates power from the left side of the plate, like his big brother, while playing third base and the outfield. Also like Juan, Elian is represented by Boras, solidifying him and the Nats as a perfect match.
Trivia answer: Adrián Sanchez, who signed as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in 2007. It’s kind of mind-blowing that Sanchez has been with the Nats for 15 years.