The Orioles’ plans to rebuild their roster have been given a big boost by the news that the Orioles are back in the international signings business. The team didn’t completely neglect this area, but it’s been real slow around here for a few years.
That is now changing.
According to Baseball America, the Orioles spent a total of $260,000 on international amateur players in 2016, and they signed nine players during 2017 for a total of $535,000. The Orioles’ biggest-dollar signing last year was 17-year-old Venenzuelan outfielder Ricardo Castro for $150,000. He is currently batting .245 in 42 games for the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League Orioles.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said yesterday: “There is a lot of interest in the international market because of the quality of the players and the finite number of bonus slots that clubs can utilize. We hope to sign a couple of international players this week. We hope to be able to announce that we have signed some young international prospects from the Dominican and Venezuela this week.”
Orioles fans may not be up on the rules of signing international amateurs. Heck, they haven’t had to be for a while. But all clubs start out each new signing period with a pool amount that varies by team. Most clubs start out with between $4.9 million and $6 million for signing players in a period that began on July 2, 2018 and will end June 15, 2019. Many teams have already signed many players and spent significant portions of their bonus pools.
It appears the Orioles have the largest pool amount remaining, at $5.75 million after the team acquired international pool money Sunday in the Brad Brach trade with Atlanta. According to MLB.com, Miami is next with $4.1 millon left, followed by the Cubs at $3.05 million and the Dodgers at $2.7 million. For teams that actually have players who have reached agreements but have not yet officially signed, their current pool amounts could actually be less than what is listed. That also could work in the Orioles’ favor.
While most of the Baseball America top 50 international prospects have been signed, not all have been. That includes Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa, who is ranked No. 1. He has not yet been cleared by Major League Baseball to sign with any club. But when he is, the Orioles may well have more money available for him than any team. Wouldn’t that be a nice switch? The Orioles as the team that can spend the most?
By the way, teams can still make trades to acquire more pool money. Clubs can acquire up to 75 percent of their original pool. But the Orioles still are pretty well positioned here.
Ben Badler of Baseball America has covered the international prospect beat and been among the best in the business for years. He told me last night the Orioles are indeed positioned well to make a run at Victor Victor, who should be cleared by MLB to sign with any team later this year.
“If they want to sign him, there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to,” Badler said. “They have a financial advanage in this situation over every other club. It is the move that makes the most sense for them right now. If they are willing to spend the money there is no reason they shouldn’t end up signing him.”
Victor Mesa is the father of Victor Victor Mesa and was a top Cuban baseball player in the 1980s and ’90s. His other son is Victor Mesa Jr., who is 16 and also could be signed by a big league team. But Badler said the brothers would not necessarily come as a package deal to the same club.
Victor Victor Mesa, who just turned 22, is an elite talent who Badler said has two tools that rate as at least a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale: his speed and arm.
“I am a big fan of his,” Badler said. “He is a super athletic center fielder. Lot of quick-twitch explosion in everything he does. I’ve seen him play since he was 17. He is a terrific defensive center fielder. When he was 17 he could have played defense in the big leagues. Tremendous instincts, reads off the bat, routes to the ball, he makes highlight-reel catches. He has a tremendous, tremendous arm, too.
“Coming up through the Cuban junior leagues he always hit very well. When he was healthy he hit well in Cuba. He did have some injuries that slowed him down. That does add some risk to his profile. But it’s really, really electric athleticism and tools at a premium position.”
During the 2016-17 season in Cuba, Mesa batted .354/.399/.539 in 70 games, with more extra-base hits (27) than strikeouts (19) and 40 stolen bases in 50 attempts. Badler projects he could play in high Single-A ball or Double-A ball right now.
Here is a link to Badler’s top 50 international prospects from Baseball America. A few remained unsigned, led by Victor Victor Mesa at No. 1. Also unsigned among the top 50 is Cuban right-handed pitcher Sandy Gaston, at No. 24, and outfielder Alexander Ramirez of the Dominican Republic, at No. 25. Ramirez cannot sign with any club until he turns 16 at the end of August. The Los Angeles Angels may have the inside track to signing him.
Also unsigned is catcher Fernando Villalobos from Mexico, at No. 34. He can’t sign at the moment, as Major League Baseball currently has a ban on all Mexican League signings. The Brewers have big interest in Villalobos, according to Badler. Badler’s No. 45 prospect, shortstop Jose Bonilla of the Dominican, has also not signed.
The Orioles have traded Manny Machado, Zach Britton and Brach. The transformation of an organization is well underway. There are eight new players in the upper minors. There are three Orioles in Baseball America’s midseason top 100. The club will likely have one of the top picks, and maybe even the top pick, in the 2019 draft.
And now the team that seemed to have little interest in international signings the last few years could in the future be gaining the biggest international prize of all.