International amateurs can get there sooner and with great impact

When I wrote this entry earlier this week, I detailed the Orioles’ efforts to reach agreements with 20 international amateurs for their upcoming signing class. It will be the second international class since Mike Elias took over as the club’s executive vice president and general manager.

Elias and the team’s senior director of international scouting, Koby Perez, both have extensive international experience and contacts and it is beginning to pay off for the Orioles. It will take years before any of these players can impact the majors, but you have to tap into this pipeline if you want a consistent big league winner.

About 30 percent of the players in most major league clubhouses were born outside of the United States. And, to further illustrate that point, in the current Baseball America top 100 prospects list, there are exactly 30 international players.

Thumbnail image for Ed-Smith-Stadium-w-Palms-sidebar.jpgSince 2018, Baseball America has had three players that were signed as international amateurs ranked as its No. 1 prospect. That includes Ronald Acuña of the Braves, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays and their current No. 1, shortstop Wander Franco of the Rays. He is No. 1 currently on both the Baseball America and lists.

Players like these three reach No. 1 for a reason. They are expected to be stars, and Acuña already is. He reached the majors at 20 and now, at 22, he has a National League Rookie of the Year Award and three top 12 NL MVP finishes under his belt to go with his .909 career OPS.

Acuña signed out of Venezuela, by the way, for just $100,000. Cleveland’s José Ramírez, second in voting for the American League MVP this year, signed with the Indians at 17 for $50,000. The Nationals’ Juan Soto, who made his big league debut at 19, signed for $1.5 million. At 21 he finished fifth for the MVP award this year. Guerrero at $3.9 million and Franco at $3.825 million were top-of-scale signings, and both reached No. 1 rankings.

When you can sign an amateur player at 16, as you can on the international front, you have the chance to get him to the majors at 19 or 20, and true stars like Acuña and Soto not only get there but are middle-of-the-order impact players at such young ages. It’s like buying a lottery ticket and a few years later cashing in big.

Perez told me this week that such is always the dream with these international signings. The goal is to produce good major league players. The real dream is to sign and produce the next young superstar.

“Absolutely. We’re hoping that we can produce stars,” Perez said. “We also know it takes time for major league players to develop when you are signing them so young. The Acuñas and Sotos that are making it to the big leagues at 19 and 20 are great. And we all hope for those guys. But in our reality, usually they take a little longer, and a lot of the stars in the majors did take a little longer. You think about guys like Nelson Cruz, José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación - these are guys that, before they became major league stars, they took their time in the minor leagues. But hopefully, we get some guys up there quickly and begin a pipeline.”

Because these international amateurs can be signed at 16, you have to scout them and, in many cases, come to agreements with them as early as 14 or 15. Some have come to agreements at 13. Scouts work years in advance. They have to.

Elias and Perez signed 44 players in their first class, and those signings (the first 27 of them anyway) were announced July 2, 2019. Their second class is expected to produce 20 players. Because of the pandemic, the official July 2 start of the international signing period got pushed back to next Friday, Jan. 15, 2021 and runs through Dec. 15, 2021.

Because Elias and Perez and their scouts had more time to establish relationships, scout and sign players in this second class, they got in with some higher-caliber and touted players. The highest signing bonus from their initial class went to outfielder Luis Gonzalez of the Dominican Republic, and he got $475,000. Three players signed for $300,000 or more then, but in the class set to be announced next week, there are eight players at $300,000 or more, as we reported this week.

This class will include the first Oriole - in fact two such players - signing an international amateur deal for seven figures.

The club will be signing Dominican-born catcher Samuel Basallo for $1.3 million and Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernandez for $1.2 million. The Orioles had a pool of $5,889,600 dollars available for this class, and almost all of it, save for about $100,000, is accounted for by their group of 20 players. It is expected to include 13 players signing for $100,000 or more. Contrast this with a small group of players the club signed for a combined $260,000 during calendar year 2016.

The top international players in this class are expected to get $4 million. Had the O’s signed someone for that amount this year, that one player would eat up 68 percent of their money. There are some teams that believe you have a better chance to hit it big in spending huge amounts on one player, or possibly a few, rather than signing 20, 30 or more.

Perez told me he could see the O’s facing such a decision in the coming years.

“We’re going to take it year by year,” he said. “We’re looking for a fit for us. If there is a player that is a fit for us and he costs us our whole budget, we’ll look at that situation when it arises. We’re always going to go year by year, and there might be a year where we get the highest-rated publicized player there is, and there will be other years when we spread it out. It’s going to all depend on what is the best fit for us.”

There is also the chance that an international draft will be a big part of the discussions for the new collective bargaining agreement that begins with the 2022 season.

For now, the O’s international efforts are stronger than ever, and Elias and Perez will have added 64 players - 11 at $300,000 or more - in their first two classes once the new group is officially announced next Friday.

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