Orioles set to make latest splash in the international market

A new 11-month international amateur signing period begins for major league teams on Jan. 15. And the Orioles are expected to sign several of their key targets, including an outfielder that will be given the largest bonus for an international amateur in club history. In the signing period at this time last year, the club announced its first two seven-figure signings in this marketplace.

The Orioles announced the signings of 17 players last year on Jan. 15, including 13 that got six-figure bonuses and eight of the 17 that got bonuses of $300,000 or more. In the first international signing class for executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and senior director of international scouting Koby Perez, the O’s signed a whopping total of 44 players in the period that began July 2, 2019.

Last year and now this year, the signing period runs from Jan. 15 through Dec. 15.

On Saturday, the Orioles are expected to sign 16-year-old outfielder Braylin Tavera from Higuey, Dominican Republic. The right-handed hitter, who profiles as a speedy center fielder, also features some power potential and gets scouting grades of 50 or 55 across the board from MLBPipeline.com.

Tavera, per Baseball America, is expected to get a bonus between $1.5 and $2 million. He ranks No. 18 on Baseball America’s listing of the highest-projected signing bonus and No. 22 on MLBPipeline.com’s listing of the top 50 international prospects.

Angry-bird-bag-sidebar.jpgIf Tavera does get a bonus in that range he will top the previous two highest bonuses the Orioles handed out last January, when catcher Samuel Basallo of the Dominican Republic got $1.3 million and Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernandez got $1.2 million.

Basallo hit .239/.338/.410/.748 in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League for the Orioles last year with eight doubles, five homers and 19 RBIs in 41 games. He is expected to move to the United States and play in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League in 2022. Hernandez hit .231/.340/.308/.648 in 40 games and also is likely headed for the FCL this coming season.

Hernandez is ranked as the Orioles’ No. 19 prospect on their MLBPipeline.com top 30 prospects list and Basallo is No. 24. On that same list, outfielder Luis Gonzalez of the Dominican Republic, who signed for $475,000 on July 2, 2019, is ranked No. 28.

So the Orioles have made major strides in signings in this marketplace under Elias, both in quantity and quality, and in handing out now what is expected to be three bonuses of seven figures.

The international market is likely to be critical for the Orioles in their rebuilding efforts. Neglected by the club for years, that has changed under Elias, and now the Orioles are getting involved with the top talent available and making more strides seemingly in each class. This is a big element of building what Elias has called the elite talent pipeline.

“I think the importance of the Latin America and international scouting has been fueled by the changes we’ve seen in the game in the last 20 years. Younger players being able to come up and impact the game so immediately. Because of the quality of player development that has improved across the game,” Elias said on signing day 2021.

“Now they comprise about a third of the overall talent in Major League Baseball and it’s arguably more of the star talent. So being really good in this market is essential to any team. We had and have some catch-up to do, but this (2021) class was a gigantic step. Koby started with us in January of 2019 and because of the way that this market works, that is a pretty late start on what was going to be (originally) a July 2, 2020 signing class and then got shifted due to coronavirus. To get two of the premier guys in the class starting that late is difficult and Koby was opportunistic and we’re excited about this class.”

Also as the signing date arrives this weekend, MLB.com has reported that the Orioles are expected to add infielders Leandro Arias from the Dominican Republic and Cuban Cesar Prieto.

Arias, ranked No. 46 in this signing class by MLBPipeline.com, is a 16-year-old switch-hitter. Like Tavera, MLBPipeline.com rates his tools in the 50 and 55 range across the board.

Prieto, 22, has played since 2017 in a Cuban professional league. Last season, he batted .403/.463/.579/1.042 with 21 doubles, seven triples, seven homers and 51 RBIs in 74 games. He showed amazing bat control drawing 31 walks with just 11 strikeouts. During the 2020 season, he had a 40-game hitting streak. MLB.com reports his signing bonus should range in the $650,000 to $750,000 area.

In addition to beginning to make an impact on the O’s top 30 prospects lists, in 2022 we will see a large influx of international talent on an O’s full-season affiliate probably for the first time ever. In this story, I wrote about the low Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds and their roster’s expected international flavor for 2022.

The Shorebirds shortstop could be Isaac De León, 20. He was acquired during the 2020 season from Miami for lefty pitcher Richard Bleier. In 45 FCL games in 2021, De Leon batted .276/.367/.372/.740 with nine doubles, a triple, a homer, five steals and 23 RBIs.

The Delmarva center fielder may be 19-year-old right-handed batter Mishael Deson. From La Romana, Dominican Republic, Deson was an Elias acquisition as part of the trade of reliever Mychal Givens to Colorado on Sept, 18, 2020. In that deal, the Orioles got Terrin Vavra, Tyler Nevin and a player to be named that became Deson.

In 38 games last season, including six when he moved up at the end of the year to Delmarva, Deson batted .333/.370/.452/.822 with two doubles, two triples, three homers, 12 steals and 18 RBIs. He went 4-for-23 (.174) with Delmarva.

“It’s just a great sign for the organization that these players are making their way out of the Complex League into our full-season affiliates,” Orioles director of player development Matt Blood told me. “It’s just another step closer to them making major league impact and providing value to the major league team. It’s going to take time, but this is a sign that progress is being made and year after year we are starting to see more and more (international) players that are potentially impact guys for the major league roster.

“It just provides a real thoroughness to our group of prospects. Most teams have a good combination of domestic and international players, and we are making our way toward that, too.”

Under the current rules, MLB teams face essentially a hard salary cap pool of money to sign these international players. The Orioles are in a group of eight teams allotted a total of $6,262,600 to sign players this signing period. The other clubs that can sign players up to that amount include Arizona, Cleveland, Colorado, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Diego and St. Louis. Players signed for $10,000 or less do not count against the pool amount.

There are six teams, including Tampa Bay, allotted $5,726,200. There are 14 teams, including the Red Sox and Yankees, allotted $5,179,700. There are two teams, including Toronto, allotted $4,644,000.

Teams are not allowed to trade any signing bonus slots or money during this signing period. There continue to be rumors that MLB would like to eventually hold an international draft of players at some point and it could be part of the latest collective bargaining agreement talks.

With plans underway for a new Orioles complex in the Dominican Republic, along with the club’s much-improved efforts to sign young international talent, their international program is on the move. Now they are starting to see it impact their lower-level affiliates and top 30 prospects lists with the hope that potential big impact on the Orioles roster is still to follow.

New outfield dimension at Camden Yards: The Orioles told The Baltimore Sun that changes are coming to Oriole Park in 2022 and construction for the changes has already begun. The outfield fence will be higher in spots, raising up to 12 feet and the outfield fence will be as far as 30 feet back farther from the plate. The changes will take place from the left field corner to the area of the bullpens.

Construction is expected to be completed by opening day. Since 1992, no park has yielded more home runs than Camden Yards. Nine parks have been open since that season.

This will obviously reduce the numbers of homers hit at the Yard and perhaps even help the club in the future attract more free agent pitchers. It should also place even more of a premium on speed in the outfield with more ground to cover.

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