DETROIT — Every team in baseball wants to sign the next Ronald Acuna Jr. tomorrow.
Or, if he’s already taken, the next Juan Soto or Ozzie Albies would be just fine.
If only it were so easy.
There’s no such thing as sure-thing prospects when we’re talking about 16-year-olds. The list below proves it.
Think of the young Latin stars who hit the big-league stage or had breakout seasons in 2019 or 2020: Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ketel Marte, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies.
None of them were the best-paid signee in their class and a few of them were scarcely noticed at all when they signed their international free-agent contracts.
The list of big signees who didn’t pan out shows that even the most diligent scouts will have a lot of swings-and-misses. Teams are well aware of the risks, but can’t afford to sit out the international signing game.
The chance of landing a franchise-changing player is too important to ignore, which is why scouts have spent the last few years attending showcases, watching film and poring over data to decide how to spend their club’s allotted money when the international signing period opens on Friday.
How the system works
Players from the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada are subject to the annual amateur draft (which was only five rounds last year due to coronavirus-related cuts). Players from just about everywhere else go through the international signing process beginning at the age of 16. In practice, the overwhelming majority of players signed are from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, although many countries are represented.
The international signing period normally runs from July 2 to June 15 of the following year, but MLB has altered the signing cycle due to the pandemic. The signing period now opens on Jan. 15 and runs through Dec. 15. Most of the high-profile prospects agree to deals in a flurry at the start of the signing period (although the dollar figures have sometimes been agreed upon months or even years in advance). But plenty of prospects also sign later in the process and sometimes there’s a flurry of deals in the final months of the signing period as teams exhaust the last dollars in their bonus pools.
Nowadays there’s a “hard cap” on international spending. That is, teams may only spend a certain amount — usually about $5 or $6 million — on signing bonuses and can’t go over. In the previous collective bargaining agreement, teams could pay a tax to exceed their bonus pool — and many free-spending clubs did so.
One day, perhaps even in the next collective bargaining agreement, there may be an international draft to bring order to a somewhat chaotic international signing process.
Until then, it’s a messy, highly imperfect system, but one that can reap rich rewards for some teams.
2019-2020 signing period
Tigers’ big ticket signing: Outfielder Roberto Campos ($2.85 million bonus) represented their biggest investment on the international market in years. A native of Cuba, Campos had been largely out of sight since moving to the Dominican Republic. Because he didn’t heavily participate in the normal prospect circuit, he was off the radar and considered a surprisingly rich signing.
Around the league: Two Dominicans got the richest overall deals. Outfielder Jasson Dominguez ($5.1 million) went to the Yankees and shortstop Robert Puason ($5.1 million) to the Athletics.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: Dominicans Jose De La Cruz ($1.8 million) and Adinso Reyes ($1.45 million).
Around the league: Victor Victor Mesa (a package deal with his younger brother, Victor Jr.) received $5.25 million from the Marlins, although he was a considerably older Cuban player and thus not the best comp for the typical teenage signee. Mesa, who will already be 24 in July, struggled at the plate in his first year in the United States.
Dominican shortstop Marco Luciano ($2.6 million, Giants) and Venezuelan catcher Diego Cartaya ($2.5 million, Dodgers) also scored big deals. Luciano’s impressive rookie ball debut in 2019 has made him a consensus top-50 overall prospect.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: The Tigers signed Venezuelan shortstops Alvaro Gonzalez ($1 million) and Carlos Irigoyen ($550,000). Both made their Gulf Coast League debuts in 2019.
Around the league: Dominican shortstop Wander Franco ($3.8 million, Rays) has done nothing to dampen expectations since his arrival. He’s the consensus No. 1 overall prospect in baseball and he just turned 19.
The second-best prospect in the class, Venezuelan catcher Daniel Flores, tragically passed away at the age of 17 just two weeks after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Tigers’ big-ticket signing: The Tigers signed Dominican shortstop Wenceel Perez ($550,000), who spent last year with Class A West Michigan and would have been back for a return engagement this year if not for the coronavirus.
Around the league: Venezuelan infielder Kevin Maitan originally signed with Atlanta ($4.25 million), but was given free agency amid the Braves’ international signing scandal. He moved over to the Dodgers ($2.2 million) but has yet to do much in the minor leagues.
The Padres blew through their spending cap, signing Cuban left-handed pitcher Adrian Morejon ($11 million) and Dominican shortstop Luis Almanzar ($4 million). The Padres paid a hefty penalty for their spendthrift ways; nowadays there’s a hard international cap and signings like this wouldn’t be possible.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: The Tigers didn’t have a large spending pool this year and chose to be judicious. The two most expensive signees were Dominican catcher Gresuan Silverio ($300,000) and Dominican outfielder Juan Ramirez ($185,000). Silverio has yet to hit much in the United States; Ramirez’s claim to fame is being the player to be named later in the Justin Verlander deal.
Around the league: The Dodgers paid a whopping $16 million for Cuban right-handed pitcher Yadier Alvarez, who has struggled with a variety of issues and never made the big leagues.
The Giants signed shortstop Lucius Fox out of the Bahamas ($6 million) and then traded him to the Rays, who added to their stockpile of young shortstops. The Twins went big for Dominican shortstop Wander Javier ($4 million), who has struggled to hit.
Among big spenders, the Blue Jays fared the best, signing outfielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. out of the Dominican Republic for $3.9 million.
Notable: The Washington Nationals got star outfielder Juan Soto out of the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million. Infielder Fernando Tatis Jr. signed for $700,000 with the White Sox, who then traded him to the Padres. Both Soto and Tatis put up huge numbers in 2020.
Tigers’ big-ticket signing: They signed Dominican outfielder Julio Martinez for $600,000. He was released last summer without climbing beyond short-season Class A.
A smaller signing that’s gone better: Right-handed pitcher Wladimir Pinto signed for an unknown but presumably small sum out of Venezuela. He’s still around and pitched really well last year in Double-A Erie.
Around the league: Three Dominican hitters went for around $3 million each: Dermis Garcia, Adrian Rondon and Gilbert Lara. None are close to the big leagues.
Notable: Current Tigers pitching prospect Franklin Perez signed with the Houston Astros for about $1 million during this cycle. He was acquired in the Justin Verlander trade.
The steal of the season belongs to the Braves, who signed Ronald Acuna Jr. for about $100,000.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: Another year without much spending or much success. The Tigers signed Venezuelan catcher Elys Escobar ($350,000) and Dominican infielder Hector Martinez ($400,000).
Around the league: The Cubs nabbed Eloy Jimenez ($2.8 million) and Gleyber Torres ($1.7 million) in the same class. Not too shabby. Both made the big leagues with other clubs, of course.
The Red Sox did well by signing Rafael Devers for $1.5 million. The Yankees gave roughly the same amount to Leonardo Molina, who hasn’t fared as well.
Remember Marcos Diplan, who was very briefly a Tiger this year? He signed with the Rangers for $1.3 million.
Notable: Tigers shortstop prospect Willi Castro signed with the Cleveland Indians for $825,000 during this cycle.
Two teams landed huge bargains: The Nationals signed Dominican Victor Robles ($225,000), while the Braves added Ozzie Albies ($350,000) from Curacao.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: This should be a class for the Tigers’ to celebrate. Alas, both of the top players were traded away fairly quickly. Willy Adames ($420,000) has become a very good everyday shortstop for the Rays, while Domingo Leyba was readying for a role on the Diamondbacks in 2020 until he was hit with a drug suspension.
Around the league: The Rangers led the way by signing Jairo Beras for $4.5 million. After struggling at the plate, he tried his hand at pitching. That didn’t go well, either.
Among the other big signings this year: Taiwanese shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin ($2.05 million, Red Sox); Dominican shortstop Amed Rosario ($1.75 million, Mets); Venezuelan left-handed pitcher Jose Castillo ($1.55 million, Rays); and Dominican right-hander Juan Carlos Paniagua ($1.5 million, Cubs). All but Paniagua reached the big leagues.
Notable: Tigers prospect Sergio Alcantara signed with the Diamondbacks for $700,000 during this cycle. He was later acquired in the J.D. Martinez trade.
The Tigers also signed left-handed pitcher Gregory Soto and outfielder Jose Azocar for modest sums during this signing period. Soto debuted in the big leagues last year; Azocar was invited to spring training in 2020.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: The Tigers gave $750,000 to Adelyn Santa but released him after he was unable to obtain a visa to come to the United States. Ouch.
The Tigers did sign pitchers Sandy Baez, Eduardo Jimenez and Anthony Castro this year for relatively small sums. All three have either made the big leagues or are on the 40-man roster.
Around the league: The Rangers led the way, signing Dominican outfielders Nomar Mazara ($4.95 million) and Ronald Guzman ($3.45 million).
The Yankees scored a bargain, signing Luis Severino for $225,000.
Notable: Tigers infielder Dawel Lugo signed with the Blue Jays this year for $1.3 million. Tigers outfielder Victor Reyes ($365,000) was the Braves’ best-paid signee in this cycle.
Tigers’ big-ticket signings: The Tigers signed Venezuelan outfielder Danry Vazquez ($1.2 million). He was traded to the Astros and his career ended in disgrace after a domestic violence incident was caught on tape.
Around the league: The big signees didn’t work out. Right-handed pitchers Adonys Cardona ($2.8 million, Blue Jays) and Luis Heredia ($2.6 million, Pirates) have long since washed out of affiliated baseball. So has outfielder Ariel Ovando ($2.6 million, Astros).
A couple of ultra-cheap signings have aged much better, including infielders Jose Ramirez ($50,000, Indians) and Ketel Marte ($100,000, Mariners).
Notable: Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario signed with the Cubs for $500,000 this year.
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