July 2nd marks the beginning of the international free agent signing period for baseball prospects outside the U.S. and Canada who have turned 16 years of age. More than 25 percent of the players in Major League Baseball this year were signed as international free agents, including 21 of the top 60 hitters and 14 of the top 60 pitchers according to WAR calculations as of June 25th. Eleven players who have donned a Rangers jersey this season began their professional careers after signing as international free agents: Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Nelson Cruz, Vlad Guerrero, Frankie Francisco, Max Ramirez, Joaquin Arias, Andres Blanco, Pedro Strop, and Guillermo Moscoso.
The international market is clearly an important one for teams like that Rangers that are focused on player acquisition and development. In the past few years, the Rangers have signed Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar, Wilmer Font, Luis Sardinas, Jorge Alfaro, Edwin Escobar (who begat Ben Snyder), and other international free agents. Although budget constraints make it unlikely that the Rangers will be able to compete with the Yankees, Blue Jays, Mariners, Red Sox, and Athletics in handing out multi-million dollar signing bonuses, the team is expected to sign one or two of the top 25 players from Latin America this year.
Ben Badler from Baseball America graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the 2010 international free agent market. As the lead for the International Affairs section at Baseball America, Badler writes the scouting reports for international prospects that get discussed, quoted, and plagiarized by baseball fans and writers the world over. You can follow Ben’s work on the international market at Baseball America and on Twitter.
BBTiA: Like the 2010 MLB draft, this year's international free agent market seems to have been more difficult to project than previous years. What are the factors that have contributed to how hard it has been to rank and place the prospects in the 2010 class?
Ben Badler: You're right, it is more difficult to project than most years, and I think there are a few reasons why. One is that the bonus money has gotten so big so fast. All of a sudden there have been marginal players receiving mid six-figure bonuses or even upwards of $1 million. When that happens, now the agent or the trainer of any kid with a plus tool (or who thinks his player has a plus tool) seems to be asking for $1 million like it's nothing. That makes a lot of scouts throw their hands up in the air in frustration, but at the same time, while those players usually have to wait until well after July 2nd for their prices to come down to be able to sign, every now and then a team goes nuts and is willing to give a huge bonus to a player who a lot of scouts don't view as that caliber of player, so it's hard to knock the strategy if it works every now and then.
The other huge factor is that Major League Baseball has required 40 of the top Dominican prospects to pre-register with MLB, which includes the players consenting to a drug test and to an investigation of their age and identity. That process has slowed down the market, with reports this week of nearly half of those 40 players failing their drug tests and MLB still not having completed all of their age and identity investigations.
BBTiA: 2010 has been described as a relatively weak year for international free agents, while 2011 is apparently stacking up to be a very strong year. Would you agree with this assessment?
Badler: It is a down year for talent, and that's probably another factor that has made this year's July 2nd market a slow-developing one. When there aren't clearly defined top players, it means there's a lot more variance of opinion in who the top players should be, which I believe makes things take longer to unravel in terms of setting the market. Next year's class is a very strong year that people are already excited about. That said, even the best scouts in the business who have been doing this for more than 10 or 20 years will tell you that a class that looks great now might not turn out to be so great 15 years down the road, and vice versa -- that's just the nature of scouting 15- and 16-year-old kids in Latin America.
BBTiA: You mentioned Esteilon Peguero as a possible target for the Rangers. Can you provide a quick review of his strengths and weaknesses and discuss the likelihood that he will sign with the Rangers?
Badler: Right now, as of June 30th, I'd say the Rangers are probably one of the frontrunners to sign Peguero. He's certainly a player of high interest for a lot of clubs, it's just a question of whether those clubs are willing to pay for him because he might be the best bat in the Dominican Republic if not all of Latin America. He's shown he can hit in games, and while the swing isn't perfect, it's very good for a 16-year-old and he's shown he can hit in games against live pitching, which for me is the most important thing to look for. He's not a huge power hitter but he can drive the ball into the gaps and should grow into more power. Speed and defense aren't a big part of his game, but he should be able to slot in at either second or third base and handle the position.
BBTiA: Are you aware of any other players whom the Rangers appear likely to sign in July?
Badler: Like I said before, it's a difficult market to forecast. My understanding is that Peguero is their top target, but I'm sure there are other mid-range or possibly other top-level players who they will be after regardless of whether they sign him.
BBTiA: Do you have any favorite sleepers (i.e., players who are unlikely to get one of the top 10 bonuses but will nonetheless develop into top 100 prospects)?
Badler: There are players who I'm projecting to get top 10 bonuses who I've gotten very promising reviews on; Peguero, RHP Luis Heredia (Mexico), 3B Renato Nunez (Venezuela), OF Phillips Castillo (Dominican Republic) and SS Rougned Odor (Venezuela) all sound like potential top 100 guys down the road. Looking a bit deeper down the list, there is a left-hander from Venezuela named Jose Tovar who sounds like he has an impressive combination of stuff across the board and feel for pitching. There's another Venezuelan, shortstop Ronny Mejias, who will probably move off the position but has an excellent swing, and a third baseman in Venezuela named Jordis Calderon who's a good athlete who can hit some and has plus power. The most important thing for me is whether a guy can hit, and it sounds like all the hitters I mentioned above have a good chance to hit.
BBTiA: Most of the 2009 class of 16-year-old international free agents have had an opportunity to work in fall instructional leagues and appear in professional leagues. Who are the standouts in last year’s class?
Badler: Miguel Sano with the Twins is 17 and he's already probably the best hitter in the Dominican Summer League, and the Yankees Gary Sanchez is having a monster week in the Gulf Coast League. Shortstop Jose Vinicio (Red Sox) and OF Guillermo Pimentel (Mariners) are also good-looking hitters who got paid and are looking good early on in the complex leagues. I will say the reports I've received on Jurickson Profar since he signed have been better than before he signed, which probably has a lot to do with him coming from Curacao, where there are just fewer scouts, and because a lot of teams stopped scouting him early on because he was so strongly linked to the Rangers. A lot of teams liked him better as a pitcher than as a shortstop, but the Rangers are sold on him as a shortstop and sending him to the Northwest League as a 17-year-old is a pretty big sign of their belief in his ability.
Alfredo Morales, an outfielder with the Mariners is another guy who was a high-profile guy but who might have even flown a bit under the radar because the reports on him from the Arizona League so far have been great. Another Ranger who signed last year worth mentioning is David Perez, a right hander who is off to a terrific start in the DSL. He was a relatively high-profile arm from last year but he's proven to be much more advanced than I thought at this time a year ago. He's definitely one to keep an eye on.
BBTiA: Thank you, Ben, for taking time out of your busy schedule to discuss the 2010 (and 2009 and 2011) J2 market with BBTiA.
[Ben published an ordered list of the 33 prospects from Latin America whom he believes will receive the highest signing bonuses this year. The list includes links to videos for many of the prospects.]