The international free agent signing period is set to begin tomorrow and teams will move quickly to acquire talent from across the globe. However, it is important to look back at previous acquisitions in order to properly set expectations. Brandon Magee looks back at the 2012 international free agent class to see if we can learn any lessons with international free agency upon us.
Tomorrow morning… or more likely, when the clock strikes midnight, pens will be placed on paper and scores of teenagers – from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, Panama and Mexico, Curacao and Columbia, and nearly all the other nations where baseball is played – will scrawl their names to official documentation that makes them professional baseball players. While these players will not begin their journeys in earnest until 2017, the dreams of baseball fans everywhere will incorporate their team’s newest signing into the glories of a future World Series. But what about the future big names of the recent past? How close are they to making these vivid dreams a reality? Today, we look back at some of the big international signings of 2012 to see where our stars of tomorrow are shining today.
A Note of Caution
When talking about international signings, we enter into a world of pure speculation. While teams splash hundreds of thousands – and sometimes even multiple millions – of dollars on individual prospects, the vast majority of players that are being signed have just turned 16. Prior to signing, they have not played in organized leagues at any point, and will likely never ascend beyond the lowest rungs of the minor-league ladder. Even a resource such as Baseball America’s top 20 prospect list is best used as a guideline to players who will be signed and their relative status within the greater scouting community. However, unlike the Rule 4 Draft, where bonuses largely decrease in a linear fashion, the bonus structure in the international arena is much more erratic. It is no real shock that the #11 prospect in Baseball America’s list, Amed Rosario, signed for $1 million more than #4 prospect Alexander Palma, as these rankings are not a consensus compilation.
Franklin Barreto signed with the Toronto Blue Jays on July 2, 2012, for a reported $2 million. The shortstop out of Venezuela was the top-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, and the Blue Jays brought him directly to the U.S. in his first professional season in 2013. Playing in the Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League, Franklin batted a combined .276/.343/.482 with 21 doubles, seven triples, and four home runs in his first 59 games. The Blue Jays promoted him to the Short-Season Northwest League in 2014, where the teenager continued to impress, batting .311/.384/.481 with 33 extra-base hits in 73 games. It would be Barreto’s final season with the Jays, however, as he was one of the minor-league chips cashed in by Toronto as they acquired Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics. Baretto continued his offensive production last season with the High-A Stockton Ports, cracking 13 home runs and 38 extra-base hits while batting .302/.333/.500 over 90 games in his first season with the A’s. Barreto’s first three seasons vaulted him into top-prospect territory, ranking as one of the top 35 prospects by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com. However, the jump to AA Midland has seen Franklin slump with the bat. This year, the middle infielder is only hitting .243/.305/.366 for the RockHounds. Of course, it should be noted that he is only 20-years-old, approximately four years younger than the average Texas Leaguer.
Amed Rosario, one of eight shortstops ranked in Baseball America’s Top 20, was signed by the New York Mets for a reported $1.75 million bonus. Although he followed the same general path as Barreto – the Rookie Appalachian League in 2013, the Short-Season New York Penn League in 2014, the High-A Florida State League in 2015 – Rosario was not doing so with the same offensive production. His best overall season was in 2014, where Amed batted .289/.337/.380 with 11 doubles and five triples in 68 games. However, despite middling offense production, the shortstop was ranked as one of the top 100 prospects by the three authorities coming into this season. Rosario has proven the prognosticators correct with a breakout season in 2016. In his second turn in St. Lucie, Amed has batted .309/.359/.442 with 21 extra-base hits over 66 games, earning a promotion to AA Binghamton. He has had early success in the Eastern League, compiling ten hits – five of them for extra-bases – in his first 25 at-bats.
Luis Torrens signed with the other team from New York, receiving a $1.3 million bonus in exchange for his signature. The catching prospect, however, has been beset with injuries to his throwing shoulder. After the 18-year-old started his 2014 season with the Full-Season Charleston RiverDogs, he was placed on the shelf with a shoulder injury for two months before reappearing in the Gulf Coast League. He missed all of 2015 after undergoing shoulder surgery, and has only recently returned to action with the short-season Staten Island Yankees. The 20-year-old has picked up eight hits in his first six games of the 2016 season and has already gunned down three of the five runners attempting to pilfer an extra base. However, his injuries have greatly delayed his development.
The Tampa Bay Rays signed a pair of hurlers to big bonuses, acquiring southpaw Jose Castillo for $1.55 million and right-hander Jose Mujica for a cool million. Castillo has not yet proven his value, putting up a 5.87 ERA and a 1.370 WHIP in 2013 with the Gulf Coast Rays before pitching less than five innings for the GCL Rays in 2014. The lefty was traded to the San Diego Padres in the complex three-team Wil Myers deal in December, 2014. Last season, Castillo started 18 games between the Tri-City Dust Devils in the Northwest League and the Fort Wayne Tin Caps of the Midwest League, compiling a 3-2 record with a 3.94 ERA. However, the peripheral stats were not as clean, as Castillo gave up 76 hits and walked 32 in 75 1/3 innings while striking out only 48. Castillo has returned to Tri-City to begin the 2016 season with a change in usage, having thrown four innings in three relief appearances.
Mujica was considered the best pitching prospect in the 2012 class by Baseball America, and the Rays placed Jose in the GCL for his debut season in 2013. Over a dozen games, Mujica put up a 3.09 ERA and a 1.094 WHIP. While the right-hander was not proficient with strikeouts, garnering just 20 in 32 innings, he was stingy on the walks, giving up only three. However, much like Castillo, Mujica only pitched in two games in 2014. Last season, Mujica toured the Appalachian League with Princeton and the Midwest League with Bowling Green, putting up a 3.18 ERA in his dozen starts. Mujica did not make any great strides in his peripherals, striking out 42 and walking ten in his 65 innings of work. The righty is taking a second tour this season with the Hot Rods, and in 14 starts has a 4.96 ERA and a 1.522 WHIP, while doubling his walk rate.
The Downside of Bonus Day
While the million-dollar club of 2012 continues to move slowly up the ladder, smaller amounts of bonus money were lavished on kids that have not produced. The San Francisco Giants signed third baseman Nathanael Javier to a contract with a $475,000 signing bonus. While he was able to escape the Dominican Summer League after a single season in 2013 – batting .229/.276/.326 with 17 extra-base hits – his power did not follow him to Arizona. In 2014 and 2015, Javier picked up only 27 hits in 153 plate appearances. Perhaps the struggle should have been expected, after Javier was popped for steroid usage at the end of 2013.
The Yankees signed shortstop Yancarlos Baez for $650,000, but the Dominican prospect did not debut until 2014, when he batted a combined .237/.313/.335 in 64 games between the Dominican Summer League and the Gulf Coast League. Last season, the 19-year-old didn’t do much to improve his stock, hitting .235/.300/.338 in 54 games with the GCL Yankees.
The Atlanta Braves signed outfielder Kelvin Estevez for a reported $300,000 signing bonus, but the outfielder has not shown much offensive potential. In his three seasons with the DSL Braves, GCL Braves and Danville Braves in the Appalachian League, Estevez batted only .239/.320/.310 with 25 extra-base hits in 149 games. Estevez, like Baez and Javier, has not yet made an appearance in the 2016 season. It is possible the professional baseball careers of these three bonus babies have already come to an end.
Much like the Rule 4 Draft, the first day of the international signing period is greeted with great hype and even greater significance. While both means of talent acquisition can give major-league teams talented and cheap labor in the long haul, neither method is a guarantee. Much like old prospectors searching for gold, teams stumble upon a Xander Bogaerts who turns into a cheap major-league star. But much more often, the findings turn out to be fool’s gold, a false hope that cannot live up to the hype.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.