This morning, Ben Badler of Baseball America reported that the Diamondbacks have agreed to sign Cuban right-handed pitcher Yoan Lopez to a deal that includes an $8.25 million signing bonus. In comparison to the types of dollars we’ve seen for previous Cuban defectors, that number might seem somewhat small, but because of Lopez’s age and the rules surrounding international free agents younger than 22, Arizona has actually agreed to pay an extremely high price for the rights to sign the 21 year old hurler.
First, a quick refresher on the rules. Because MLB wanted international signings to somewhat mimic the way the amateur draft works, foreign players under the age of 22 are subject to bonus pool allocation limits. Like with the draft, these bonus pools are sliding scales based on prior season record, so teams that finished with the worst records get the most money to spend. Because the Diamondbacks finished with the worst record in baseball last year, they are going to receive the largest international bonus pool of any team for the signing period that begins on July 2nd.
However, by signing Lopez, they just punted the opportunity that comes with having the most money to spend, because the $8.25 million bonus that they gave Lopez pushed them way over their limit for the current signing period. The penalty for exceeding their pool allocation is a 100% tax on their overage and an inability to sign any player for more than $300,000 during either of the next two international signing periods, so while the Diamondbacks will be given a bonus pool in the range of $5 million for the upcoming July 2nd crop of talent, they won’t be able to spend it; there just aren’t enough legitimate prospects who will want to sign with Arizona for $300,000 apiece for them to use up their ~$5 million allocation.
And realistically, the 2016-2017 signing period will probably be similar. The Diamondbacks project as one of the worst teams in baseball for next season as well, so they’ll likely also have one of the larger bonus pools for the signing period that begins in 18 months, and again not be able to utilize it due to the restriction imposed by signing Yoan Lopez. Because of their poor Major League performances, the Diamondbacks were in a position to be able to make some significant international signings over the next two years, but they’ve decided that signing Lopez now will provide a better return than the chance to sign impact talents over the next two signing periods.
Now, there is some potential logic to this move, even beyond just the fact that Lopez might be really good. The signing restriction isn’t the same thing as the pool allocation being stripped away, as it is when a team forfeits a draft pick to sign a free agent; the Diamondbacks will still get the largest pool allocation for next year even after this signing. And because you can trade international bonus slots, Arizona will now have some pretty interesting trade chips to play with the next two summers. Any team who wants to sign a prospect for more than their own allocation, but without having to take the signing restriction policy, can now call up Dave Stewart and attempt to acquire some extra bonus money, and the Diamondbacks should be able to extract some prospects in return for the bonus money they can’t use.
And, there is some chance that MLB will just tear this whole system up in the next CBA, since it’s very clear the roadblocks the league tried to put in place to stop this kind of spending aren’t working. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2016, so if a new international system is put in place, it’s possible that the second year signing restriction could be eliminated, or at least converted into some other kind of penalty under whatever new system is adopted. Perhaps Tony LaRussa has some inside information on the likelihood of this system getting abolished before the second year restriction gets put in place, and so Arizona will take less of a hit for signing Lopez than currently appears.
And, of course, there’s always the possibility that Lopez just turns out to be a dominant #1 starter, which would make all of this a footnote; if he’s an elite talent, then these are easy prices to pay to acquire six years of team control. So, it’s not like this is a guaranteed disaster. Lopez could easily justify his acquisition cost if he turns into a good big league starter.
But don’t let the $8.25 million figure fool you; the Diamondbacks are paying far more than that to sign this kid. They had already previously announced five international free agent signings this period, with Badler reporting that two of the signings received $350,000 apiece, so they had already spent close to $1 million of their $2.3 million in allocated funds. By adding Lopez’s $8.25 million to the total, they’re looking at an overage tax of roughly $7 million, so the pure financial cost of signing him is really more like $15 million. And that’s without factoring in the opportunity cost of surrendering the largest pool allocation in next year’s international signing period, and potentially one of the largest bonus pools in the signing period after that as well.
This signing just made Lopez one of the most expensive pitching prospects in history. The signing bonus might look like peanuts in today’s baseball economy, but Lopez cost Arizona a lot more than just his $8 mlilion signing bonus.
Adding in a couple of comments from Kiley McDaniel, which he noted on Twitter.
Scout told me Yoan Lopez similar to Nick Howard (19th pick 2014 draft). Another prefers Lopez “by a hair” to teammate Touki Toussaint (16th)
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) January 13, 2015
I repeated those two quotes to a third source, who said he’s much lower on Lopez & he sees RP. Pro debut should clear a lot of this up.
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) January 13, 2015
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.