Last week at Grantland, two friends of the show in Jonah Keri and Nick Piecoro had a wonderful discussion about all things Arizona Diamondbacks, including the Touki Toussaint trade that caused many a skeptical eyebrow to be raised in the Diamondbacks’ direction. While Keri and Piecoro by no means endorsed the Diamondbacks’ recent moves, they brought up an interesting perspective on Arizona’s willingness to spend big on Cuban players Yasmany Tomas and Yoan Lopez — and thus easily eclipsing their allotted international bonuses — without spending much on international free agents from other countries. The idea: there’s a relatively slim chance that Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart — or any other general manager for any other team — would still be working in their current position when today’s 16-year-old reaches the majors. While the fan no doubt cringes at the thought of a general manager romping around the front office with nary a concern for the franchise’s sustained success, one can definitely empathize with the human instinct for self-preservation.
So the discussion got me curious: which of today’s 30 current general managers (I will count Dan Jennings of the Miami Marlins even though there is evidence not to) have overseen players rising through their system from international amateur free agents to major leaguers? This isn’t a perfect way to measure a franchise’s ability to develop international talent — there are plenty of examples like Carlos Gonzalez, who was signed by the Diamondbacks but then traded to the Oakland A’s before making the majors as part of a package that brought Dan Haren to Arizona. Signing Gonzalez did bring back value for the Diamondbacks — but for now I’ll say that the ideal situation is to raise one’s own homegrown talent, so I’ll limit my scope to the international players who debuted in the big show with the team that signed them.
I’ll break the general managers into groups by how long their tenure with their team has been. More than half of the teams in the majors — 17 of them — have had their current general manager in place for five years or less. (And, in the case of the Los Angeles Angels, five weeks or less.) Out of all these front offices, there is currently a single international free agent who has appeared in the majors under the same GM who signed him: Sandy Alderson signed Rafael Montero to the New York Mets. There is also one player who falls into a gray area: Jorge Soler, who played twelve games in the Cuban National Series, a professional league — even though it was clearly his performances as an amateur that had Jed Hoyer, Theo Epstein, and the Chicago Cubs sign him to a nine-year, $30 million contract. Whether you want to count Soler or not, the general lack of players from young front offices confirms the idea that signing international free agents is a long game indeed.
What about general managers who have been on the job for 5-10 seasons, meaning they started between 2005 and 2010? There are nine such front offices in the league, and here’s how they rank from least to most such players:
- Mike Rizzo’s Washington Nationals and Jack Zduriencik’s Seattle Mariners have produced no international amateur free agents.
- Neal Huntington’s Pittsburgh Pirates only have one free agent, but they made him count: Gregory Polanco.
- John Mozeliak’s St. Louis Cardinals have produced two players: Audry Perez (who is now in the Orioles’ system) and the late Oscar Taveras.
- There are three teams who have produced three players apiece. Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays have Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro working in this year’s bullpen, and they debuted Adeiny Hechavarria before including him in the blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins. Walt Jocketty’s Cincinnati Reds have received only minimal contributions from Carlos Contreras, Yorman Rodriguez, and Daniel Corcino (now in the Dodgers’ system). And Ruben Amaro Jr.’s Philadelphia Phillies have space on this year’s roster for Severino Gonzalez, Hector Neris, and Maikel Franco.
- Dayton Moore’s Kansas City Royals have produced five international free agents, but since quality matters a great deal more than quantity here, there’s an argument to be made that Moore is the game’s current master at identifying this type of talent: in addition to this year’s intriguing rookies Cheslor Cuthbert and Orlando Calixte, the Royals have unearthed stars in Yordano Ventura, Salvador Perez, and Kelvin Herrera.
- Jon Daniels’ Texas Rangers have graduated nine international free agents, but only Rougned Odor and Luis Sardinas have produced at the major-league level, and Jurickson Profar is the only other player who has been saddled with the expectation to produce at the major-league level. The rest: Joe Ortiz, Martin Perez, Wilmer Font, Hanser Alberto, Leury Garcia, and Tomas Telis.
That leaves only four general managers who have been in place for longer than a decade — but I’ll bump that to five by adding Brian Sabean’s San Francisco Giants back into the mix. (Sabean is now the Vice President of Baseball Operations in San Francisco after being the GM since 1997.)
Evidently Doug Melvin and the Milwaukee Brewers don’t place a huge priority on discovering international talent. They’ve only graduated two international amateur free agents — although they’re both excellent ones: Alcides Escobar and Wily Peralta. Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s don’t seem too interested, either: with Beane’s tenure approaching 20 years long, the A’s have graduated only five players, and the best one — Santiago Casilla — has really only excelled as a member of Oakland’s cross-town rivals. (The others are Pedro Figueroa, Arnold Leon, Henry Rodriguez, and Gregorio Petit.)
Sabean’s Giants are somewhere in the middle, promoting eight players, including a star in Pablo Sandoval. Aside from trusty back-up catcher Hector Sanchez, the team hasn’t received much production from the other players: Osiris Matos, Waldis Joaquin, Francisco Peguero, Angel Chavez, Ehire Adrianza, and Francisco Santos.
Brian Cashman’s New York Yankees and Dave Dombrowski’s Detroit Tigers are both luxuriously bankrolled teams who annually contend — and both teams have promoted 15 players during each GM’s tenure. When you rank them next to each other by career WAR, though, it’s clear to see that the Yankees have received a lot more value from their efforts:
Looking at all of the players mentioned in this post, it looks like international amateur free agents are only occasional role players in today’s game. Of course, that’s really far from the truth — every contender would be crippled if their team was suddenly mandated to be 100% American. What does appear to be true, though, is this: that, as a GM — even as a great GM — it’s really hard to stick around long enough to see the players one signed actually thrive in the major leagues. Unless you’re Dayton Moore.