International Player Update

Typically, we roll out most of our international amateur free agent reports during Prospect Week, which falls just five months ahead of those players’ usual signing day on July 2, with a few more trickling in as the signing date approaches. The lingering effects of the pandemic mean the next signing period likely won’t begin until January 2022, but there are still fresh scouting reports on The Board for your perusal. You’re going to want to open that up in a new tab as you read this article, because I’m going to reference some names to illustrate how players who aren’t eligible to sign for another 10 months are still impacting how teams are behaving right now.

The pandemic and its financial fallout caused MLB to push the start of the 2020 signing period from July 2 to January 15, 2021, allowing owners to avoid having to spend a collective $150-plus million on signing bonuses in the middle of a summer without big league ticket revenue. Of course, there were other long-term financial incentives for owners to do this as well. Pushing the signing period also likely delayed the free agency of whichever star players emerge from that international class by a year. Instead of signing in July and coming to the US for 2020 Fall Instructional League — where they’d be seen by the front office and perhaps put themselves in a position to receive an aggressive assignment the following year — players who signed in January might not arrive in the States until instructs this year, if they do at all. So rather than be on the Juan Soto fast track and make their big league debuts as teenagers, whichever young phenoms might emerge from this most recent group will likely reach the big leagues, and therefore free agency, at least a year later because of how the COVID dominos fell. The altered signing timeline and delayed pro development could end up costing someone tens of millions of dollars.

Those financial incentives extend to the upcoming signing class. Further delays weren’t set in stone when the Players Association gave the league the right to change the start of the next few signing periods, but because of these incentives and the desire to have a full, 11-month window for 2021 signings rather than condense it into six months, the class that was supposed to sign in July of 2021 is now very likely to start signing in January of 2022. And if that next signing period is also going to be 11 months long, it will extend into December of 2022, just as this year’s is set to stretch to December (there’s always a couple weeks gap between the end of one signing period and the beginning of another). Stash that in your brain for a few paragraphs from now.

These changes don’t simply mean that the same group of players will sign six months later than originally thought; it has become much more complex than that. As I wrote a few months ago, MLB barred teams from trading for international bonus pool space. Teams are allocated a bonus pool amount and are usually allowed to trade for up to 50% of that original amount throughout the year. Many teams had (or have) already agreed to deals with players before the signing period began, and several of them anticipated trading for pool space in order to complete those deals at the agreed-upon amounts. When it became impossible to trade for pool space, some teams broke their agreements, others had players poached by clubs with uncommitted pool space (or came close to it), and some came to agreements with the players to wait until the next signing period, when their pool space resets, to do their deals at the original amount.

Here’s an example in case this is confusing. Pretend I’m the International Scouting Director for the Portland Roses. Well in advance of July 2, 2020, I have handshake deals in place with players whose bonus totals exceeded my pool allotment. My team’s plan is to trade some of our upper-level prospect pitching depth for pool space during the summer so we can sign everyone. Then the pandemic hits, and we’re no longer allowed to trade for pool space. I can’t ask any of the players to wait a year to sign with me because my entire bonus pool for next year’s class is also already committed, most of it to one of the top players in the class. I don’t want to ask everyone in my signing class to take a bonus cut because I’ll face a bunch of angry trainers and it would be unfair to literally all of my new players.

To make matters more complicated, in the time since we agreed on the low bonus amount, one of my players in this upcoming class has gotten bigger/faster/stronger and is now a $1 million talent, better than some of the guys to whom I’m about to give more than $1 million. Other teams know I can no longer fit my whole class into my pool space, so they’re using their remaining pool space (some of which they have from breaking agreements of their own) to try to pry the pop-up guy away from me. I end up breaking an agreement with one high-dollar player so I can not only get under the hard-capped pool amount but end up with pool space to increase my offer to the pop-up guy and retain him. It’s horrible for the player I cut loose, but he’s good enough that he’ll be be paid well on the open market, and I’ve made the decision that is best for my team since I found a way to keep the better player and minimized how many people are angry at me by cutting just a single high-dollar bonus rather than the bonuses of several players.

But that’s not all that’s at work here. Recall that when MLB moved the date of the MLB Draft from June to July, the dates dictating sophomore eligibility changed. Players who turn 21 within 45 days of the draft are eligible to be selected, so when the draft date moved back about a month, so too did the birthdate cutoff for sophomore eligibility, making a small collection of players eligible in 2021 rather than having to wait until their 2022 junior year.

Does this apply to international amateurs? The answer seems to be “no,” but also “maybe?” Even though the signing period has shifted, the language in the CBA has not. Per Rule 3(a)(1)(B) of the Major League Rules:

(B) A player who has not previously contracted with a Major or Minor League Club, who is not a resident of the United States or Canada, and who is not subject to the High School, College or Junior College Rules, may be signed to a contract if the player:
(i) is at least 17 years old at the time of signing, or
(ii) is 16 at the time of signing, but will attain age 17 prior to September 1 of the first season covered by the contract.

For most international amateurs, clause (ii) is what applies, since many sign at 16 and turn 17 before September of the following year. But there are a few high-profile players whose signing periods might move up because of clause (i), assuming no changes to the rule. Dominican shortstop Felnin Celestin and Cuban center fielder Brandon Mayea were originally slated to be signed on July 2, 2022 and, assuming every class gets pushed six months, would now be part of the class that signs in January 2023. They each have mid-September birthdays, which means they’ll turn 16 later this year, but not soon enough to satisfy clause (ii) and sign immediately on January 2, 2022. Instead, as soon as Celestin and Mayea turn 17 in September of 2022, they’ll satisfy clause (i) and theoretically be eligible to sign right away. So long as the signing period mimics this year’s and runs through December 15, they’re both functionally moving up a signing class even though they’re still signing about two months after they were originally slated to before COVID-19 caused this whole mess.

This means that team deal-breaking and “poaching” is probably still going on and is likely to be attempted throughout the next 18 months as teams try to pry talents like this away from their originally-intended clubs (in this case, the Mariners and Yankees, respectively). As you’ll see on The Board, the Yankees are the club attached to top 2022 talent Rodrick Arias. If that’s true and recent Yankees history is any indication, his bonus is likely to be north of $4 million. If it’s also true that they’re attached to Mayea for what was supposed to be the following year, but he becomes age-17 eligible during the same signing period as Arias, they might be vulnerable to other teams swooping in with a huge offer for Mayea as soon as he turns 17, since the Yankees wouldn’t be able to acquire enough pool space to sign both for the handshake amount.

It’s unlikely, though. It would have to be a team with nearly their entire 2022 bonus pool remaining, and it’s unlikely there are any. Certainly if I were working for a team with uncommitted pool space, I’d be doing everything I could to try to either convince one of these two to sign as soon as they turn 17 and come stateside for instructs that Fall (for the eventual free agency acceleration stated above) or make the Mariners and Yankees work as hard as possible to keep them. Sure, the Yankees could say, “We’re the Yankees. Wait just a couple of months and you’ll be a Yankee.” That may be enough. Plus, the players’ trainers are not incentivized by the prospect’s eventual free agency and instead care almost solely about the bonus, so those marginal few months of theoretical development acceleration probably don’t move the needle. And of course, this all assumes the rules around trading pool space remain in place.

It’s likely that there are players who will become age-17 eligible late in either this or next year’s process and have been courted by teams with more pool space, especially if clubs can trade for space again this year. It’s just not likely to be the top-of-the-class talents, since it would take an unacquirable amount of money to get those players to do it. Instead it’s likely to be mid-level talents who grow into premium ones, and because just a few months of growth for teenagers can have a sizable impact on their physical abilities, it may be several players with September through November birthdays who might find themselves in a rare, enviable situation.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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1 year ago

I’m not sure I buy the idea that fast-tracked teenage phenoms like Soto are in any way negative financial outcomes for MLB as a whole or any team that signs him for free agency or an extension.

It seems what MLB (And the Union) want is to cut the amount paid for talent that is not talented enough. The dead money in player development. Since the draft and international player pool rules already do that, then getting the next superstars to MLB as quickly as possible seems like nothing but a financial positive (ignoring ST manipulation).

1 year ago
Reply to  TKDC

The younger a player reaches FA the more he earns in FA. If he doesn’t sign an extension before then, Soto will hit FA after his age-25 season, which is about as young as it gets these days. MLB is heavily incentivized to have as many players as possible hit FA at 29 or older so teams reap maximum benefit from the cheap years and don’t have to get into bidding wars for top talent in its prime.

1 year ago
Reply to  slamcactus

This only tracks if you assume Soto’s control years would somehow be better if they occurred later. Otherwise, you are only paying more for Soto’s free agency years because those are in fact better years. I for one have a hard time believing the Nats would have reaped better value out of Soto by leaving him in the minors one minute longer.

Conveniently, this is strikingly relevant in the case of Soto, who had the experience of a second year player rather than that of a rookie player when the Nats won the World Series. Not hard to imagine an alternative universe where Soto did not come up in 2018 and the Nats did not win in 2019. I don’t think teams are clamoring for the ability to hold good MLB talent down in the minors. It doesn’t make sense outside of ST manipulation.

Also, free agency is always a bidding war; but arguably a team is more likely to bid unwisely the older a player is.

1 year ago
Reply to  TKDC

I agree with you TKDC, but it’s not solely about the player’s performance, the competitive position of the team also needs to be considered.

The Nats had every reason to bring Soto up if they believed he was MLB ready and could move the needle in playoff odds or advancing in the playoffs because playoffs and playoff success = more revenue. It’s not strictly about maximizing a player’s value, but maximizing a player’s value to the team.

Calling up a Soto in 2018 would make a lot less sense for a team like Pittsburgh because they would have had less to gain financially from his early success and would be forgoing value on the tail end of his control years when they are more likely to be competitive.

1 year ago
Reply to  averagejoe15

That is fair, though it should be noted that the people in charge don’t really have this trade off in most cases. If you are a GM of a bad team, you can “wait to use the value of your top prospects” yourself right out of a job. I guess the person that takes your place might send you a Christmas card. But, yes, from the team organization perspective I do agree.

Also, many times you can’t really tell where you are competitively. The Braves didn’t wait to bring up Acuña even though most thought they were at least a season away from competing and they ended up winning the division with the help of a (mostly) full season of Acuña.

1 year ago
Reply to  TKDC

The thing you guys are missing is that Soto is a particularly poor example because he has had an all-time great performance for a 19-20 year old player in MLB. Even most HOF-trajectory players do not usually debut at that age and perform at their peak level immediately; in most cases, their age 26-28 seasons are better than their age 18-20 seasons.

So while in Soto’s case it’s true that there would have been no gain from pushing him back a year, as a general rule there IS a gain from doing so.

Soto is the exception and so he makes a particularly bad point of comparison in this particular equation. Debuts like his are incredibly rare historically, and even the best players of all time usually do not perform like that at such a young age.

Even with players performing better at younger ages in recent years, the age 18-19-20 seasons are rarely significant MLB assets.

Looking at Soto and Acuna, who are historical anomalies, is not a good way to evaluate the decision. The -opportunity- to call a guy up if he’s actually ready like Acuna and Soto only has so much value when the player often will not be ready, whereas the age 26-27 seasons of a high caliber player are almost universally valuable (really only not valuable if the player suffers an injury that costs him an entire season).

As an organizational philosophy, you’d come out ahead a lot more than behind by doing what Eric suggests in this article. MLB front offices are going to play the percentages, and those percentages rather significantly favor age 26 being more valuable than age 19, and somewhat less significantly favor age 27 being more valuable than age 20. (by 21 vs 28 it is potentially a wash)

1 year ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I honestly think this is video game-type logic and I don’t think there is evidence to back it up. Sure, bringing up a player who isn’t ready who will eventually be an elite performer is a waste of his service time, but I’m struggling to come up with a recent example of that. And while 27-28 is the normal peak for normal MLB players, most elite players are elite from either their first or second year in the majors, and it seems illogical to believe that more time dominating subpar minor league competition is what will improve their team-control output.

Since 2010, there have been 22 players to accumulate at least 20 PAs by age 20. Looking at that list, it’s hard to find a single player who in hindsight I would say “yes, it would be smart for their team to have held him back.” In fact, it is much easier to spot players who were valuable at a younger age and then were less valuable by 27-28. Roughed Odor, Jason Heyward, I’d argue Bryce Harper was better then, maybe Carlos Correa too.

13 of the 22 players have had at least one season with 3.5 WAR. 10 of the 13 had such a season in year 1, year 2, or both. The other 3 had them in year 3, and that includes Freddie Freeman whose first year was a few ABs as a September call up.

The other 9 players never had or for a couple who qualified for this list recently, haven’t yet had a really good season at all. I don’t think the data back up your assertions.