Presenting an Updated International Prospect List

Today’s prospect list and subsequent discussion surrounds international players, and like most things you’ve experienced this year, it’s going to be a little bit different than usual. Typically, the international prospect coverage at FanGraphs consists of a preliminary list of players during our February Prospects Week, with a longer, more thorough ranking published closer to July 2, historically the day foreign amateur players are allowed to start signing.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB pushed this year’s signing day back by six months from July 2020 to January 2021. For the purposes of my workflow, previewing the signing festivities now lines up with nicely with the early free agency period when pro players from foreign leagues are being posted by their old clubs and courted by their new ones. And though not exclusively, it has also generally fallen to me to acquire basic scouting notes on these players, though there has never been a central location on the site, like The Board, to house those reports.

This change in timing, combined with the way the Future Value scale enables apples-to-oranges comparisons between very different baseball players, led me to decide to simply fold the foreign pros in with the fresh-faced youngsters whose big league dreams are still half a decade away. And so The Board’s International Players tab will now be a running pref list of players abroad regardless of their origin or experience level, subject to sweeping updates a couple times of year while also changing incrementally throughout as players sign and move to the pro side of The Board or become known through my sources and research.

This likely isn’t just a single-year, COVID-related change to the international amateur calendar (and therefore my work). All of the people in baseball I’ve spoken to for this list think that MLB will also push the next signing period back six months, and that a January start to the signing period will become the new normal, until and unless an international draft is instituted. Like many of the societal shifts we’re all dealing with during this difficult time, the changes to the international calendar and signing rules have had immediate consequences to those who had planned for a world without them. So before I talk more about what’s on The Board, let’s consider the changes to the international amateur market and what they’ve meant for this year’s class.

The six-month delay to what would have been 2020 July 2 signings could have long-term consequences for the top players in the class. Not necessarily for the top players right now, but for the ones who actually end up being the best two or three players from this signing period, like Juan Soto or Fernando Tatis Jr. became. Moving the signing period by six months effectively pushes the free agency of elite players like them back by a year. Rather than making their deals official in July and then having them come stateside to face relatively advanced pitching in fall instructional league, the new crop of top players will sign in January and begin their pro career no sooner than March when minor league spring training typically begins. Sure, most of them have been working out in Latin America, and many have been playing games at the complexes of their soon-to-be employers in the Dominican Republic, but that’s not quite the same as facing a concentrated group of somewhat mature talent in front of your team’s scouts, dev staff, and high-level executives in the United States. It almost eliminates the possibility of a player showing up in the fall and looking good enough that the team begins to consider an aggressive assignment for the following year, slowing the kind of meteoric prospect rise that leads to a player debuting while they’re still a teenager and later becoming a free agent in their mid-20s when they can be paid like a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

The financial fallout from COVID-19 also caused MLB to keep international signing bonus pool amounts stagnant rather than increase them as they have otherwise always done year-over-year. There was also a moratorium put on trading for international bonus pool space. These changes have thrown a monkey wrench into the best laid plans of this entire corner of the industry. Teams often reach verbal agreements with prospects well in advance of them being eligible to sign, and the players’ bonus amounts are negotiated with both sides anticipating year-over-year increases in pool space, and some are made assuming the team can and will trade for additional pool space to get all of its deals done.

Now that can’t happen, and a bunch of teams have either had to completely nuke their agreements with a prospect or two to stay under their hard capped bonus pool amount, or kick the can down the road and ask the player to wait until the next signing period (which, like I said, probably won’t start until January of 2022) to sign for the original amount. As a result, there are some players who thought they were going to sign in July 2020 who now won’t sign until January 2022, or who no longer have a home with a team at a point in the process when most of the available money is already committed to other players.

Let’s touch on each market quickly, and then I’ll give you the skinny on the changes to The Board, which I’ll cover in greater depth via a video tutorial in the coming weeks. This year’s crop of international amateurs is weaker than usual, lacking a capital “d” Dude at the very top. It’s also thin on pitching, and thinner than usual when it comes to the big, prototypical star shortstop athletes.

The way teams scout in Latin America has shifted a good bit. The facilities have improved and there are more games, and more data is being generated. There’s a growing market for smaller players who hit well in these games, as opposed to the showcase scouting of the recent past, but the data isn’t publicly available so I’m still prioritizing big frames and tools here.

I’ve also done work on the pro leagues in Asia (Japan, Korea, and Taiwan), as accessing video and data from those places has been easier for me and my scouting sources. Japan’s top league is the highest quality, non-Major League Baseball league on the planet and many more players than the few I have on The Board right now could have been included. My goal with NPB (and other pro leagues) is to prioritize the players who are indeed seeking to play ball in the U.S. or who are so young and talented that they seem likely to later on. You’ll see that I’ve got a few foreign pros listed with ETAs several years out. That date is determined by when they’d be eligible to sign as unrestricted free agents rather than by specific dope I have on that player’s intent.

Now on to The Board. It may look as though I’ve made considerable changes here, but in reality I’ve only added three things and moved a bunch of stuff around with the help of WordPress Warlock Sean Dolinar. First, I’ve added a “Physical Attributes” tab, which I hope is self explanatory. Most of the attributes on that tab existed on The Board already, but I’ve added a column called “Lever Length” to see if it’s a telling variable as it pertains to hit tool actualization. I’ve also moved “Arm Strength” off the main tools tab and to this new attributes jawn. It was so rare for a player’s present and future arm strength grades to be different that I felt like I was wasting a column by including both, and arm strength is far less important than the other tools on that main tab, so I decided to give it the Pluto treatment. Take that, Pluto.

Besides, I needed room on that main hitters’ tools tab for HardHit%, which is exactly what you think it is. During one of ESPN’s playoff broadcasts, I heard former FanGrapher Mike Petriello give good reasons for disliking average exit velocity as a stat. Here’s an example: If I hit two balls, one 100 mph and the other 50 mph, my average exit velo is 75 mph. If you hit two balls, each at 75 mph, so is yours, but both of those balls in play were probably outs whereas the ball I hit at 100 mph might have done some damage. Mike makes a great point, and while I’m not taking average exit velo off The Board, I will be adding HardHit% (balls in play at or above 95 mph) for minor leaguers where available.

I also added a column in the pitcher’s section for Fastball Type, with “rise,” “sink,” and “tail” being the three distinctions I’m using for now. For more about why, I’d encourage you to read something thorough about active spin or seam-shifted wake.

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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Can’t get this kind of depth anywhere else. Thanks Eric.