People in and around baseball used to call international amateur free agency “the Wild West” because in an effort to acquire as much talent as possible, teams bent or broke any number of rules as part of their search for loopholes in the signing rules. MLB has changed its approach in recent years, seemingly tackling issues as soon as they can after those issues arise, rather than trying to anticipate them. Some are actual issues, and some are “issues” — few in baseball thought hard-capping international bonus pools would curb abuses in the market, and instead viewed it as another way of limiting team expenditures.
Right now, the most significant issue in the international market is teams making multi-million dollar verbal agreements with players who often are as young as 14 years old. This has long been a problem; clubs work hard to extract marginal value from every avenue of talent acquisition, and this is especially true when their spending has a hard cap. A young prospect and his trainer will value the security of having a $2 million deal in hand early. Meanwhile, teams trust their scouts and cross their fingers that the player will grow into a $3 million-$5 million talent in the time between when the deal is agreed upon and when the kid actually signs.
In the past, hard pools and early deals created a different problem: an unscrupulous trainer could put a child on steroids to secure a verbal deal, cycle the player off prior to a test being administered when he signed at age 16, and and successfully alter a team’s perception of the player’s true talent. That problem is largely gone, as clubs can now get steroid tests on any player they scout and, in some cases, get in a half dozen tests before signing day to allay any fears they have. This has its own drawbacks, but the threat of the test alone seems to have reduced PED use in many cases. Top players also go through multiple levels of identity and paperwork verification, often starting over a year before they are eligible to sign.
In the past, some trainers were also known to stop training their players once a verbal deal was struck. After a few signing cycles of some clubs being displeased when they got out of shape prospects on signing day, trainers are now incentivized to keep players well-conditioned so that their bonus aren’t adjusted down. Adjusting bonuses is a rare but accepted practice if the club feels the trainer hasn’t held up his end of the bargain in training the player between a verbal deal and signing on the dotted line.
There isn’t a clear solution for early deals that doesn’t involve a draft, but a draft would mean that players would no longer get to pick their employer, and have even less leverage in bonus negotiation. And the bust rate for players this young is too high for MLB to cry “competitive balance” without pretense.
The 2019 Class
The 2019 class saw its first headlines when Dominican shortstop Robert Puason was barred from signing with the Braves due to an illegal side deal. Puason hit the market again, and we’ve reported for awhile that he’s expected to sign with Oakland for close to their full pool (around $5 million). At the time, Puason was seen as the best July 2nd prospect in years, and some still see him that way, but the consensus seems to have shifted, and Dominican center fielder Jasson Dominguez, expected to sign for about $5 million with the Yankees, is now the top 2019 prospect.
Scouts throw around some big names when trying to wrap their arms around Dominguez’s package of tools: Yasiel Puig, Bo Jackson, and Yoan Moncada are the most common ones. Dominguez runs the 60-yard dash in anywhere from 6.19 to 6.30 seconds, and is a 70 or 80 runner depending on whom you ask. His frame (5-foot-11, 194 pounds, sculpted like a Greek god), easy plus arm, and quick feet are catching-friendly, and scouts that have seem him try the position say he could probably do it full-time, but it sounds like most evaluators (and likely the Yankees) will develop him in center field to let his bat move more quickly. Some scouts think Dominguez’s hands could work in the infield, but he has very few reps there.
The bat speed and power are obvious, so optimistic scouts see a plus hitter with at least plus raw power and plus game power. Dominguez has already hit some balls 110 mph in batting practice, and his righty swing has now caught up with his natural lefty swing in terms of contact traits. He has a hitting warm-up that includes front toss with softballs and heavily weighted bats before he takes on-field BP.
More pragmatic scouts point out that Dominguez doesn’t leave his trainer Ivan Noboa’s academy and is tough for evaluators to see on their own terms, though the clubs that were in the late bidding for him didn’t have trouble getting the looks they needed. The other issue is that the physical projection international scouts look for in 16-year-olds isn’t here, so if you see anything you don’t like in a short look, it’s harder to project it changing like you could with a gangly, giraffe-like prospect who wants far less money. On the flip side, some scouts are excited to get a prospect who has already got the plus tools and hitability that you’re hoping other players will eventually attain one day, and aren’t worried about the price.
We think Dominguez is a 50 FV prospect right now. He would go in the 100 to 135 range of our minor league prospects rankings that come out tomorrow, and will likely fit in there once he’s a pro.
Others of Note: 2019 class
Puason is the consensus second-best player in the class, and hasn’t regressed so much as scouts have just picked some holes in his game as Dominguez has emerged. Puason also draws lofty comparisons for his raw tools, including Francisco Lindor. He’s a plus runner, thrower and fielder at shortstop, with smooth actions, a lanky frame, above average hitting tools, and a chance for average game power. As he’s played in more games, scouts see an overly-aggressive hitter who has developed some bad habits, since he doesn’t face much pitching at his level of talent. These scouts wonder if he’ll be a low-walk, higher-strikeout hitter who chases too many pitches off the plate and undermines his All-Star level tools. He’s still a 45 FV for us right now.
The third consensus top prospect is Dominican left fielder Bayron Lora. He has some similarities to Phillies prospect Jhailyn Ortiz, who signed for $4.01 million a few years ago, which is almost exactly what Lora is expected to get from Texas. Lora has much better body composition than Ortiz at a muscular 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, a frame one scout compared to that of Franmil Reyes. Lora has 70 raw power now, which will likely become an 80 in time, but the hit tool grades range from 35 to 50, with a bit less hitability than Ortiz.
Fourth for us at this point is Dominican right fielder Erick Pena, linked to the Royals, who is a similar player to Lora, with more athleticism, but less thump in the bat. Fifth and sixth, respectively, are Venezuelan center fielders Luis Rodriguez (linked to the Dodgers) and Yhoswar Garcia (Phillies). Rodriguez has more power, while Garcia is more of a slam dunk, long-term center fielder.
There are lots of notable, seven figure types beyond these six, but the consensus breaks up a bit, and we’ll wait to run down the whole class until signing day gets closer.
Names to Watch: 2020 and 2021 classes
As mentioned above, the 2020 class (eligible to sign on July 2, 2020) has dozens of players already locked up in deals, and the 2021 class has about 10 top players already locked up as well. We’ll obviously go into much less depth with these players because their positions are likely to change a lot over the next year and a half, but we will mention a couple of top talents in each class. For the 2020 class, there is little consensus on the top prospect, but the top tier appears to include Dominican center fielder Pedro Pineda, and Dominican shortstops Armando Cruz, Cristian Hernandez, and Hans Montero, as well as Venezuelan catcher Jesus Galiz, and Venezuelan shortstops Carlos Colmenarez and Willman Diaz. For 2021, clubs are obviously still sorting through the top talent, but Dominican shortstop Rodrick Arias is the consensus top prospect at this point, with differing opinions about the ten or so names in the mix behind him, which include Dominican right fielder Tony Blanco and outfielders Raimer Mateo and Ricardo Diaz, along with Venezuelan catcher Luis Meza, and Venezuelan shortstops William Bergolla, Diego Benitez, Ricardo Cabrera, and Javier Osoria.