Navigating the Landscape of International Amateurs

A few days ago Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote an article about the international spending by each major league team. Like free-agency, and the Rule 4 Amateur draft, the signing of international amateurs is a vital component to talent acquisition. Similar to the Rule 4 amateur draft, the signing of international free-agents is a cheap avenue to explore when adding talent to an organization.

Young players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Columbia, Nicaragua and other baseball hotbeds cover the landscape of each MLB affiliate as well as the 40 man rosters of MLB teams. How many of these international free agents are on the Padres roster right now? Everth Cabrera was signed in 2004 (Nicaragua – Rockies), Alexi Amarista signed in 2007 (Venezuela – Angels), as well as the recently acquired Joaquin Benoit (Dominican Republic – Rangers) and Alex Torres (Venezuela – Angels) signed in 1996 and 2005 respectively.

But not every organization invests equally in places such as the Dominican Republic. However, if done correctly these signings can be game-changing.

The article came to my attention via David Marver. He and I had a discussion that began with snark but ultimately became rewarding as it pushed me to delve a little deeper into the murkiness that surrounds the signing of international amateur baseball players.

What I discovered is that looking at a rank list of spending estimates does not paint a very accurate picture when it comes to international amateurs. How are the Padres doing in this area of talent procurement? Let’s see . . .

The Big Spenders

I want to show you some charts first and I’ll ask that you only pay attention to the first three columns (Rank, Team, and Spending). The following chart provides the top 5 spenders during the 2013 calendar year (It’s more convoluted than that as the estimates include signings from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 signing periods in which different rules existed for spending).

Rank

Team

Spending

Bonus Pool

Over/ Under

 1  Rangers  $8.42M  $1,942,700  O
 2  Cubs  $8.22M  $4,557,200  O
 3  Dodgers  $4.48M  $2,112,900  O
 4  Indians  $4.25M  $3,636,900  O
 5  Red Sox  $3.98M  $3,179,900  O

After looking at this chart I would imagine that you’re not surprised by the top spenders. The Indians look a little out of place but the other four teams have the means to spend. I also noticed that while the Rangers and Cubs surpassed the $8 million dollar mark there was a large discrepancy between those top two spenders and the number 5 ranked team, Boston.

The Cheap-Skates

The next chart will show the bottom 5 spending teams in MLB and again I’ll ask that you only pay attention to the first three columns. Any predictions on who will be in the bottom five? How about discrepancies in spending between the top and bottom? Final answers, please.

Rank

Team

Spending

Bonus Pool

Over/ Under

 26  Cardinals  $2.30M  $2,060,600  U
 27  Tigers  $2.28M  $2,011,200  U
 28  A’s  $2.10M  $1,926,100  O
 29  Angels  $1.83M  $1,993,700  U
 30  Orioles  $1.23M  $1,959,400  U

Does it look right? The Cardinals and Tigers are perennial playoff contenders, the Angels spend like drunken sailors, the A’s are wise as opposed to cheap, and the Orioles are a weird team in the A.L. East who happen to be in the top half of payroll spending.

Surprised to not see the Padres in the bottom five? I guess on some level that’s reassuring.

While the bottom tier spenders appear somewhat surprising I couldn’t help but notice that there’s not a huge gap between the bottom five spenders on international amateurs and the 5th ranked Boston Red Sox.

Are the Padres Blowing it?

The Padres need to win the NL West (or at least come moderately close to have a shot at the Wild Card) so looking at how they stack up in spending against their division opponents would be wise. This time, take a look at the last two columns. The “Bonus Pool” tells each team’s prescribed budget by MLB and the “Over/Under” column tells whether the team adhered to the budget or whether they went over and will subsequently incur penalties.

Rank

Team

Spending

Bonus Pool

Over/ Under

 3  Dodgers  $4.48M  $2,112,900  O
 11  Rockies  $3.38M  $4,213,800  U
 12  D-Backs  $3.18M  $2,355,700  O
 14  Giants  $3.00M  $1,909,900  O
 17  Padres  $2.73M  $2,500,800  O

Alright . . . time for a bullet point list.

  • The Padres are last compared to their NL West competitors in spending.
  • The Padres spent more money than their bonus pool allotment so they will receive a fine (to be discussed in somewhat greater depth a few paragraphs down the page).
  • The Padres are relatively close in spending to everyone except the Dodgers.
  • The Dodgers are deliriously drunk with dollars.
  • Alliteration is fun.
  • Good God, what does any of this mean!

Without rules, what are we?

What I found while researching is that some pretty strict rules have been recently instituted for signing international amateurs out of the D.R., Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, etc.

Firstly, every team is assigned a bonus pool which they are urged to adhere to or the team is subject to penalties. The bonus pools for each team are different and are based on “reverse order of winning percentage”, which in the case of the numbers used for this study, it would refer to winning percentages from the 2012 season. So the Astros who were (are) crappy could spend the most money on bonuses to lure players to Texas, while the Nationals and Reds were allowed less money to spend based on their excellent 2012 season.

Where were the Padres ranked? The Padres received a bonus pool allotment of $2,500,800 which was the 12th highest amount based on their winning percentage. Yes, that great ending to the meaningless 2012 season cost the Padres the ability to spend money on amateurs during the next year. Pretty stupid, huh*?

*The rule. Not the winning.

Others over-spent! Why not the Padres too?

One of the places where teams like the Padres can make-up ground against the high spenders who can woo Robinson Cano, or over-pay Jason Werth, is on amateur spending. Picking up talent in the Rule IV draft and on teen-age internationals is a relatively cheap way to add players. In 2007 the Padres did this when they signed Rymer Liriano as a 16 year old out of the Dominican Republic and then in 2008, 16 year-old Adys Portillo signed for $2M, a record for a Venezuelan player at the time.These players may end up being nothing of consequence but the Padres would be fools to ignore the potential impact these players can make if they develop.

However, as it currently stands, MLB is trying to curb the bonuses spent on all amateurs. If a team goes over their bonus pool they are taxed on the overage by either 75% or 100% and the team also risks losing the ability to sign a player for more than $250K during the next signing period. Again – this is pretty stupid as it hurts an individual player’s market while also putting restrictions on teams that could benefit most from signing young amateurs*.

* You might remember hearing around the trade deadline last year that teams were trading international pool money. This is one way a team can get creative around the July deadline in order to chase the international players they covet during the coming months.

In 2011 the Padres were as high as 8th in International Spending before the new CBA went into effect and showed a willingness to pay top dollars for young players in 2010, 2011, and 2012. While that is all well and good the Padres were still dwarfed by teams like the Texas Rangers who have continued to make heavy investments in international amateurs

 Conclusions

  • I think it’s difficult to fault any one team for not spending all of their allotted bonus dollars. Talent levels fluctuate from one year to the next and how teams evaluate available young players is different. When evaluating players who are 16, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and few guarantees exist.
  • Spend to get the players the organization needs. Don’t spend to spend.
  • What we need to have a better handle on, if we are to judge the Padres, is what their involvement looks like in Latin American countries (and elsewhere) in terms of scouts on the ground relative to other teams.
  • When the moment exists where the Padres evaluate an impact player who will require a large bonus I hope their strategy is to go for it. While the fines are steep, and potentially restrictive during the following year, the costs are still lower than bringing in a super-star free-agent.

And hey, Adys Portillo cleared waivers so there’s still a chance that signing pans-out! Let’s go to San Antonio and see him.

I contribute to Padres Public on Thursday mornings and when I’m feeling particularly outraged by the location of statues around Petco Park. I can also be found on twitter at @AvengingJM. The dusty archives of AJM are located at avengingjm.blogspot.com

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