International Musings: Depth and Development

On Saturday baseball’s international amateur free agent signing period (let’s call it “J-2”) started, and the Padres—like we had envisioned for a while—went crazy. According to Baseball America, the Padres have already signed three of the top 10 and eight of the top 50 international amateur players, and they’re expected to be major contenders for the services of Cubans Adrian Morejon and Jorge Ona, once those players are deemed eligible to sign by MLB. All told, the Padres could spend upwards of $60 million (or more) on international players this year, a figure which includes a 100 percent tax overage San Diego will pay due to blowing away its $3,347,600 bonus pool (Luis Almanzar, alone, signed for $4 million and Morejon could get three of four times that amount).

With big-market teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers all unable to sign players for more than $300,000 (for previous pool-busting J-2 periods), the Padres, Braves, and A’s have headlined this year’s high-profile signings. It’s a welcome unintended consequence of MLB’s international rules, one that effectively allowed the Padres to compete against their peer group for talented players without having to deal with the Dodgers or Red Sox swooping in and simply outspending them. That said, it’s also a major step forward for the Padres. They didn’t have to do this, and a number of similar small-to-mid-market teams don’t spend much on amateur players regardless of the kind of competition they’re dealing with. The Padres did the right thing; they hired an internationally-focused general manager and then, when the time was right, they let him spend a busload of money on his favorite international players.

Of course, just signing really good 16 year olds doesn’t do much to change the status of a team’s farm system. Baseball prospects as a whole are a volatile bunch—one minute they’re great and the next minute you’re including them on a “most disappointing prospects” list. Baseball’s hard for a number of reasons, foremost of which are navigating injuries and increasingly challenging levels of competition. And if prospects in general are volatile, then international prospects are volatile to another order. They often come without much in-game experience, with almost no significant statistical data by which to judge them, and—here’s the real kicker—they’re sixteen years old. They haven’t even stopped growing yet, so it’s close to impossible to project, with any kind of accuracy, what kind of ball players they’re going to turn into half a decade down the road. How will they adjust to a good curveball or the speed of the game? How will they adjust to a change in culture (or a change-up)? To being away from family? To a full season of minor-league ball in, say, Fort Wayne, Indiana? Even A.J. Preller, largely viewed as an international savant during his time in Texas, struggled developing a high percentage of Dominican prospects, as documented by Padres Jagoff earlier this year.

What the Padres did on Saturday was sign the players, and years of hard work culminated in a single day in the sun. Now the hard part: developing them. People are quick to note the Padres long track record of terrible drafts and international signings, but it’s not quite that simple. Drafting and developing run hand in hand, and it’s possible that the Padres picked the right players but simply failed at developing them. Maybe, in another organization, Matt Bush makes a shorter, less circuitous, less eventful trip to the major leagues (then again, maybe not). Maybe Jaff Decker turns into Stephen Piscotty, or Donavan Tate reaches The Show, or Kellen Kulbacki wins a Rookie of the Year, or Cory Luebke avoids the operating table, or Allan Dykstra turns into Anthony Rizzo, or, shoot, Rizzo gets his shot in San Diego. Of course, developing players ain’t easy. You’ve gotta have the right coaches and instructors in place, you’ve gotta promote the players at the right time, you’ve gotta manage their workloads and health, and, ultimately, you’ve gotta find a way to turn them into productive big leaguers. The Padres, presumably, haven’t done many of those things well over the past decade-plus. The hope is that this regime can turn that ugly track record around, finally turning the Padres minor-league system into something that churns out young talent like the Cardinals or Red Sox do. While that process is already underway, hopefully, turning these players—the Luis Almanzars, Jeisson Rosarios, and Michell Milianos—into success stories will be the ultimate test.

Even if the Padres do it right, though, there’s a chance things break bad. It happens, because one of the great equalizers in drafting and development is something we haven’t discussed: dumb luck. You can draft the right player and develop him perfectly until a 98 mile-per-hour fastball directed at his left wrist has different ideas. That’s why the Padres should sign a bunch more players. Even though the Red Sox couldn’t sign any international amateurs for more than $300,000 last year, they still signed 45 players. The Yankees, also under the penalty, signed a league-leading 57 players last year and the Dodgers, who broke their bonus pool last year, signed 42 (the Padres, for the record, signed 38, seventh-most in the league). As Ben Badler has noted, roughly 600 players sign bonuses for under $100,000 in a given year, nearly three times the amount that sign deals for north of that figure. Just because the Padres are spending a lot of money on high-profile players doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dip into the bargain bin and sign a bunch for guys for $50,000. Quality is good, but so is quantity—especially on the international amateur front, where quality might grow into a awkward body with slow bat speed and quantity might do the opposite. That’s why I wrote, back in March, that San Diego should consider adding another Dominican Summer League team to house more players.

Saturday was a big step forward for an organization that has a tendency of stepping backwards or sideways or just getting stuck in the mud. Preller and company still have plenty of work to do, but the talent pool in the minors is growing. So long as Preller is as good at this as we believe he is and Padres ownership gives him time to see his plan through, look out in the 2020s.

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