Once June 15 hits, the current international amateur signing period will be over. The Padres will have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million, penalties included, and possibly much more if they make one final splash and ink Cuban star Luis Robert.
Robert or not, it’s been a historic run for an organization not necessarily known for shelling out the dollars. In their perfectly timed international spending frenzy, the Padres bolstered every part of their farm system, adding high upside arms like Adrian Morejon and a slew of young position players, highlighted by shortstops Luis Almanzar and Gabriel Arias, and outfielder Jorge Ona.
But what comes next?
Since the Padres blew past their $3.3 million signing bonus pool for the 2016-2017 J-2 signing period, they can’t spend more than $300,000 on a single international amateur player until 2019. In other words, all of the high-profile Dominican and Venezuelan players available to sign this July 2 are off limits, not to mention any major Cuban amateurs (i.e., players under age 25) that leave the island over the next two years.
While the fireworks are over, there’s still plenty of opportunity to add talented young players to the organization. Under new MLB rules, the Padres will have $5.75 million to spend on international amateurs during the 2017-2018 signing period. They could, in theory, sign 19 different players for exactly $300,000. Further, since players signed for $10,000 or less don’t count against the cap, there’s the potential to add as many of those lottery tickets as necessary.
There’s a track record for teams going quantity over quality in the years after incurring spending penalties. The following table, from Baseball America, lists the five teams that signed the most international players during the 2015 calendar year:
There’s some overlap from the end of the ’14-’15 signing period, but most of these players were signed during the beginning of the 2015-2016 signing period. Note how four of the top five, in terms of total players signed, were actually teams under the penalty. The Yankees led the way by signing 57 players in 2015, a year after they broke the bank in international free agency.
This makes sense, too. Teams like the Yankees (and now Padres) that are heavily invested in the international game, spending gobs of money one year, are probably more familiar with the next class of international free agents than teams that don’t devote as many resources to foreign scouting. It’s easy to just continue signing players in the year following a spending spree, with the $300,000 limit only narrowing the potential market. There’s a good shot that the Padres, given their deep roots in Latin America, follow a similar path, using the next two years to stockpile young, high upside players.
Remember, the very nature of the international free agency is unpredictability. Not every multi-million dollar player works out, not even close. And sometimes the unheralded prospects, the ones who slip through the cracks on July 2 and sign for $100,000 or less, end up being the ones you wanted all along. Predicting what current big leaguers will do in the upcoming season in hard enough; trying to evaluate what a 15- or 16-year-old will do in five or six years, when they’re not even finished growing yet, might be the toughest job in baseball.
If the Padres really want to go all-in on this strategy, they could actually trade for additional bonus pool money, potentially increasing their spending cap by as much as 75 percent, cornering the $300,000-and-under market.
Of course, there’s another path to follow. In 2015, the under-the-penalty Angels signed only 14 players, more than only four teams. They traded away most of their slot value and ended up with a puny $700,000 bonus pool. They essentially punted the international game for a year.
The only things that could push the Padres down this route are a sudden reversion to tightfistedness or a lack of room to fit all of the players. Last year we wrote about how the Padres might need to add another low-level minor-league affiliate to house all the players they were expected to sign; in January they did, adding a second affiliate in the rookie level Arizona League. It’s possible that even that’s not enough for a Yankees-like signing spree, however, as New York currently has 10 minor-league affiliates overall, compared to the Padres eight. The Padres could add another affiliate soon, or they could simply lay low with international signings for a year.
Assuming room in the budget and on the field, expect the Padres to make plenty of noise internationally over the next year. It won’t be the kind of headline-grabbing noise that ricocheted off the Petco Park walls recently, but it could quietly help make the organization that much stronger. Part of the plan when the Padres hired A.J. Preller back in 2014 was the all-in international outburst that took place in 2016. The other part of that plan, bigger picture, was to turn the Padres into a talent-finding machine every year. We’ll get a glimpse at phase two soon enough.