The market is open: Teams seek international gems
As signing period begins, new spending rules require teams to scout carefully
The international signing period has begun.
The date arrives each July, about 30 days after the annual First-Year Player Draft and a couple of weeks before the Midsummer Classic.
It also shares the month with the much-celebrated Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown and the much-anticipated July 31st non-waiver Trade Deadline, so there's little wonder why the day has come and gone without much fanfare in the past.
But baseball's international landscape is evolving, and July 2 represents more this year than just the start of the signing period for teenage prospects across the globe.
The new international signing guidelines, the success of prospect leagues in the Dominican Republic and a growth in social media coverage has resulted in more teams paying closer attention to the international market in the search for the next Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Hanley Ramirez or Jose Altuve.
July 2 is no longer just another date on the baseball calendar.
top 30 international prospect signings
"The days leading up to July 2, I would compare it to scouting the NCAA Regionals, the SEC tournament and other big tournaments prior to the Draft," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said. "We've all heavily scouted the players, but it's about getting a last look at the players we have identified and want to put in our organization. It's also about nurturing relationships. It's not always the team with the most money, sometimes. It's the team families feel most comfortable with."
Money has always mattered on the international market, but the spending rules have changed. The teams with the deepest pockets can no longer simply outbid the competition for the top international prospects on the market.
Last year, in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, each club was allotted $2.9 million to spend on the international market during the signing period that began last July 2. This year's international signing period will work in a similar way, but the allotments are based on each team's record in 2012, with the pools ranging from just under $4.95 million for the Astros, who had the Majors' lowest winning percentage, to just under $1.85 million for the Nationals, who had the highest winning percentage.
Additionally, clubs are allowed to trade pool money. Clubs can sign up to six players for bonuses of $50,000 or less, and those do not count against the allotment. All bonuses of $10,000 or less are also exempt.
What's more, the emergence of Major League Baseball's Amateur Prospect League and leagues like the Dominican Prospect League and International Prospect League that provide the opportunities to watch prospects play in games means individual tryouts and traditional showcases are no longer the only way for scouts to evaluate talent in Latin America.
Trainers and leagues are also using Twitter, Facebook pages and YouTube videos in English and Spanish to share information and allow fans to follow the prospects throughout the yearlong process.
"It's always been about the scouts, but especially now that we are limited in how much we can spend, we really have to be on top of the scouting and try to find some diamonds in the rough," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "Unfortunately, more and more teams are starting to figure it out and it's getting harder to do, but it's an area where we felt we had an advantage and we were able to have success by signing guys like Yorman Rodriguez, who is on the Major League roster, and Juan Duran, who is doing well in the Minors."
Here are the guidelines: A 16-year-old international player can sign during the signing period that extends from July 2 through June 15 of next year if the prospect turns 17 before Sept. 1 or by the completion of his first Minor League season. Additionally, any prospect who is already 17 or older and has not previously signed a Major or Minor League contract, resides outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and has not been enrolled in a high school or college in the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico within the previous year is eligible to sign during the period.
Duran signed with the Reds at age 16 for $2 million before the start of the international signing period in 2008, and Rodriguez, also 16 at the time, signed for $2.5 million a few months later.
Some of the game's biggest international stars, including Cabrera (1999), Ramirez (2000) and Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar (2009), all signed when they became eligible on July 2, but many current Major Leaguers from Latin America, such as Hernandez, Milwaukee's Jean Segura, San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez and Altuve, all signed later on.
"I was in the Dominican Republic with my mom and dad. I remember them telling me, 'This is just the beginning,'" Ramirez said. "From that day to this day, I've been blessed. And what I would tell somebody signing now is the same thing my mom and dad said: This is only the first step. Don't let it go to your head. Keep working hard."
The first step for a prospect who signs with a big league club is to enter the team's academy in the Dominican Republic. Usually after two years, the organization decides if the prospect is ready to start playing in the Minor Leagues. It's not uncommon for an international prospect to begin his pro career at 17.
"You're still really young and you're still growing, but at the same time you're breathing baseball, you're living baseball," Gonzalez said. "It gives you a lot more opportunities to compete. When I was 17 years old playing rookie ball, I was playing with guys who were just drafted when they were 23. It made me feel like I was one step ahead of everybody."
Gustavo Cabrera, ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 20 International Prospect list for the 2012-13 period, signed with the Giants for $1.3 million and is playing for the club's Dominican Summer League team. In all, 11 of last year's Top 20 are playing in the DSL and seven are in the Gulf Coast League. Tzu-Wei Lin, who was 18 when he signed with the Red Sox for $2.05 million last year, pitched for Class A Lowell in the New York-Penn League.
Outfielder Eloy Jimenez is ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list this year.
There is no guarantee that any of the prospects who sign during this year's international period will make it to the big leagues -- or even out of the DSL -- but general managers are willing to take a risk on a high-ceiling player because of the price tag.
It's also difficult for teams to ignore the international talent pool with so much information now available.
"My job as a general manager is to acquire talent," Jocketty said. "You have to be able to look at every phase of talent acquisition. It's July 2, and it's waiver claims. It comes down to scouting. We are a small-market club, so we can't just go out and sign big free agents. You look at every possible way to acquire talent and you can't make a lot of mistakes."