July 2nd International Signing Day / Fare Thee Well, Willie Bloomquist
I was going to do a post about the opening of the 2015-16 signing period for international free agents, and then word come over the transom that the M’s had DFA’d Willie Bloomquist to make room for Chris Taylor. These things have nothing – at all – to do with each other, but 1) there’s something about the juxtaposition of multi-millionaire 16-year old tools prospects and the elder statesman of utility players; and 2) fewer posts! Fewer things I can screw up! Willie has accomplished far, far more than 99% of the kids signing today and over the next few months, but there’s a reason the hype follows promise and not the utility guy on the bench.
1: So, first things first. As many of you know, the latest MLB collective bargaining agreement not only instituted bonus pools for the June amateur draft – essentially setting a hard cap on the amount of money a team can spend on draft-eligible players – but it also created a new pool system for international free agents, too. MLB teams each receive a set amount of money (based on last year’s record) they can spend on players under a certain age and who haven’t been pros in other countries (this is for Latin American/Asian teenagers, not Yu Darvish or Jose Abreu). Just like with the amateur draft’s pool system, there are some severe penalties for going over the caps: if a team exceeds its cap by 15% or more, they forfeit the ability to sign any international free agents over $300,000 for the next TWO seasons. Right now, the Diamondbacks, Angels, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees can’t sign any of the marquee names in this year’s class – and they’ll be out next year as well.
For some teams, and the Yankees are the best example here, this is a calculated move. If there are players you really want in one class, it may make sense to spend like mad in one year and take your penalty/shift your resources elsewhere in the next year. The incentive here is clear: if you’re going to take a penalty, make it worth it. Teams generally avoid triggering the one-year bans, and either stay under the cap (as the M’s have done), or go hog wild and spend many multiples of the draft pool. That’s what the Yankees did last year, and it’s what the Dodgers are doing today. The Dodgers bonus pool is a shade over $2 million, and as of lunch time, they’ve spent $21.5 million plus on their first four signings, headlined by Cuban pitching phenom, Yadier Alvarez who got $16m on his own. Essentially, if you’re in the market for an Alvarez or his countryman Eddy Julio Martinez, it makes sense to try and vacuum up as many Dominican/Venezuelan players as you can. A big name is going to cost way more than the bonus pool on his own, and you’re not going to be able to spread the money out over next year’s class, so go nuts. Other teams may be following this strategy too, including the Cubs (who’ve signed 5 players in the top 30 for over $8m thus far today) and Blue Jays, who inked Vlad Guerrero, Jr. for pool-busting $3.9m.
The M’s have eschewed the “blow up the pool” strategy for a series of low key moves. They haven’t been shut out of the top 30, but they’ve typically picked up players in the $200,000 to $2m level, not the headliners. It’s too early to really tell which strategies pay off – Yoan Moncada is the big test case here, and he’s still in the minors – but the M’s have generally grabbed one or back-of-the-top-30 guys per year. This year, it’s a Dominican shortstop named Carlos Vargas, who’s either around #20 or #30, depending on the list you use. Vargas signed for $1.7m, so the M’s may not have a lot of room if they’d like to stay under their $2.15m cap. There’s video in that last link and another one here, courtesy of Baseball America. Vargas is big at 6’3″ already, and has a somewhat unorthodox swing, but he’s got some pop on it. That’ll help, as it sounds like many see him as a future 3B.
So what happens to these guys? In the past, the M’s maintained an official presence in both the Dominican Republic and in Venezuela, where they’d made the most headway (Felix!). In the past year, the M’s have shuttered their Venezuelan facility due to security concerns. Instead, they’ve expanded in the DR, and now have two clubs competing in the Dominican Summer League. The Venezuelan league has dwindled to four clubs, while the Dominican League is now headed towards 40 teams (there are 38 teams in 5 divisions now). Many of the guys the M’s signed in the 2013 and 2014 signing periods play for one of their DSL teams. Last year’s class was headed up by OF Brayan Hernandez, while SS Greifer Andrade was the big name in the 2013 group.
2: Willie Bloomquist feels like the other end of some spectrum from a 16 year old power-hitting SS, but that’s not really fair. We mentally put Bloomquist into a very different category because we’re able to look back at a career that’s spanned 13 years in the bigs, and 16 years since he was drafted out of Arizona State (and, technically, 19 years since the M’s first selected him out of South Kitsap high school. We know just about everything there is to know about Willie, and where he could add value and where he may be taking some runs off the board. Years ago, some fans fell hard for the guy, and some fans recoiled when Bloomquist used to talk about wanting a starting job. At that point, we could say that it didn’t appear starting him would make the M’s better. In the spring, using what we knew about the relative performance and roles of Bloomquist and Taylor that it’d be better to go with the younger, better player. More recently, as Bloomquist ended up backing up 1B and outfield corners, it looked like the M’s had given another slot in the batting order to Mark Trumbo, a guy who fills in at those positions and offers more on offense. Bloomquist has so often been a slightly worse option for what the M’s (the 2015 M’s as well as the 2006 ‘s) needed.
Like so many others, Bloomquist had to leave Seattle to demonstrate his value. After a tough year in Kansas City, Willie had a late career resurgence coming off Arizona’s bench. There’s nothing showy about a bench player hitting decently in limited duty, but there’s nothing showy about a tiny flower blooming in the corner of a parking lot, either. It wasn’t much, but it made things better. Since his return, he couldn’t demonstrate the freakish contact skills he’d picked up in the desert, and with the M’s shortstop glut, the fact that he could stand out there and not be Mike Morse wasn’t as valuable. That’s not his fault, though. Willie played for the M’s for a long, long time, and he must’ve gotten something from playing so close to home, for the team he rooted for as a kid. But while the M’s loved him, they never quite figured out how to put him in a position to succeed. It’s too bad that this move felt inevitable, and it’s too bad that after a wRC+ of 81 in 2014, Bloomquist cratered to a wRC+ of 2 (.159/.194/.174) now.
It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes him to get into coaching. Adam Jones apparently learned a lot from Willie from what must’ve been limited interactions in spring training. His clubhouse presence was another big reason the M’s resigned him and a reason a guy without much in the way of statistical performance held down big league jobs for over a decade. We’ve often said that chemistry has to show up somewhere, and that it appears teams may overvalue it. But that doesn’t mean it has no value at all. If Willie had it, and if he could inspire an Adam Jones, perhaps he could do the same for Carlos Vargas or Greifer Andrade one of these days.