It’s International Signing Day

marc w · July 2, 2018 at 5:48 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It’s July 2nd, the beginning of the big international free agent signing period, wherein fans dream of the next Vlad Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña, or Juan Soto, and try not to think too hard about the bizarre and often lawless process that leads up to their signing. It’s a day that changes lives and brings in some of the biggest talents in the game, but because teams are dealing with 16-17 year olds, that talent is even harder to project that in the June amateur draft.

It’s been quite a while, but at one point, international free agent signings were the lifeblood of the Mariners player development system. With Bob Engle at the helm of their international group, the M’s signed Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Rafael Soriano, and some chunky kid out of Venezuela named Felix Hernandez. There were role players, too, and organizational depth. They were active in Australia (Ryan Rowland-Smith and Travis Blackley), East Asia, and especially Venezuela, and in the old pre-bonus pool world, they were always big players for top international talent.

And then, seemingly without warning, it all started to dry up. Not that the M’s stopped signing big-ticket players – they didn’t. It’s just that they stopped making an impact in the minors, let alone on the big club. After whiffing on the likes of Esteilon/Martin Peguero and Guillermo Pimentel, Bob Engle was shown the door. I think the perception’s been that they pulled way back in international signings, but that’s not really true: they’ve signed at least one of the top 20 guys most years since Engle left in 2012, including Hersin Martinez, Luiz Gohara, Carlos Vargas, Brayan Hernandez, Juan Querecuto, and continuing with top-10 guy Julio Rodriguez last year. They’re by no means as active as the Yankees or Astros, and haven’t attempted a big blow-past-the-budget-in-one-year move the way New York and Atlanta have done, signing a team’s worth of prospects all at once. While they haven’t seriously pursued the top echelon players like Guerrero Jr., Kevin Maitan, Luis Robert, but they’ve continued to make $1 M+ signings most years.

But while they’ve still signed guys, they haven’t had a big-time signing make the high minors. To be fair, a lot of this is due to the fact that Jerry Dipoto’s aggressively shopped the international signings when making minor trades. Adam Lind came to Seattle in exchange for three international pitchers, while Vargas went to the Rays in the Drew Smyly deal. Hernandez and Pablo Lopez* went to Miami for David Phelps. The real development problems predate Dipoto, but as with other players, I’m curious to see if the new development team might get more out of these players if any of them stick around long enough to tell.

In Anaheim, Jerry Dipoto and crew were bit players on the international market. They were one of the clubs that spent the least, and when you’re getting *outspent* by the Oakland A’s, it’s pretty clear that it’s not an area of focus. Like with the M’s, that shift was a 180 degree turn from prior front offices, where the Angels were consistently turning up talent like Erick Aybar, Ervin Santana, and a young SS named Jean Segura. But their international director was being investigated by the FBI (again, don’t look too closely at the J2 world) and was then fired by Dipoto’s predecessor, and Jerry used talent like Segura to bolster the big league roster, as in his trade for Zack Greinke.

That changed a bit in 2014-15 when, instead of throwing money at a 16-year old in the DR, Dipoto and the Angels spent $8 M to sign Cuban IF Roberto Baldoquin, thinking the soon-to-be-21 year old would move quickly. They started him in High A and watched as he struggled to a miserable, powerless line in 2015, and while he’s been better this year, the signing’s still a sore point with Angels fans.

That high profile miss hasn’t led Dipoto to pull out of the international market as GM in Seattle. In fact, the M’s have been more active this past year, signing an Aussie pitcher for the first time in years, and a Taiwanese lefty last year – spending a portion of the bonus pool surplus they’d built up.** Today, they’ve signed another top-10 talent, Dominican SS Noelvi Marte, for $1.55 M. Marte sounds like a bat-first/power-hitting infielder who many think may move to 3B, but whose bat profiles there quite well. Like last year’s top prize, Julio Rodriguez (one of the M’s top 5 prospects), if he sticks around, he could be an impact player one day. But to do that, the M’s player development group is going to need to show what they can do. This is insanely difficult; you’re taking teenagers and somewhat quickly throwing them into a completely different culture, with different foods, a different language, and different training methods.

It’s still early to tell how much Dipoto’s drafts will transform the talent pipeline, but it’s a good sign that the M’s are still active internationally. We still don’t really know if the problems that may have contributed to the struggles of guys like Pimentel and Peguero have been fixed, but I’m still glad that the M’s are bringing in more talent to a system that could use some. While the biggest names in the 2018-19 signing period will come off the board soon, the M’s will presumably continue to find additional players throughout the year (as they did last month).

To get a look at video of Marte and to get a bit of a scouting report, check out this post at LL. To follow the signings, Baseball America and both have trackers. The latter’s free. Cuban OF Victor Victor Mesa is generally seen as the prize of the year, not only because of his prodigious talent, but because he’s 21, and much more of a known commodity. No word where he’ll sign at this point.

* Lopez always seemed like a great kid, and an easy guy to root for, so congrats to him for getting a win in his big league debut the other day.
** They used some of it to acquire PCL All Star Shawn Armstrong in a deal with Cleveland, too. Bonus pool slots – like competitive balance picks – are tradeable commodities.


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