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The Orioles are about to add another big-money international class. What have the millions spent in Latin America yielded so far?
Since declaring they were back in the international market after the Manny Machado trade, the Orioles have increased the level of talent they've signed from Latin America significantly.
International scouting was so important for the Orioles to get back into that, in the immediate aftermath of the July 2018 trade of Manny Machado that set off this years-long rebuild, then executive vice president Dan Duquette said it twice while listing all the aspects of the organization that needed to be addressed.
For a generation, the organization didn’t participate in a facet of talent procurement that brought about a third of all major leaguers and some of the more dynamic young talents in the game, and the thinking at the time was changing the Orioles’ all-in approach from devoting resources to their major league roster would allow them to spend on the young Latin American talent they’d missed out on for so long.
This week, a new international signing period opens that will mark the Orioles’ fourth since they re-entered that market, with the typical July 2 date of a new international signing period delayed until January for a second straight year.
Tracing their trajectory over those four years show the Orioles’ path to full participation in the market. The way those players brought in through international amateur signings have helped elevate the system gives a glimpse of what the potential impact might be, as well.
Before executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took over from Duquette, the latter had made a handful of trades to add international bonus pool space – an allocation of how much of a team’s money they’re allowed to spend in a given year on international amateur talent – that allowed the Orioles to use several million dollars more than their original allotment.
The problem was that period opened on July 2 of that year, and the top talents were already signed in that class. While official agreements can’t be reached until that July 2 date when a player turns 16, the set-up in Latin America means players are often committed to clubs years in advance.
So, the Orioles went to work signing late-blooming prospects, first under Cale Cox before the front office transition and then under Koby Perez, now the senior director of international scouting.
The first wave produced some players, signed for bonuses of low six-figures and below, that are already stateside. One of their top performers in the Florida Complex League, infielder Moisés Ramírez, signed for $225,000 under the old front office. Ramírez hit .314 with an .878 OPS and five home runs at age-19 in the FCL. Isaac Bellony, a $220,000 signing from that period, had an .804 OPS and four home runs in his stateside debut.
When Perez was hired in January 2019, he used his connections from years with Cleveland and Philadelphia to find more late-bloomers and prepare a new signing class on a tight window. Before that 2018 window closed, he signed outfielder Stiven Acevedo for $275,000. By checking in at No. 30 in the organization’s midseason top-30 prospect rankings at Baseball America, he represented the first Latin American signee from this regime to make a top prospect list, and had a .666 OPS in the FCL this year.
Perez’s first full signing class was put together after many of the top prospects eligible to sign in July 2019 were committed to other teams as well, but was the largest in the organization’s history. They even made T-shirts commemorating it.
It’s headliners are starting to become familiar names to those following the Orioles’ system, including $475,000 outfielder Luis González who was the No. 20 prospect in their system according to Baseball America entering the 2020 season on the back of an impressive power showing at their fall instructional camp. He was 18 in the FCL this summer and had strikeout issues in his professional debut, as did $400,000 infielder Leonel Sánchez.
On the pitching side, several of their bigger investments from that period delivered promising debuts in the FCL. Left-hander Luis Ortiz was their top pitching signee for $400,000, and struck out 10.43 batters per nine with a 1.50 WHIP and a 3.06 FIP. Moisés Chace, a right-hander who signed for $225,000, struck out 12.9 batters per nine to go with a 3.47 FIP and a 1.66 WHIP. Right there with them was right-hander Raúl Rangel, who struck out 11.25 batters per nine with a 1.17 WHIP.
That group should move up to Low-A Delmarva in the coming spring to clear the way for the top group of 2020 international signees to begin their assimilation to baseball in Sarasota, Florida. The 2020 class was headlined by the two richest bonuses the Orioles gave to Latin American teenagers in club history: $1.3 million for catcher Samuel Basallo and $1.2 million to shortstop Maikol Hernández.
That pair instantly went into the front half of the Orioles’ top-30 prospect list when they signed, and improved as time went along in their 2021 professional debuts. Both have impressive plate discipline for players of their age and backgrounds, and as the season went on, made strides in tapping into more consistent hard contact. Basallo had the best hard-hit rate of anyone in the Orioles’ Dominican program.
Their most productive hitters from that class, however, signed for smaller bonuses. Outfielder Junior Lara had a .934 OPS while essentially only playing in September, while a pair of players signed for mid-six figure bonuses stood out in more full-time roles.
Anderson de los Santos had a .905 OPS and was one of the most productive 17-year-olds in the league. While the other headliners boast good plate discipline, de los Santos is a free-swinger whose bat speed gives him legitimate power potential.
He was strongly in the mix for a top-30 spot in their organizational rankings, though new signings may change whether he ends up there by the start of the season.
That brings us to the expected signings for this week. Baseball America reported the Orioles will sign center fielder Braylin Tavara to a bonus of over $1.5 million, and recent reports added 22-year-old Cuban infielder César Prieto as a $750,000 signee that will be headliners in the upcoming class.
Those two will could go straight into their top-30, which means that since the Orioles truly committed to signing top amateurs from Latin America, they’ve signed seven players worthy of inclusion their top-30 at Baseball America, while Ortiz has been included elsewhere. (Disclaimer: I also make the BA rankings for the Orioles, with input from sources inside and outside the organization.)
While that may not seem like a lot, it’s more than in the past, where there were several years in which Australian left-hander Alexander Wells was their only ranked international signee.
It’s also true that these players’ impact is likely years away. That doesn’t change how both their own international signings and the trades they’ve made over the last three years to add such players (including award-winning right-hander Jean Pinto and outfielder Mishael Deson, among others) play an important role in their organization.
Adding teenage talent consistently makes the systemmore balanced considering how infrequently the Orioles under Elias have drafted and signed high school players. Just five have entered the system through that route in the last three seasons – Gunnar Henderson and Darell Hernaiz in 2019, Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler in 2020, and Creed Willems in 2021.
Their draft strategy of taking productive college hitters with the right kind of measurables earlier is a sound one in that those types of players are easiest to project out as major league contributors and carry the lowest risk. They’re also, provided they produce in the minors, attractive trade chips for when the Orioles are ready to start adding pitching to their major league roster and push for playoff spots again.
So, too, are the types of toolsy, high-bonus international talents that will soon comprise the bulk of their low-minors hitters. Every big trade needs a headliner, but such deals are often completed by the inclusion of such players – even if they’re lottery tickets – that could pay off down the line as second or third pieces. The Orioles are making such signings based on the same types of characteristics they look for in draft players, with athleticism, an ability to control the strike zone, and consistent hard contact chief among them.
When the time comes, other teams will be attracted by those traits as well, meaning the impact of their nearly four-year effort to get back in this market will be two-fold.
There will be a season in a few years time when one of the players listed here will join the Orioles midseason as a precocious talent who pushes their playoff push to the next level. That same time, one or two of these players will be traded to secure a player who might have even more of an impact.
Such is the point behind the elite talent pipeline Elias promised over three years ago. Now, this aspect of it is up and running well.