The Orioles’ long-standing approach to international amateur signings — a market that has become a lifeblood for other organizations but an area the Orioles have mostly ignored — has confused many throughout baseball.
No major league club invests less financially on the international market than the Orioles. In the most recent signing period, they spent just $535,000 — less than 10 percent of their allotted signing bonus pool — according to Baseball America, instead using most of their bonus slots as trade chips to supplement the farm system with fringe prospects.
The decision to pass on investing in the international market, specifically the robust Latin American market, has been a long-established decree from managing partner Peter G. Angelos, a decision made because past investments internationally didn’t bear fruit. But as Angelos has ceded oversight of the club to his sons, John and Louis, sources say a shift in philosophy could be on the horizon as this year’s international signing period opens Monday.
“Traditionally the Orioles haven’t been aggressive in the international market with commitments,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “It’s something we’re reviewing to see if we want to be more aggressive with it in the future. We’re going to be signing some international players.”
Whether the Orioles make a greater investment in this year’s international market remains to be seen, but there’s no indication they are attached to any of the top prospects. Last year, they signed just nine players, including just one to a bonus of greater than $100,000 — a $150,000 signing bonus awarded to Venezuelan outfielder Ricardo Castro, an 18-year-old who is now playing in the Dominican Summer League.
The Orioles haven’t spent less than $1 million in the past two signing periods combined, even though greater opportunity to even the playing field exists after the new collective bargaining agreement created a hard spending cap that grants higher bonus pools to competitive balance teams such as the Orioles.
This year, the Orioles have a $5.504 million bonus pool for international free agents. Last signing period, the Orioles had a $5.75 million bonus pool.
“We may use more of the money to sign players,” Duquette said. “It’s an ownership decision. We need to be active in the markets — the recruiting markets. I think 40 percent of the players in the big leagues are coming from international signings, so it’s in the interest of the club to review how we allocate our resources in that area.”
With the Orioles’ season lost, several pending free agents will possibly be on the move in advance of the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. The team is on the verge of a rebuild, and its lack of international prospects is glaring, a byproduct of years of little investment in the market. But within the Warehouse, there has been talk about a renewed focus on the international market, which has been met with cautious optimism.
Currently, second baseman Jonathan Schoop is the Orioles’ only homegrown international signing on the team’s 25-man roster. Among the organization’s top 20 prospects, only two — Dominican third baseman Jomar Reyes (12th) and Australian left-hander Alex Wells (13th) — are homegrown international signings. Dominican right-hander Ofelky Peralta is just outside the top 20 at No. 22.
The $350,000 bonus Reyes received in 2014 still stands as the highest bonus doled out to a non-Cuban player.
“You can still win at the major league level and almost entirely punt international signings,” said Ben Badler, who covers the international market for Baseball America. “The Orioles have done that. You can get by without being successful in that area, but why wouldn’t you want to invest there? It severely handcuffs the organization, especially now as they go into a mode where they should really be rebuilding through the farm system.
“One of the reasons their farm system is where it is, is just the lack of international prospects and that’s just a buildup from years and years of ownership neglecting the international market, and it’s going to continue to have an impact for years because of the lack of activity in 2016, ’17 and ’18.”
It’s not a quick solution. The Orioles are far behind every other organization in baseball. And the international amateur market is much like college recruiting, where the top Latin American talent commits to signing with clubs years in advance.
“It does create a challenge where you have a market that works so fast that there already are a lot of teams that have essentially commitments to sign players for 2019 already,” Badler said. “So even to be involved — certainly with most of the top players for 2018 essentially unavailable to them and a lot of the 2019 players are no longer available to a certain degree.”
Said Duquette: “A lot of the top international signings have committed to the teams they’re signing with for quite a while now.”
The Orioles’ international problem isn’t from a lack of feet on the ground in terms of scouting. They have coverage throughout Latin America, including a presence in the recruiting hotbeds of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Even though the Orioles’ international scouting department has an unclear structure — especially after longtime international scouting head Fred Ferreira wasn’t retained this past offseason — it scouts the area as any other team does. Throughout the industry, the Orioles’ reputation as a nonspender hurts them more than anything in attracting top Latin American prospects, according to an industry source.
While the big-ticket Latin American amateurs might be out of the Orioles’ price range, there is still opportunity for the club to pursue lower-priced talent the organization hasn’t attempted to sign in the past. While the New York Yankees signed catcher Gary Sánchez to a $3 million signing bonus in 2009, third base prospect Miguel Andújar signed for $700,000 and they nabbed ace right-hander Luis Severino for just $225,000.
“It’s being involved in that market and having an investment in your scouts down there and in players as well to find guys who pop up for $30,000, $50,000 or $70,000, especially with young pitching,” Badler said. “It’s so young to predict pitching, especially at that young age. You see a lot of pitching prospects sign for $100,000 or less, but where are those guys for the Orioles?”
When Duquette arrived in Baltimore before the 2012 season, he brought with him a strong international track record. Building a contender in Montreal was centered around international acquisitions such as Vladimir Guerrero, Orlando Cabrera, Javier Vázquez and José Vidro — the latter two of whom were drafted out of Puerto Rico high schools. While in Boston, Duquette signed Hanley Ramírez and Aníbal Sánchez as amateurs. Both were later flipped to the then-Florida Marlins in a trade that netted Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, who were key members of the Red Sox’s 2007 title team.
The Orioles had some successful international signings in 2012 — Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Miguel González, who was signed out of the Mexican League. They made up two-fifths of a playoff rotation that season, but both were professional signings. Chen pitched in Japan and González was a former Los Angeles Angels and Red Sox farmhand, so they can’t be considered amateur successes. The Orioles’ amateur foray into South Korea didn’t work out well as their scouts were banned from games there after they didn’t follow proper protocol in signing teenage pitcher Seong-min Kim.
The Orioles have signed four Cuban players — Henry Urrutia in 2012, Dariel Alvarez in 2013, Lazaro Leyva in 2014 and Ariel Miranda in 2015. But none received a signing bonus of more than $800,000. Urrutia and Leyva are no longer in the Orioles system, Alvarez is rehabilitating from Tommy John elbow reconstruction and Miranda was traded to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Wade Miley in 2016.
Last year, with bonus pools capped for the the first time, the Orioles traded most of their bonus slots in nine trades over two different signing periods. Right-hander Yefry Ramírez, who was acquired from the Yankees, and left-hander Paul Fry, acquired in a trade with Seattle, are the only acquisitions from those trades to pitch for the major league club.