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Orioles’ 2020 international signing class solidifies efforts in Latin America: ‘The pipeline is starting to come through’

From the moment he was hired to lead the Orioles’ return to the international amateur free-agent market two years ago, Koby Perez was working not only on the imminent 2019 signing class, but future ones as well.

With the typical signing date for amateur free agents pushed back from July 2 to Jan. 15 due to COVID-19 complications in 2020, that means Perez and the Orioles have had to wait even longer to unveil a signing class that he believes will reinforce the club’s role as a major player in the Latin American market.

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The agreements from the 2020 signing period, expected to be announced Friday, feature two of the club’s first seven-figure international amateur signings and will represent an investment of over $4.5 million in the club’s future.

“With the Mike Elias’ track record in international and my track record in international, they knew that the group coming in was hoping to turn some things around here with the Orioles as far as international work goes,” Perez, the Orioles’ senior director of international scouting, said of the club’s burgeoning reputation there. “We’ve had that on our side, and I think this signing class with multiple seven-figure guys kind of solidifies what we’ve been talking about when we’re down there.”

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According to Baseball America, the team’s signing class will be highlighted by Dominican catcher Samuel Basallo and Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernandez. Basallo’s $1.3 million signing bonus will be the highest for an international amateur in club history. Others receiving significant bonuses include catcher Aneudis Mordan, outfielder Teudis Cortorreal and shortstop Victor Celedonio, according to Baseball America.

The Orioles are permitted to spend $5.25 million on international signing bonuses for the postponed 2020 period that begins Friday, and are expected to commit most of that to players who will sign Friday. Such an outlay speaks volumes about the team’s commitment in that market, especially considering their allotments were often traded for more advanced, albeit lower-ceiling talent, before they began to spend seriously in Latin America more recently.

Even before Elias was hired from the Houston Astros in November 2018 and Perez came on a few months later, the Orioles were getting back into the international market that they’d mostly abandoned. Former executive vice president Dan Duquette often explained the team’s lack of activity in those markets as a strategic decision from ownership, though Duquette had a good track record in signing talent there throughout his career before coming to Baltimore.

The July 2018 trade of star Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers heralded a full-scale rebuilding project that included a return to acquiring international amateurs, and under assistant director of minor league and international operations Cale Cox, the Orioles began using their international bonus pool money in meaningful ways for the first time in years, coming away with several signings who were brought stateside this fall as part of the team’s instructional camp.

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Perez, however, came on to rebuild the international scouting department and help spend the surplus of bonus pool money the team had built up for the remainder of the 2018 period. At the opening of the 2019 signing period, the Orioles announced their largest ever international class of 27 players — which would eventually grow to 44 — and signaled their commitment was genuine in that market.

To supplement the smaller classes of past years, the Orioles have also acquired several teenage international prospects in return for the older and more expensive pieces on their major league roster. Director of pro scouting Mike Snyder has been able to supplement his staff’s work with the first-hand knowledge of Perez and his staff, plus Elias and director of baseball development Eve Rosenbaum — all of whom have first-hand experience on the international market.

Players in Latin America aren’t eligible to sign until age 16, but the process of scouting and recruiting them to agree with a club begins years before that. As such, the 2019 class was mostly composed of late-bloomers and players whose agreements elsewhere fell through. Perez and his staff were concurrently working on future classes, including the stars of the 2020 class who will be announced Friday.

“Since we came in at the beginning of 2019, this class was being worked on immediately, simultaneously to the 2019 class, because otherwise we would have never been able to get the players that we’re going to end up signing here on Friday,” Perez said.

“Fortunately in our case, I’ve been doing this job internationally for 10 years now. You kind of know what’s going on in the market, and although I was not with the Orioles when I started knowing these players, I did know the players. So as soon as I got the job here with Baltimore, we knew where to attack with what was available at the time, and to be honest with you, we got to work right away and used that for future classes. We basically wanted to try to shore up some guys to best suit our system. So, we had to get to work immediately.”

Despite that urgency, the international scouting world in baseball is one rife with delayed gratification. The process of scouting and signing players can take years, and the return on that effort takes even longer. Perez said the typical major leaguer signed as a 16-year-old takes six or seven years to develop.

“The fact that these names are being talked about, and you see them going up the line, it’s a good thing,” Perez said. “But it’s a lot different than maybe a college player in the draft that can usually take two or three years. Over here, it takes a little longer because they’re signing so young.”

As the 2020 agreements become official this week, the work for Perez and his staff continues apace for future signing classes, though it’s unclear what the rules for the 2021 signing period will be. There’s talk of MLB instituting an international draft, and further changes to the system might come as the league and players union negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season. Their work is also affected by the changing regulations from MLB and countries’ governments regarding in-person scouting and whether organized sports can even occur.

“We’re in the mix for some players for that class as well,” Perez said. “The pipeline is starting to come through, and hopefully these guys start to show that they’re able to play.”

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