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Orioles unlikely to capitalize on suddenly available international talent

Starting pitcher Shohei Otani of Japan throws in the top of fifth inning during the WBSC Premier 12 semi final match between South Korea and Japan at the Tokyo Dome on November 19, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan.
Starting pitcher Shohei Otani of Japan throws in the top of fifth inning during the WBSC Premier 12 semi final match between South Korea and Japan at the Tokyo Dome on November 19, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. (Masterpress / Getty Images)

Because of two major decisions made Tuesday, several high-profile international free agents will become available in the coming days and weeks. But don’t expect the Orioles to be major players in the bidding for such talent.

Major League Baseball, the players union and the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization in Japan reached a tentative agreement on a new posting system that will pave the way for touted two-way player Shohei Otani to sign with a major league club for next season.

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The current posting system, which holds a $20 million capped fee that a Japanese club can seek to make a player available to negotiate with major league clubs, will remain for this offseason — and Otani’s team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, is expected to seek the maximum. But a new tiered posting system will be instituted next year, and is tied to a percentage of the player’s major league contract.

The Atlanta Braves were stripped of 12 prospects and their former general manager was banned from baseball for life on Tuesday, the most significant penalties in an unprecedented punishment for what the league said was a three-year circumvention of international signing rules.

Also on Tuesday, MLB handed down unprecedented penalties to the Atlanta Braves for violations of international free-agent signing rules, stripping the team of 13 prospects it signed over the past two cycles, making them free agents able to sign with any of the other 29 clubs. Included in that group is Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, a 17-year-old who is already seen as one of the game’s top prospects.

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These two stories are the two biggest of the early offseason. The 23-year-old Otani is a rare talent, and his potential arrival in the U.S. has teams salivating, and never has such a talented group of international free agents suddenly become available all at once as the one that the Braves must let go.

But the Orioles likely won’t have a stake in either situation.

Not many clubs will have an opportunity to make a play on Otani because his potential contract must adhere to international free-agent bonus pool standards, and most teams already spent their bonus pool money in this cycle, which started on July 2.

A new international free-agent bonus pool structure was instituted this year, and a hard cap was introduced for the first time. Most teams received a total of $4.75 million for bonuses, but there were two groups of teams classified as small-market or small-revenue teams that received a higher amount.

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The Orioles netted another high-minors pitcher in a trade for international signing bonus slot money Tuesday, acquiring right-hander Konner Wade from the Colorado Rockies, according to an industry source.

The Orioles were one of eight teams that received $5.75 million – the highest amount – giving them a strong opportunity to make a splash in the international free-agent market, especially since three of those eight teams couldn’t spend more than $300,000 on one player’s bonus as a penalty for exceeding their bonus pool last year.

Instead of spending that money on international talent, the Orioles chose to trade it away. Keep in mind that the Orioles aren’t sending money to clubs — just the right to spend additional money on international free agents and remain under the cap.

The Orioles have made at least five trades that dealt away international bonus slots, including Tuesday’s deal to acquire 25-year-old right-hander Konner Wade from the Colorado Rockies. The Orioles believe right-hander Yefry Ramirez, acquired for a bonus slot in July, has promise. But otherwise the returns received in the trades for bonus slots have been nominal.

With Otani on the market – and those 13 former Braves prospects out there – the Orioles’ bonus slots would’ve been more valuable than ever, but apparently they have traded nearly all of that money away.

In the past, the value of slots dealt was announced, but this year it hasn’t been, so there is no way of knowing from the club the actual value of the slots traded. According to an Associated Press report from earlier this month, however, the Orioles had just $660,000 remaining in bonus slots, meaning they had traded $5.09 million away basically for lottery tickets, and that was before the Wade deal.

That doesn’t allow the Orioles to be a player in the Otani sweepstakes even if they were wanted to or were willing to pay the posting fee, which they apparently don’t have any interest in anyway.

They could still have the resources to make a run at the former Braves prospects, because teams will reportedly be allowed to use slot money from next year’s cycle that starts July 2 to sign those players, but they can’t combine money from this year’s cycle and next year’s for bonuses. Additionally, teams will reportedly be allowed to add $200,000 to their bonus pools either this year or next to bid on the former Braves prospects.

That would technically allow the Orioles to make a play for Maitan, who received a $4.25 million signing bonus from the Braves, or some of the other prospects. But the Orioles haven’t shown any willingness to sign Latin American players to seven-figure bonuses – the club has never given an international free-agent a signing bonus of more than the $800,000 given to Dariel Álvarez in 2013 – and most of the Braves prospects received bonuses of more than $1 million.

When the Orioles signed Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen before the 2012 season or even Cuban left-hander Ariel Miranda in 2015, their bonuses didn’t fall under the international free-agent bonus pools because of their professional experience and ages.

The opportunity to pursue these players is rare, and the Orioles could’ve been in a position to take advantage, but instead it is another example of how their outdated approach to signing international free agents is in need of major reworking.

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