Thanks to the Orioles' July 2018 trades and a general avoidance of the international amateur free-agent market when a new crop of Latin American talent became available in July, the organization had a massive account of signing bonus slots last summer without any premium talent to spend it on.
Dan Duquette, then the executive vice president of baseball operations, acquired a combined $2.75 million in pool money from the Atlanta Braves last summer in trades for Brad Brach, Kevin Gausman and Darren O'Day. Combined with the team's allotted $5.5 million bonus pool, the Orioles had $8.25 million in bonus slots available to spend on international amateurs from August on, after many of the top talents for that period already signed.
In the ensuing 10 months, the following transpired: The Orioles signed a group of players to bonuses of around $1 million under Duquette. They missed out on Cuban stars Victor Victor Mesa, Victor Mesa Jr. and Sandy Gaston in the interim period before new executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias arrived. They hired senior director of international scouting Koby Perez in January to jump-start the operation. They spent another $1 million on international free agents, including the highest bonus of the signing period to outfielder Stiven Acevedo. And they made nine trades to bolster the farm system and major league roster with the international bonus slots they couldn't spend on players.
All that whittled the bonus pool down to $400,000 as this signing period ends Saturday. A fresh signing period featuring a new batch of 16-year-old international amateurs begins July 2, and the Orioles' pool for 2019 allows them to spend $6.48 million without penalty.
Elias has promised the biggest July 2 signing period in franchise history, coming after a period in which Duquette said it was an ownership directive not to spend in that area.
But there was a lot of pool money to be accounted for during the 2018-19 international signing period, and here's an accounting of where the majority of that went.
The Orioles' massive pool took a hit when they dealt $750,000 in slots to the Philadelphia Phillies for then-23-year-old first baseman Jack Zoellner in August. The move was considered curious at the time, but later was revealed to be a component of a previous trade between the Orioles and Phillies.
That knocked the pool down to about $7.5 million, and the trades didn’t pick up again until Elias was hired.
He got in on the action early when he dealt an undisclosed amount of international bonus slots to the Phillies for Rule 5 infielder Drew Jackson in December. Jackson impressed in spring training, but his roster spot was used to sign pitcher Dan Straily one week into the season.
On Feb. 24, Elias sent bonus slots to the Texas Rangers for 25-year-old right-hander David Lebron, who entered Thursday with a 2.74 ERA at High-A Frederick and is a Carolina League All-Star. A week later, they traded $750,000 in slots to the Minnesota Twins for right-hander Xavier Moore, who hasn't pitched for an affiliate.
The most impactful trade came a week later when the Orioles acquired outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. from the Toronto Blue Jays for a reported $500,000 in bonus pool slots. He won a job on the team in spring training and was hitting .249 with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs as the everyday left fielder when he went on the injured list with a concussion June 7.
Elias' last spring trade was with the Phillies for Single-A catcher Lenin Rodriguez on March 18. Shortly after the season began, the Orioles sent an undisclosed amount of international bonus pool slots to the Chicago Cubs to get back reliever Pedro Araujo on April 5, after he was returned to Chicago through the Rule 5 process.
There was a little bit of a break from such trades until Elias acquired center fielder Keon Broxton from the New York Mets for $500,000 in bonus slots May 22.
On June 9, they presumably wrapped up such business for the signing period by acquiring right-hander Tom Eshelman from the Phillies, adding to a thin Triple-A Norfolk rotation.
That trade sent approximately $1.25 million to the Phillies, which allowed Philadelphia to sign Australian right-hander Josh Gessner this week, according to MLB.com.
The Orioles traded approximately $5.75 million of this year’s bonus pool away, according to a baseball source with direct knowledge but not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. So, while the exact amounts traded for Jackson, Lebron, Rodriguez and Araujo weren't made public, they total $2 million, as the trades for Zoellner, Moore, Broxton, Smith and Eshelman totaled $3.75 million.
In a sense, the Orioles' 2018-19 signing period wasn't different from any of the others in that they traded away all of the allotted $5.5 million the league initially allowed them to spend. The deals with the Braves meant they had plenty to spend on players, and they spent about $2 million on international amateurs this period.
The Duquette signings
After trading Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Duquette made a point of saying the team's rebuild would include international signings. With longtime international scouting chief Fred Ferreira no longer in the fold, most of the responsibilities belonged to Cale Cox, then the assistant director of minor league and international operations.
The signings under that regime included infielder Moises Ramírez ($225,000), outfielder Isaac Bellony ($220,000), outfielder Damien Valdez ($200,000), outfielder Kevin Infante ($175,000) and outfielder J'Rudjeanon Isenia ($125,000).
The club announced five other signings from 2018, and many of them are playing this summer on one of the Orioles' two Dominican Summer League teams.
The Elias/Perez signings
Perez, who worked with Elias when both got their starts as amateur scouts with the St. Louis Cardinals, came with a pedigree of success as part of the Phillies' international scouting operation and most recently led the Cleveland Indians' Latin American scouting operation.
When he was hired, he said he'd be looking for late bloomers on the Latin American market, though Elias constantly warned he wouldn't just spend money for the sake of spending it. The net expenditure on players in this period, spanning the two regimes, was $2.167 million.
The highest bonus of the signing period went to Acevedo, a 16-year-old outfielder who got a $275,000 bonus when his signing was finalized in April, according to the baseball source.
Acevedo fit the "late bloomer" tag, not because his talents came along late but because he was born Aug. 2, 2002, making him very young for the 2018-19 period. He wasn't 16, nor was he developed enough, when teams used most or all of their bonus pools.
Because the Orioles had the money to sign him, they believe they got a player whose present-day talents would have his bonus in the seven-figure range if he waited to sign until the upcoming period beginning July 2, as he was turning a corner. Acevedo is a 6-foot-4 center fielder with feel for the barrel, not much swing-and-miss and the chance to grow into some power.
The rest of the other bonuses awarded by the Orioles were almost exclusively in the five-figure range, though that doesn't mean the club is any less excited about the talent acquired. There were reports earlier this year that Panamanian left-hander Alexander Ayala had agreed to a six-figure bonus, but he was deemed to be a domestic player by Major League Baseball because he enrolled in high school in Florida and couldn’t sign.
Many of the players the Orioles signed over the past few months haven't been cleared to play by MLB yet, as the league must do a background investigation on each player before he can officially join a team.
Orioles signee James Rolle, a 17-year-old slugging first baseman from the Bahamas, counts among that group.
Of those that have signed and are playing on one of the two Dominican Summer League teams, a pair of pitchers — 18-year-old Dominican right-hander Joel Benitez and 16-year-old right-hander Juan De Los Santos — and 17-year-old Dominican infielder are all showing well this summer.
Rolle is part of a group of 16 players whose signings came across the MLB transaction wire since Jan. 1 who aren't assigned to rosters yet, though that's not an official count by any stretch. An additional dozen players were signed to first contracts in that period and are already playing in the DSL, and with the singing period ending Saturday, the last couple of signings were finalized Wednesday.
Between the late-signing players and the significant influx of players expected July 2, it didn’t take long for the Orioles to come through on their vow to dive into the international market as part of their multifaceted effort to add talent to the organization.
"I think the 2019 period is going to be a much different story for us," Elias said.