The Orioles are in a precarious position when it comes to Cuban outfielders Victor Victor Mesa and his brother, Victor Mesa Jr., who worked out last week in Miami in front of several clubs and represent the crown jewels of the international free-agent market.
In the first offseason of the Orioles’ rebuild, the two young Cuban stars have come to represent much to the club’s fan base, so failure in landing them — which is becoming more possible as the Miami Marlins amass international bonus slots to rival the Orioles' pool of hypothetical money — won't start the winter off on a good note.
Whatever financial advantage the Orioles had in the race to sign the Mesa brothers appeared to evaporate when the Marlins, their nearest competitor in the market for the Cuban stars, made a pair of trades this week to boost their own pool of international bonus slot money. They acquired bonus money in trades with the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals that bring them to $6 million, according to The Athletic. The Orioles are at around $6.7 million, the highest pool available. But the Marlins have closed the gap.
Entering the Mesas’ workout in Miami, the Orioles had plenty going for them. At the All-Star break — when then-executive vice president Dan Duquette announced a shift in focus from the present-day major league club to a host of other areas, including the club's neglected international signing structure — they were a bit behind the curve with this year's top international prospects.
The Orioles began this year with $5.5 million as a team that got a Competitive Balance Round A draft pick, traded Brad Brach to the Atlanta Braves for $250,000 in bonus slots, then got $2.5 million more from the Braves in a subsequent trade for Kevin Gausman and Darren O'Day to bring them near $8 million.
In the interim, they announced several significant investments in that market that dwarf what they've done recently. Shortstop Moises Ramirez signed for $225,000, outfielder Isaac Bellony signed for $220,000, outfielder Damien Valdez signed for $200,000 and outfielder J'Rudjeanon Isenia signed for $125,000. All four are 16 years old, and three of the bonuses are higher than the top figure they gave out a year earlier to Venezuelan outfielder Ricardo Castro.
Combined with a curious trade with the Philadelphia Phillies to acquire left-handed-hitting first baseman Jack Zoellner that took away some of that bonus slot money, that left the Orioles with around $6.7 million to target the Mesas and pitcher Sandy Gastón, who are among the most high-profile international free agents remaining.
The Orioles have made known their interest in Victor Victor Mesa, and it makes sense. They have the ability to spend the money and need to regain a foothold in the market. But if they lose out on a pair of Cuban stars to Miami, where there's a significant Cuban population, and the players and their representatives choose that over the money, what does that really say about the Orioles?
It certainly wouldn’t be a disaster.
The Orioles have been public in their intentions to get back into the international market, and their club is linked alongside Victor Victor Mesa every time his name is written. It's a slow process to build back up in the Latin American markets, and they made the only steps they could in trying to dip back into the signing pool, despite most contracts being agreed to in secret a year or more earlier and executed two weeks before the Orioles decided to get back into the field at all.
From a talent perspective, Victor Victor Mesa, who hit .354 with a .939 OPS and 27 extra-base hits in 70 games in 2016 in the Cuban National Series before defecting, would be an asset solely because of his upside in the system. He would need some refinement, and there's not a lot of possible impact talent at the top of the Orioles system, but there are a lot of outfielders.
Last year, three of the Orioles’ top nine prospects, according to Baseball America, were outfielders — Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins. Mullins and Santander graduated, DJ Stewart made his debut, Ryan McKenna burst onto the scene and they acquired top prospect Yusniel Díaz from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade.
None has the upside of Mesa, though Díaz is a similar age and has a similar skill set. In the talent acquisition phase the Orioles are in, positional surplus shouldn't make much of a difference.
Still, if the Orioles don't land the Mesas and can't put their big bonus pool to use this year, there's plenty of symbolic value in the fact that they're in it at all.