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Orioles executive VP Mike Elias updates club's international pursuits, explains spring bonus pool trades

PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA. — With three trades in the past month in which the Orioles acquired players in exchange for chunks of international signing bonus money, especially against the backdrop of the millions of dollars of bonus pool allowance the team acquired in the past year, there's a sense of "business as usual" that's permeated some of the moves.

Executive vice president Mike Elias says there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye as the Orioles go about the business of yet again selling off the pool money that gives teams the ability to sign international amateur free agents for player assets already in affiliated baseball.

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Earlier this spring, it was trades for minor league pitchers David Lebron and Xavier Moore from the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins, respectively. Friday's acquisition of outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. from the Toronto Blue Jays was the most significant of the three.

All sent chunks of international signing bonus pool the other direction, which was disconcerting to those who heard former executive vice president Dan Duquette say the club was going to start investing in international scouting again, and were hoping such trades would end under Elias.

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Duquette acquired the likes of Jeremy Hellickson, Paul Fry and Yefry Ramirez (along with several players who proved less useful) in international signing bonus slot trades, and the future considerations in trades for Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro were also delivered in that form.

In addition, after recommitting to the international market this summer, the Orioles spent over $1 million in bonuses on a group of signings this summer that included infielder Kevin Infante ($175,000), shortstop Moises Ramírez ($225,000), outfielder Isaac Bellony ($220,000), outfielder Damien Valdez ($200,000) and outfielder J'Rudjeanon Isenia ($125,000), plus right-hander Carlos del Rosario, outfielder Angel Gomez, right-hander Kelvin LaRoche and shortstop Gilbert Machado.

But in acquiring $2.75 million in bonus pool money on top of their allotted $5.25 million, the expectation was set that the Orioles would make a big splash on Cuban outfielders Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr., plus right-hander Sandy Gaston.

Instead, they traded more bonus pool money away in the summer in a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that proved to be a part of a previous deal between the two clubs, causing plenty of consternation, and their ability to spend millions didn't sway the Mesas from signing with the Miami Marlins or Gaston from signing with the Tampa Bay Rays.

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Elias made a trade of international bonus pool slots early in his tenure to acquire Rule 5 infielder Drew Jackson from the Philadelphia Phillies in December, and has taken steps to build back up in that market in the form of hiring senior director of international scouting Koby Pérez away from the Cleveland Indians. He's said frequently this offseason that the Orioles wouldn't sign players just because they had the ability to, as the bonus pool money comes from the clubs but represents the ability for them to spend that money without penalty.

Elias spoke with The Baltimore Sun this weekend about the trades, outlining where the team is in its international infrastructure-building, how they're going about building up signing classes for future years, and when the vision he and Pérez have for their international operation might be realized. Here’s the interview:

There was so much bonus pool money accumulated this summer, is it just at the point now where that has value and you guys need to get value for it however you can?

First of all, the slots that we have been trading are for what is called the 2018-2019 signing period. It begins on July 2, 2018, and it ends on June 15, 2019. The way that the market works is it's similar to college recruiting to some degree, where a lot of the legwork and preparation for signing players for this period happens years in advance of July 2, 2018. Once that date passes in and of itself, I would wager that 90 percent of the meaningful international talent will sign on or near that date.

Once that date is passed, the amount and quality of the players that are available changes dramatically, and it's to such a point that a team that would try to spend the entirety of its pool well past that date, especially starting when I got into my position in November, it's extremely unlikely that that would be money well spent. So, in terms of having a full-blown signing period for 2018, that ship has really sailed a long time ago. We're making the best use we can of the funds we have available, some of it by trading for other pieces, but also Koby and his staff are filling out our Dominican Summer League rosters with higher quantity but lower-dollar international signs. But there's no way to do that and get up to a full pool of five-plus million [dollars] or whatever it is.

Additionally, even for 2019, the availability for players has long diminished. Now, I very much expect that we will have a more robust 2019 class in terms of having some high-dollar signees on or after July 2, 2019, but even still, I do not feel we will have full access to that class in the way that an administration might if it's working two or three years in advance like other teams are. So I think once we start getting into 2020, 2021, we're gong to see a very, kind of standard-looking international class, and I think our 2019 class is going to be great, but this will take some time to ramp up, in terms of normal deployment of a bonus pool. But I feel really good about the direction we're heading in there, and it's really just a matter of time in that sense.

In the meantime, we're left to do whatever we can with the 2018 money, and part of that is going to be utilizing these slugs — and this isn't actual cash, it's the right to spend money that's being traded — and by and large, the teams that are trading for this money right now are utilizing it to sign some pitchers and filling out their DSL rosters, because they've already capped out.”

That was going to be my next question, where people might think, 'If these teams are trading for slots, they're signing somebody.' But it's just depth stuff you can handle with the amount of pool accumulated already?

Yeah, there's a lot of kind of late-blooming pitchers around the island in the Dominican. Koby's been signing some of them, and other teams go around and sign them, and they need them to fill out their pitching staffs and their rosters in the Dominican Summer League. We can't sign all of them. We don't have enough roster spots for them, plus it's not feasible to see all of them. These guys are brought to complexes and tried out.

We are doing that, and we're spending a lot of money down there signing pitchers and late-blooming position players, but we can't sign all of them, and it's much more sensible for us to dole out some of these slugs to other organizations, allow them to sign some extra players to let them fill out their rosters, and then us getting pieces back to flesh out our minor league system or even the 40-man roster, as you just saw with the Dwight Smith trade.”

Most of these were completed before you were hired, but this was a year where the Orioles spent more money internationally than they have in God knows how long. Do you have any impression of the players that were signed, as someone who was in that role with the Astros?

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I thought some of the signings that happened in 2018, before I got in, were good. Again, these weren't huge, huge-dollar players. I think all of them were below $300,000, but there were some guys signed for $150,000-plus, $200,000 plus that I was familiar with. They're good players, and I'm glad that we got them in, and Koby and I have been signing many more since coming in and we haven't necessarily publicly announced all of these signings, but you'll see them in the DSL this summer, and I think we've got some good players that we've brought in well past July 2, which is not easy, as I explained with how the market really works down there.

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“The further into the future we go, the more we're going to be able to able to go for the big fish and work in advance and do all the background work necessary towards landing a big fish.

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