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Orioles reset: How the international signing date went from ignored to indispensable

This time last year, the Orioles continued their tradition of voluntarily sitting out the annual July 2 opening of the international amateur talent market, with the baseball operations department under then-executive vice president Dan Duquette continuing what he often called a strategic decision from ownership to use resources on the major league team instead of high-risk international talent.

Of course, the major league team was at that time in the belly of a miserable season, with most of those win-now resources making the future as bleak as the present.

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When Duquette traded star shortstop Manny Machado two weeks later, he deemed the international market a major part of what the Orioles would have to focus on as they began rebuilding for the future.

The ensuing year has been one of a tremendous game of catch-up, both by Duquette's administration and more recently by that of executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and senior director of international scouting Koby Perez, with this year's July 2 signing period expected to yield 30 new amateurs for the Orioles and herald a new beginning for a department that was left behind on the game's most fruitful market.

And like most of what the Orioles have done since Elias was hired in late November, all those efforts go into a complicated bucket: the end result is years down the road, and all of the players produced by these measures are subject to the same attrition rate that makes being a major leaguer so difficult.

But in the position the Orioles are in, it's notable that they're doing these things at all — from letting analytics drive coaching and personnel decisions to scouting and signing who they end up acquiring — in a manner that allows them to at least be considered in the same realm as baseball's best front offices.

There's no use litigating why Duquette, who successfully used the international market in his time with the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, wasn't a player on that frontier with the Orioles. Those conversations ended when the Orioles hired someone in Elias who came with the background he did, as he directed the Houston Astros’ international efforts for three seasons in addition to his domestic responsibilities.

But last year's efforts began with Duquette, who acquired a significant pool of bonus slot money. With the help of then-assistant director of minor league and international operations Cale Cox, he spent nearly $1 million on players who were left over on the market after last year's July 2 wave. (Though July 2 is when contracts can be signed and go through MLB's approval process, all of the top eligible players agree to deals with teams as early as several years in advance.)

Of that group, Cuban outfielder Kevin Infante (.302/.375/.395), Dominican right-hander Kelvin LaRoche (1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 innings), and Panamanian right-hander Hector López (one earned run allowed in five starts over 23 innings) are off to good starts in the Dominican Summer League.

The team didn't shell out the seven-figure bonuses required for Cubans Victor Victor Mesa, Victor Mesa Jr. or Sandy Gaston in the interim period in October, but one of Elias' first moves after he got the major league staff moving was hiring Perez away from the Cleveland Indians.

Credited with modernizing Cleveland's international operation after signing several big leaguers at his previous post with the Philadelphia Phillies, Perez brings the same data-driven mindset as Elias and his staff to a market he knows well. At FanFest, Perez took the stage beside assistant GM for analytics Sig Mejdal and spoke of how the top prospect in Baseball America's Arizona Summer League rankings, Indians switch-hitting outfielder Brayan Rocchio, wasn't heavily scouted out of Venezuela but got on their radar thanks to some of the analytical data they gathered on him.

Since his January hiring, Perez has been trying to use as much of the Orioles' bonus pool as possible to sign what he deemed at the time as "late-bloomer" types; pitchers who came on late or those who otherwise weren't on the radar when teams blew through their bonus allotments.

The jewel of that group, he said, was 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Stevin Acevedo, who signed for their highest bonus of the period — $275,000 — and is off to a good start in the DSL himself. Others of note include Bahamian first baseman James Rolle and Dominican right-hander Juan de los Santos.

More signings were finalized right up to the June 15 expiration date for last year's bonus pool money, with the net spend coming in at $2.167 million.

The Orioles have hyped up their first full foray into the market for 2019. The team is selling T-shirts emblazoned with the short-hand name for Tuesday's signing period opening, "J2," that debuted on Elias' Twitter feed. Elias said it would be their "largest international signing class" ever.

It's safe to say none of their allotted $6.48 million will be traded away this year. And with 30 players expected to sign in this year's class and efforts already underway to scout players for ensuing years, the sea-change that began under Duquette and continued under Elias might mean the once-forgotten July 2 date produces more than just T-shirts down the line.

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What's to come?

The Orioles travel to Tampa Bay and Toronto for six games to wrap up the first half of the season and do so coming off three games against the Cleveland Indians that represent what had to be their best series since that opening week in New York and Toronto.

Sunday's loss, however, represents pretty well what the challenge will be for the hitters. Against pitchers who can't hit their spots and might make mistakes, the Orioles can hit them all over and out of the ballpark. But pitchers with a plan and the ability to execute it, like Cleveland's Shane Bieber, can mow through the Orioles. Tampa Bay has a staff full of them, and Toronto has had its share of success doing that to the Orioles, too.

The Orioles’ last week of the first half will be a challenge, but one that can possibly show signs of real progress if they meet that challenge.

What was good?

With respect to the often-good Trey Mancini and last week's very-good Andrew Cashner, the good far outweighed the bad from infielder Jonathan Villar this week. Villar reached in all five games of the homestand, batting .375 (6-for-16) with six walks and a steal (plus one pickoff and an error) to bring his average to .254.

It hasn't been the season the Orioles or Villar have expected, and there have been plenty of moments of frustration, but the offense is at its best when he's producing near the top of the lineup. He's been doing his part the past few weeks.

What wasn't?

The mechanics of the All-Star roster assembly are far more complicated than taking the best players, and the fact that the Orioles are the worst team in baseball means more than one of their players getting a spot on the initial rosters was probably never going to happen.

It's just unfortunate that the coronation for rookie left-hander John Means has to include clauses about how Mancini isn't going as well. Because pitchers aren't up for a fan vote, the Orioles rightfully focused their attention on Mancini's candidacy during the voting portion and didn't leave much room to account for anyone but him being selected as a result.

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His omission seems like one that will be rectified when the drop-outs start coming, but it created a weird dynamic Sunday at Camden Yards that nobody was ready for.

On the farm

A Double-A Bowie team that went 6-19 in the first month of the season just wrapped a 20-7 June, which brought them to just two games below .500 at 39-41 with a week left before the All-Star break.

They've gotten some better production from the big names in their lineup like Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna, but their starting rotation, anchored by left-handers Zac Lowther, Alex Wells and Bruce Zimmermann, is leading the way. Marcos Molina has also opened eyes, and the addition of right-hander Michael Baumann means that group is even deeper for the second half.

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