Along with the inventory of prospects the Orioles received in their nonwaiver trade deadline deals over the past two weeks, the organization also for the first time acquired substantial international free-agent bonus slots to use in their renewed investment in the Latin American market.
The Orioles acquired $2.5 million in bonus slots from the Atlanta Braves as part of the trade for starting pitcher Kevin Gausman and reliever Darren O’Day, and also received $250,000 in slots from the Braves for reliever Brad Brach. As a team receiving a Competitive Balance Round A draft pick, the Orioles were assigned a pool of $5.504 million, so the slots acquired in trades gave them more than $8 million for international signings.
While acquiring international slots isn’t receiving the actual money to spend, it’s the allowance to spend a certain amount under the new hard cap on international signing bonuses. The fact that the Orioles trimmed more than $30 million in committed payroll gives them the financial flexibility to use that money toward investing in the Latin American market.
So, what do the Orioles plan to do with this newfound access to spring on international free agents and their willingness to spend it? That’s not entirely clear yet, but executive vice president Dan Duquette has said the Orioles will sign international players soon, especially from the hotbeds of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Since the current signing period began July 2, the Toronto Blue Jays had 28 commitments, the Boston Red Sox had 23 and the New York Yankees had 21, but the Orioles have had zero, according to Baseball America. But according to an industry source, the Orioles are expected to make multiple international signings within the next week, and among them will be players with six-figure bonuses.
By comparison, of the nine players the Orioles signed in the 2017 signing period, only one — Venezuelan outfielder Ricardo Castro — received a six-figure bonus ($150,000). Over the past two signing periods, the Orioles have given just two six-figure bonuses, and spent just $535,000 on bonuses last signing period after spending $260,000 in 2016.
The international market is much like college recruiting with players pledging to teams years before they sign, and among Baseball America’s top 50 international prospects this signing period, nearly all of them had already committed to other teams before July 2. That puts the Orioles at a competitive disadvantage this period, though it leaves them with more allowance to spend because other teams’ pools have been drained by committed players.
Unlike previous years, when the Orioles shied away from giving international players six-figure bonuses, let alone seven-figure ones, the club appears prepared to do so now.
The Orioles have been widely linked to Victor Victor Mesa, a Cuban outfielder who tops Baseball America’s top-50 board. Mesa is unsigned and uncommitted at this point because while he is training in the Dominican Republic, he has yet to officially take up residency there, which prevents him from being declared a free agent by Major League Baseball.
The Orioles are indeed interested in Mesa and plan to scout and pursue him heavily, but the focus of the team’s rebuild is one of allocating the club’s assets in the best way possible, and they won’t overspend on Mesa, who could command a bonus of $3 million to $4 million.
As they venture into uncharted territory, the Orioles are well aware the market is risky. For every José Abreu — a Cuban prospect turned All-Star who received a $68 million commitment from the Chicago White Sox — there is a Rusney Castillo, a bust Cuban outfielder whom the Red Sox spent $72.5 million to sign. While the hard cap prevents the big-market teams from engaging in lucrative bidding wars that teams such as the Orioles have no chance to be a part of, there’s still a significant risk in investing millions in a player like Mesa.
That’s not to say the Orioles won’t make a major play for the 21-year-old Mesa, who would project to start his career at the High-A or Double-A level, because the team’s front office appears committed to signing the best players available. But according to a source, the Orioles will be “judicious” in how they spend their international bonus pool money.
Even if they sign Mesa, the Orioles would still have several million dollars in slots remaining. But more than ever, they are assets that hold their value through the end of the signing period in June 2019. When Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani became available this past offseason, teams scrambled to trade for slot money in an effort to bid for him. So holding on to the slots can help down the road to enable the Orioles to make a play for another player that becomes available or to trade to another team for professional talent.