The amateur draft gets most of the publicity, but the July 2nd international free agent signing period can be just as important as teams seek to bolster their farm systems with elite talent. Jurickson Profar, Oscar Taveras, Miguel Sano, and Julio Teheran all rank amongst Baseball America’s top 25 prospects on their midseason rankings, and all were signed by their respective clubs as international free agents thanks to some very savvy scouting departments.
The Blue Jays have a very strong foothold in the international market, but their results have yet to come to fruition in the top prospect atmosphere. The main culprit behind this is that the team is just finishing up its third signing period under Alex Anthopolous and his staff, and the philosophy was far different under the previous regime (i.e. it barely existed). Even so, of my top 30 Blue Jays prospects entering the season, five were signed as international free agents, most notably right handed pitcher Adonys Cardona, who I ranked 11th in the system.
The low minors are quickly filling up with potential elite talents, however, as alongside Cardona the team has brought in Santiago Nessy and Roberto Osuna, both of whom should easily rank within the top 30 when I revise my rankings in the offseason. On the outside looking in, at least for now, are Dawel Lugo, Gabriel Cenas, Wuilmer Becerra, and Jesus Gonzalez.
For Toronto, the 2012 international signing period was different for a pair of reasons. The first, and most glaring, is that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement put a cap on spending, with each team having a bonus pool of only 2.9 million to spend on players. In future years that number will vary from team to team, but with the rules only now going into effect, all teams are on a level playing field. Toronto had committed serious money into Latin America in previous years, so this cap had a substantial impact on how they approached July 2nd. Second of all, last November, the Chicago White Sox hired the Blue Jays former Director of Latin America Operations Marco Paddy to be a special assistant to Kenny Williams. Paddy held that position in Toronto for five years, and was responsible for the acquisition of all the players mentioned above, as well as Major League pitcher Henderson Alvarez. Losing Paddy was obviously a significant loss for the team, and to replace him they looked towards the Mets and hired Ismael Cruz, who now acts as a Special Assistant to Alex Anthopolous and Director of Latin American Operations.
Teams with thin systems may employ a strategy which would see them sign six or seven international free agents who project as major league regulars. Toronto on the other hand, has the deepest farm system in baseball, so star power is what the team went looking for on July 2nd.
The Blue Jays quickly achieved that goal, as they came to an agreement with Baseball America’s top ranked July 2nd eligible player, Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto. The expected dollar figure on Barreto was around the 2 million mark, but considering who else the Blue Jays managed to sign, it appears as though they got a very good deal. The number will eventually get released, but Ben Badler of Baseball America expects the figure to be in the range of 1.3 million.
Barreto is currently a shortstop, and it’s likely the Blue Jays will give him every opportunity to stay there, but the industry vibe is that a move to centerfield or second base awaits him down the line. Thanks to his plus-plus speed range isn’t an issue, nor is his arm which grades out as solid average from the left side of the infield. The main problem is that his defensive actions and footwork aren’t as smooth as you’d like to see from a shortstop. His best offensive tool is his bat, which is a strange thing to hear about a Latin American player. He is described as having quick hands with a short swing and excellent pitch recognition. Baseball America suggests Baretto has the potential to be a plus hitter when he develops, with decent power to go along with it. With such developed offensive tools, Barreto may only require one year of short season ball. He stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 175 pounds, but with a fairly strong and mature frame there are some doubts about how much physical projection exists here. Barreto’s ceiling is compared to Rafael Furcal or Shane Victorino, both of which would be excellent outcomes.
Also in Venezuela, which appears to have become Toronto’s favorite location for acquiring talent, the Blue Jays signed a shortstop named Luis Castro, who ranked 9th on Baseball America’s top 20 list. As per team policy, the financial details have yet to be released. Like Barreto, a position shift appears in the cards for Castro. His arm strength is solid and his hands are quick, but he’s an average runner at the best of times and is likely to continue to slow as he gets older. Third base is the most logical destination, but second base or catcher have been deemed viable alternatives. Offensively, Castro has a sound plate approach, showing strike zone awareness and the ability to use all fields. When combined with his bat speed, he has the potential to hit for average. His power is currently limited to the gaps, but as he matures, Castro could start pushing balls over the fence.
The third member of Baseball America’s top 20 to sign with the Blue Jays is Richard Urena, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic. Urena, a left handed bat, ranked 13th on the list. While Barreto and Castro are destined for new positions down the line, Urena is a true shortstop and should have no issues remaining at the position. He has plenty of arm strength for the left side of the infield and his defensive actions are quick and smooth, aided by excellent baseball instincts. Urena’s offensive ceiling is limited due to his power, which is below average at present without a ton of projection. His bat is capable and his approach steady, and while those skills should work just fine in the lower levels, the same can’t be said for the upper minors which limits his ultimate ceiling.
When these international free agents sign with teams, the contracts are for the 2013 season, so while the players can attend camps and scrimmages the work out at the team complex, they can’t enter official games until next season. Castro should be assigned to the GCL and Urena to the DSL next year, but as I mentioned, Barreto is advanced enough he could play anywhere from the Gulf Coast League to Vancouver in his first year, followed by Lansing in 2014. Of the three major signings, Barreto is the only one with a chance at placing amongst the team’s top 30 prospects in the offseason, with a ranking in the 20’s seeming logical. That’s not a slight against the talent at all, the players are simply too far away and the system too rich in talent. For many international free agents you don’t know what you have until they’re 19 or 20 years old, but when they pan out, the risk of many is well worth the reward of one.