When Alex Anthopoulos took over as General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays back on October 3rd, 2009, he made it a clear point of emphasis to re-establish the Blue Jays footprint in Latin America, an area that his predecessor had vastly neglected in his eight years at the helm. He spent much of the winter rebuilding the formerly glorious scouting department that J.P. Ricciardi had dismantled in cost-cutting measures, and once the spring was on the horizon, Anthopoulos and his staff were up to their elbows in international affairs. The Blue Jays were widely reported as finalists in the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes before the left hander signed for thirty-million with the Reds, and on April 13th, 2010, Anthopoulos signed Cuban defector Adeiny Hechavarria to a four-year, ten-million dollar contract that included a four-million dollar signing bonus – the largest ever handed out by the Blue Jays to an amateur talent. In hindsight it’s easy to call the deal a mistake, but while Hechavarria never lived up to the expectations, the acquisition established the Blue Jays as legitimate players on the international market once again.
The 2010 calendar year was a transitional one for the organization, as while ownership had offered forth the funds to make some noise, Director of Latin America Operations Marco Paddy was only beginning to rebuild the team’s connections, and was still heavily reliant upon the core scouting staff he’d implemented since the Blue Jays hired him back in 2006. Furthermore, the team had only just opened their new academy in the Dominican Republic that spring, so much of the preparatory work by Paddy and his staff had been done on foot. The Latin American market isn’t just about money, it’s also about comfort, and this perceived instability may have cost the organization in its attempt to sign arguably the top prospect available, Luis Heredia. The team was heavily involved with the Mexican right hander, but he spurned the club for the Pirates, despite a reported offer of 2.8 million dollars.
The organization didn’t sulk over their defeat, instead offering that same signing bonus to Adonys Cardona, who was widely regarded as the second best arm available. The right hander agreed to terms with the club, and the bonus represented the highest figure ever given to a Venezuelan prospect. Before all was said and done, the Blue Jays would sign another Venezuelan, third baseman Gabriel Cenas, to a professional contract worth seven hundred thousand dollars. In total, according to Baseball America, the organization would spend approximately 4.18 million during the 2010 signing period (not including Hechavarria), which was the sixth highest figure in all of baseball. In September of that year, Sportsnet published a very interesting article on a shift in the organizations philosophy, which contained a very exciting quote from Assistant General Manager Tony LaCava:
“The one thing we haven’t done yet — and next year we’re making an even bigger commitment — is we’re going to add significantly to the staffing in Latin America. As much as we did with the (scout) staffing here, we’re going to try to the same type of stuff there and get more people on the ground, more eyes on the players. We’ve got a chance to take it to another level.”
LaCava delivered on that promise and then some, as the Blue Jays spent an estimated 7.57 million dollars on bonuses during the 2011 signing period, ranking second in all of baseball behind only the Texas Rangers. The list of potentially high-impact prospects acquired that summer goes on and on (with all bonus figures reported by Baseball America); Roberto Osuna (1.5 million), Dawel Lugo (1.3 million), Wuilmer Becerra (1.3 million), Jesus Gonzalez (0.7 million), Jairo Labourt (0.35 million), Alberto Tirado (0.3 million), among many others. While part of this spending surge had to do with the organizations new extensive network of scouts and contacts in Latin America, a pre-eminent factor was the looming Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was expected to severely limit the spending of teams internationally via a bonus pool cap, starting with the 2012 signing period.
Last July I wrote an article about the Blue Jays haul in international free agency, and in the preamble I discussed the impact of the new CBA. The two main points I tried to impress upon readers were as follows:
- 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.
- 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, had one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, so star power was what the team should look for.
Toronto spent exactly half of its bonus pool (1.45 million) on Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto, the top talent available. They also signed another pair of shortstops, Luis Castro (0.8 million) and Richard Urena (0.725 million), though the former failed his introductory physical and had his contract voided (all bonus figures reported by Baseball America). While Barreto and Urena were excellent acquisitions, it certainly pales in comparison to the bounty from 2011, and appears to be the unfortunate reality for the foreseeable future. This is the type of thing that happens when union-less amateur talent have their fate decided by billionaire owners and millionaires in the Major League Baseball Players Union.
The organizations investments are only half the story, however, as the dividends being paid back through prospect performance are just as important to the fans that follow the Blue Jays. International free agents are almost exclusively 16 or 17 years old, and their contracts are always for the subsequent season, so player development is typically a step or two behind the expenditures. Thankfully, after a bit of a lull over the past couple of seasons, the money injected into Latin America has finally begun to show up on the baseball diamond.
The pack is led by Roberto Osuna, who had a strong professional debut between the Appalachian and Northwest Leagues in 2012, and was off to an excellent start with Single-A Lansing in 2013 before hitting the disabled list with an arm injury. He returned, struggled mightily, and has found himself back on the disabled list. Even so, he was recently named as the 43rd best prospect in baseball by Jason Parks and the BP Prospect Staff. Alberto Tirado, who came in a bit under-the-radar with just a three hundred thousand dollar signing bonus, has made huge gains in the past two years. Over the winter, Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the system’s eighth best prospect, and while there’s obviously a ton of risk attached, they gave him the ceiling of a number two starter.
Despite their significant signing bonuses, two prospects that have received less limelight than their pitching counterparts are shortstops Franklin Barreto and Dawel Lugo. I ranked them 13th and 24th respectively entering the season, and the reports at Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs over the past nine months have been glowing. According to BattersBox.ca, both shortstops played very well in Extended Spring Training, with Barreto posting an .825 OPS and Lugo hitting to the tune of a .764 OPS. The organization assigned them to the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues respectively, and they’ve had strong starts to their seasons. The third cog in this trio of shortstop prospects is the aforementioned Richard Urena, who was signed alongside Barreto during the July 2012 period. The 17 year old has been playing in the Dominican Summer League, where he’s shown a natural ability to make contact with a surprisingly advanced plate approach, though he’s still very raw in the field and has shown only gap power thus far.
These players, and obviously many others, have helped lead the Blue Jays’ three lowest level affiliates to winning records in the early going. Bluefield has opened the season with a 10-8 mark, while the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays are also two games over .500 at 8-6. The Dominican Summer League Blue Jays got a head start and have already played in 28 games, amassing a 16-12 record. The short-season to full-season transition is a tremendously interesting one, as in the case of Toronto’s minor league system you realistically have prospects from three affiliates (GCL Blue Jays, Bluefield, and Vancouver) being filtered into one (Lansing). This bottleneck effect could give the Lugnuts one heck of a loaded roster in 2014, and the Latin American prospects the Blue Jays have signed over the past few summers will have the opportunity to take center stage. Tirado, Lugo, Labourt, Del Rosario, Cardona – and perhaps even Barreto – could all make the leap. Fans saw how quickly Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino roared up prospect sheets when they hit full-season ball, and if this wave of prospects plays like they’re capable of over the next year, they could do much of the same.