Blue Jays should be more aggressive on international market


The Blue Jays need to get better at signing MLB-ready international free agents.

Back “in the day”, international free agents were a Blue Jays strength.  The late Epy Guerrero, the Jays’ Chief Latin American Scout from 1978 to 1995, was known as “El supereschucha” (Superscout) in the Dominican Republic.  He helped found the first Baseball Academy in that country in 1973, and is credited with the hiring and drafting of over 50 major league players and identifying many more (My favourite Epy story is when he found a hot young Dominican pitcher and urged the Jays to sign him.  But he was overruled, and Pedro Martinez was signed as an amateur free agent by the Dodgers instead).

Back then, international free agents were generally young and unproven, and the cost to sign them was not high.  There were relatively few mature international free agents who could step directly onto a major league roster.  That started changing in the 1990s, starting with Cuban free agents like Liván Hernández and Danys Báez.  The Cuban floodgates opened even wider after 2000, with players such as José Contreras, José Fernández, Yoenis Céspedes, Yasiel Puig and José Abreu getting multi-million-dollar contracts after defecting.  The Jays were largely silent in this race, only signing Adeiny Hechavarria in 2010, although Alex Anthopoulos has expressed regrets that the Jays did not pursue Aroldis Chapman more vigourously.

"“I guess my one regret is I wish it was a greater comfort level on our part. We weren’t as familiar with the player as we needed to be” (Anthopoulos on failing to sign Chapman)"

The second wave of near-MLB-ready international free agents came from Japan. As with players from Cuba, this flow started in the 1990s with players like Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu. The departure of these players (under terms that Japanese baseball disputed) led to the signing of the “posting agreement” in December 1998, under which Japanese teams had greater control over the departure of players who they held under contract.  Players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Norichika Aoki, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka joined the MLB under this system. The posting system was replaced with a broader system in December 2013 which allows multiple teams to bid on the player’s services subject to a maximum posting fee. The Blue Jays have never signed a posted Japanese free agent.

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The third wave of senior IFAs has come from Korea. Korean Baseball has a posting agreement with Major League Baseball based largely on the MLB-Japanese one of 1998, but many young Korean players were signed before ever playing professional ball in Korea – as for example Hee-seop Choi, Shin-Soo Choo and Sun-woo Kim (who is unusual in that he pitched in the MLB in North America before returning to Korea to pitch there). The Blue Jays have never signed a player out of Korea.

Building a competitive MLB team is very difficult. To do so successfully, management needs to make use of every tool at their disposal. They need to draft intelligently and develop carefully, to sign MLB free agents creatively and with an eye on the budget, and to make the right trades at the right time.  And they need to be able, as Alex put it, to be as familiar with international FAs as they need to be and to be ready to use that familiarity when an opportunity arises.

It is possible that the Jays are coming to this realization.  They were reported to be bidders in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, and they signed Tiago da Silva, an experienced closer from the Mexican and Venezuelan leagues, in 2015.  But these are only baby steps.  In order to succeed, they will need to take more chances.

In my view, the days of finding bargains from Cuba and Japan are largely gone.  The successes of players from these countries has driven up the price to the point where the cost:benefit is now highly problematic. The opportunities are now in the less known markets – not only Korea, but potentially China and India and Africa. Opportunities still exist in these newer markets to sign good players for prices that make the risk worthwhile. As for example – when the Jays were struggling last offseason to find a solution at second base, I was surprised that they did not try to sign Jung-Ho Kang. Kang was ultimately signed by Pittsburgh for a posting fee of just over $5 million and a 4 year, $11 million contract. In his first year with the Pirates, “King” Kang had a 130 wRC+ and a WAR of 3.9.

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Coming from a smaller market team in Cleveland, Mark Shaipro likely has limited experience with this type of international free agents. Certainly the Indians do not have a history of this kind of signing.  But with the larger scouting department (and higher cash resources) of the Blue Jays, he now has the opportunity to play in this game.

Some examples of players potentially available this offseason:

Seung-Hwan Oh – The top closer in Korea, nicknamed the “Stone Buddha” or “Final Boss”.  Probably not a closer in the MLB, at least not right away, but he is an unrestricted free agent (i.e. no posting fee) and should not be terribly expensive by MLB standards. He could be a valuable late-inning arm for a Jays bullpen.

Ah-Seop Son – A high-OBP contact hitting corner outfielder from Korea. Son was posted last week, with the winning bid to be announced on Monday. He won four consecutive gold gloves (2011-2014) in Korea, and is only 27 years old.  The Jays have questions in both corner infield positions, with Jose Bautista likely moving on from RF in the near future and no clear frontrunner between Revere/Pompey/Saunders in LF.

Hyeon-soo KimKim is a .318/.406/.488 lifetime hitting LF and 1B from Korea.  He is a free agent, and so will not require a posting fee.  While his power might not translate to North America, his contact and plate patience might. At 27 years old, he should still have several years of near-peak production left.

Next: 5 Blue Jays targets in the Rule 5 Draft

The bottom line?  The Jays should be willing to explore any avenue to improve their team, even if it entails an element of risk. The key is to balance the risk with potential reward, and the first step is to “be as familiar with the players as they need to be”. The next step is to be willing to gamble when the price is right.