03 July 2011

2011 IFA Signing Period: July 2nd

Each year the International Free Agent signing period begins on July 2nd, and is generally highlighted by a handful of the "big fish" being scooped up early. The remaining bonus babies tend to come off the shelf over the course of the following few weeks, with the lower-priced talents signed anywhere from July 2nd through completion of the Dominican Prospect League in the winter. Historically, Baltimore has not been a large player in Latin America. With the arrival of Andy MacPhail, however, came hope that the O's would begin to ramp up their presence in acquiring talent from a region that produces roughly 30% of the Major Leaguers in the game today.

Four years into Mr. MacPhail's tenure as the President of Baseball Operations in Baltimore, and the Birds have a new Dominican facility, but little to no increase in scouting presence and what has been referred to by those involved as a "limited" interest in the Dominican Prospect League (a winter league set-up to showcase eligible Dominican teenage baseball talent in game settings). Heading into Saturday's start to the 2011 IFA signing season, Orioles fans had little to look forward to.

Perhaps the most connected analyst to follow the international market, Baseball America's Ben Badler previewed all thirty teams and the rumors surrounding them as relates to the IFA crop. Badler presented his summaries by breaking the teams down into several categories -- High Rollers, Sleepers, Opportunity Knocks, Price is Right, and Bargain Hunters. Baltimore was one of six teams to fall into the final category, including tw0 0rganizations recently stung with scandals and not yet ramping-up again in the region, one team in financial distress, one working to rebuild their international scouting department after losing their director in 2009 and one limited year-in and year-out in available finances for amateur acquisitions. This is what Badler had to say about the O's:
Baltimore Orioles: Orioles management has talked for years about wanting to get more involved internationally, but so far those efforts have been limited. Venezuelan lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez was a good 2010 signing who pitched well last year in the Dominican Summer League and is off to a nice start in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, but their actions in Latin America figure to be on the lower end again this year.
There were around $20 million worth of signings on Saturday, with no AL East team reporting any acquisitions. The Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays are all being linked to several highly touted prospects, with the Rays and Orioles still lurking in the shadows (according to the internet rumor mill). Might the O's swoop in to grab one of this year's high profile prospects? Don't bet on it.

Andy MacPhail has noted in multiple interviews/speaking events this year that high priced talent in the Dominican Republic is not a focus of Baltimore's, primarily because of the limited in-game action available for viewing and evaluating these players. One might wonder, if in-game looks are what the Orioles need to be sold on a prospect, why not partake in the Prospect League set up for this very purpose?

Snark aside, Mr. MacPhail has some legitimate gripes with the current system. Buscones (trainers) run the show when it comes to showcasing Dominican talent, which usually means limited looks in controlled showcase settings. Batting practice, infield/outfield workouts, bullpen sessions, timed running, and the like are common place. Structured multi-look game action, not so much. The result is a possibility that you could be ponying up seven figures to sign a talent that lights up a gun or puts on impressive BP displays but who has not been asked to show his talents in game action over the course of a structured season. Further, anecdotally, the hit rate on these seven-figure signings is uneven, to be kind. So what is the solution?

If you ask the Rays, they would tell you that the solution to the problem of high priced/high risk talent in the DR is to pick your spots on the island and to blaze your own trail in other Latin American markets. The Rays negotiated a deal with Brazil to open up the first MLB academy there, and even found a way to get their host country to pick up a large chunk of the tab. Whether or not this endeavor produces results of course remains to be seen, but no one can fault Tampa for waiting it out on the sidelines while the rest of the AL East throws money around.

Other like-market organizations have already made big moves, with Kansas City, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Minnesota handing out a combined $7+ million in international signing bonuses on Saturday. Is Baltimore ahead of the curve, avoiding this spending? Have these other organizations not run the research that Baltimore has run on Latin American spending? Or do they simply disagree on the conclusions that can be drawn from such research?

The hope is that Baltimore has something interesting and innovative up their sleeve. Is it a structured focus in Venezuela? Poaching some experienced Dominican scouts to improve the number of eyes they get on the talent, and therefore the likelihood that they can uncover some of the hidden gems knocking around each year? Increased attendance and participation in the Dominican Prospect League? Any of these courses of action would be a welcome change, but seem equally unlikely.

For better or worse, it seems the Orioles are content to wait this battle out on the sidelines, focusing on calculated low cost investments. It could be that this ultimately results in a higher hit rate than that experienced by teams targeting the seven-figure signings. I'm not at all sold that this will be the case, but am hopeful that Mr. MacPhail and his colleagues will prove me wrong. In the meantime, all that Orioles fans can do is show patience and confidence in leadership -- two asks that are getting more and more difficult with each passing month.

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