17 January 2013

The Orioles Double Jump Back into Being an International Participant

The Orioles fan base tends to forget how things used to be in the 1990s.  When Peter Angelos took over the team, he was a strong players' rights advocate.  He supported them during the strike more so than any other owner and he did not flinch at offering top dollar for players.  In fact, the luxury tax implemented from 1997 to 1999 was paid into the most by your very own Baltimore Orioles.  As of the end of 2010, that amount paid in had the Orioles as the third most to pay in to the system.  What that luxury tax ignores though is that the Orioles were also big players in the international scene in the 1990s, which was the result of a major push from Syd Thrift.

They were not going after the big ticket multimillion dollar guys like Alfonso Soriano, Wily Mo Pena, Miguel Cabrera, or Byung-Hyun Kim.  In the primary market (the Domincan), the team went after second tier prospects like Sendy Rleal and paying just over 100k a piece for them.  They were also going aggressively after first tier players in emerging markets where the price was a tad bit lower.  They signed John Stephens for 500k and Andy Utting for 160k in the 1990s, both from Australia.  Neither wound up doing much with only Stephens getting a smattering of MLB time (12 games as a 22 year old).  

John Stephens dominated the minors and did so even after his velocity took a major dip after suffering nerve damage (from 90 mph to 84 mph).  The loss in velocity made him rely more on a bevy of changeups he threw.  However, his reliance on change ups to accompany a mid 80s fastball was a big enough question mark for scouts to not take him seriously and place him rather low in a relatively talentless Orioles minor league system.  His introduction to the Majors as a 22 year old was bittersweet as he kept his strikeout rate high, but did so even though he was highly succeptible to the homerun (giving up 13 in 65 innings).  It was also discovered that he had a broken foot that was missed by the Orioles' medical team.  He performance took a turn for the worse, never returning to the Majors, and being out of baseball at age 26.

The reason why I bring up and go into detail with John Stephens is that he is likely one of the reasons why the Orioles removed themselves from investing greatly in international players.  The Orioles' efforts in spending well on international talent found them with few useful international players in the 2000s.  The only international player who wound up having impact in the Majors (or on Aruban judges) was Sidney Ponson, who had one very good year and several promising yet poor seasons.  Of the couple millions or so spent on international development (a trickle before Angelos, a rush during the Syd Thrift influenced Oriole years), it pretty much came to a halt when Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan took over.

I don't think anyone really expected the Orioles' efforts to retreat to the Dominican when Beattie took over as he was the General Manager for the Montreal Expos, a team that had been flush in foreign talent.  Although, it is difficult to think of the Expos producing any significant foreign talent during Beattie's time there.  Instead, the team was focused finding undervalued fringe Major Leaguers.  In essence, it was one prong of the former Expo GM, Dan Duquette, double pronged attack: undervalued MLBers and engagement in emerging foreign markets.  Anyway, whatever the forces were that were prevailing (the GMs or the owner) the money dried up and the Orioles' really only dabbled with low cost or once given up on prospects in the Dominican.  By the time Andy MacPhail showed up in 2007, the Orioles essentially had no international program.

Andy MacPhail and the Rise of the International Program
That is to say, when MacPhail arrived there was certainly a run down, ignored program being run by Carlos Bernhardt in the Dominican Republic.  He had a hold on the island for the Orioles for about a decade before MacPhail's group arrived.  Rumors, and you know how rumors are often unfounded, suggested that the new regime wanted a complete makeover on the island, but that was impeded.  The idea was that as fruitless as the Orioles' Dominican program was that a complete razing was in order.  However, it should also be said that if you give a program less than 100k to sign 30 players a year that you simply are not going to find good players and you are certainly not going to be able to sign them if you actually do find them.

So Bernhardt stayed on with the Orioles funneling more money into the Dominican, improving the facilities there to being somewhat respectable and to giving them more money to sign players.  Additionally, the Orioles began putting in real resources to scout outside of the island and were rewarded by finding such promising talent as Jonathan Schoop (Curacao) and Eduardo Rodriguez (Venezuela).  That is likely what MacPhail was referring to when he said:
“I was just very happy for the fans in this area to see baseball so important to them again and to see the stadium filled,” MacPhail said. “I’m happy for a bunch of people there, including Buck [Showalter], who Peter [Angelos] and I brought in.

“I’m happy for Peter because nobody was more supportive of what we tried to do during those lean years than Peter. We stuck to a strategy and it paid off. We invested in the Dominican, and it’s paid off big dividends.”
By the Dominican, I assume he means the program/academy he directed funding towards.  Also, the current crop of international talent he brought in was not helping out at the Major League level, so he may be talking about franchise health in general or he may be referring to the acquisition of Jim Thome which was in part paid for by the high ceiling / low probability catching prospect from Venezuela, Gabriel Lino.  I would not say Thome's acquisition meant much for the Orioles, but, eh, that is really a tangent to this discussion.

A good way to show the Orioles' expanded international efforts is the following graph which depicts the country of origin of players on the Orioles DSL team as a percentage:

What is evident is that it took MacPhail about a year after his mid-2007 hiring to begin the process off acquiring talent outside of the Dominican with a particular push in Venezuela where the team had vacated its scouting program in the early 2000s.  The team also began picking up players in Curacao and Colombia.

However, it is good to temper this opinion as we have reported on what MacPhail's front office said and what they did.  As shown in the latter link, this is what the Orioles spent on international talent in 2010.

So, although they have expanded their influence in collecting talent from other countries, they did still lag behind in terms of monetary investment in acquiring talent.  That said, a team does not need to be a big spender in order to be successful in acquiring international talent.  The Colorado Rockies have accumulated a good bit of talent, such as Wilin Rosario and Jhoulys Chacin, with a very modest level of monetary resources.  The key is to be present as much as invest in these markets.  The Orioles during MacPhail's era got the team back into these markets, but did not come flush with cash.  As shown in one of the links above, this front office was quite reticent to invest in first tier international free agents.

Onward, Dan Duquette!
Duquette came into an international player development program that was becoming more open, but still acquired three quarters of their talent from the Dominican Republic with many of those talents being 19 and 20 year old players who were already passed over by other clubs.  The new front office hired established international scouts and immediately went out and placed a greater focus on signing international talent from a wide range of locales, including signing a player from Brazil.  There was also the misguided attempt to acquire Korean high school left handed pitcher Kim Seong-min.  However, the team signed none of the top tier talents identified by Baseball America's Ben Badler.

That said, it has only been a single season and it may be difficult to determine how much of the current regime will affect how talent manifests in the Orioles' minor league system and whether or not that talent is good (outside of simply representing a wide range of countries).  Often players signed during the past season do not appear in any games, so some of the new signings may simply not be represented on the roster (this can be particularly true of any Pacific rim signings).  In time, we will become more aware how well the expansion will be.

Complicating that expansion are the new CBA rules that restrict the amount a team can be spent on signing bonuses for international amateurs.  Jonathan Mayo had a decent writeup of it.  Basically, teams have a cap of 2.5 MM this year and in the future that cap will be related to team performance the prior year.  It will be interesting thing to keep track of in seeing how teams respond to capped pools.  It should not affect the Orioles' current apparent strategy, but it does prevent teams from spending big and buying their way into the market like the Twins did with Miguel Sano (who the Orioles could have had and is currently a top tier prospect in baseball).

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