The Braves’ farm system has received a lot of fanfare this season. From the prospects that have carried over from last year to the 2017 draft to the international signees, interest in Braves prospects is at, arguably, all-time highs.
It is easy to focus a lot on known, established prospects as well as guys that were picked in the draft. Those are guys that get get coverage on mainstream media channels and can been seen stateside relatively quickly. However, much of the Braves success in rebuilding their minor league operation has had to do with their successes on the international market with prospects such as Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, Kevin Maitan, Derian Cruz, and Cristian Pache (to name a few) coming from the international free agent market.
To help us make sense of this unique aspect of organization building and scouting, Ben Badler graciously agreed to sit down with me and talk about some IFA/J2 goodness including about the current state of the international free agent market, how the Braves have done over the last couple of years, and what changes we could see in the future. Enjoy!
First, Ben, how did you get into international scouting and how exactly is it different from scouting amateurs stateside?
I started at Baseball America in the summer of 2007. In early 2008, I heard that the Reds had signed a Dominican outfielder, Juan Duran, for $2 million, even though everyone thought Duran’s Sept. 2, 1991 date of birth meant he wasn’t eligible to sign until July 2 that year. Bob Miller, the Reds assistant GM at the time, knew of an obscure rule that allowed the Reds to sign Duran immediately. They changed the rule since then, but at the time, you could sign a player if he would turn 17 before the end of his first professional season. Since the Reds had a team in the Pioneer League, where the season ended on Sept. 5, they signed Duran in February 2008 for $2 million and assigned him to their Pioneer League club, just as a paper move so get him into the system. I reported that story, and it was fascinating to me, since you had a player who nobody realized was eligible to sign, then suddenly gets a seven-figure bonus.
That signing sparked my interest to start to dig deeper into international signings. At the time, nobody was covering July 2 or international signings. There were a few things here and there, mostly surface-level reporting on a handful of big-dollar signings after the signings already happened, if it existed at all. But you could see how many international players were in the major leagues, how many international prospects we were writing about in the Prospect Handbook and how extensively we covered the draft at Baseball America. I’ve never been big on following the pack—I always liked being innovative and doing things nobody else is doing—and nobody was covering international signings. So I decided, the international market something I want to know more about, it’s an area of baseball that’s lacking any coverage and it’s one where I want to make Baseball America the leader in the industry on par with what we’ve done with the draft.
So in 2008, we had a preview of July 2, which happened to be the year when Michael Ynoa signed with the A’s for $4.25 million, a record at the time. It also happened to be a year where teams gave a lot of money to a lot of players who never amounted to anything. But that was the genesis of our international signing coverage, and every year since then it’s grown in terms of the level of depth and detail we’re able to provide. Now we not only provide extensive reports and forecasts on players and teams before July 2, we also write up a scouting report on every player who signs for at least $100,000, which ends up being more than 200 reports in all, plus Dominican Summer League scouting reports, and now we have rankings and reports on players before they leave Cuba too. Back in 2008, I knew it would be a huge growth area for us, but I’m still blown away by just how popular it’s become and how much demand there is for information on these players, given that they’re mostly 16-year-old kids who are several years from being able to contribute at the major league level, if they get there at all. But July 2 is one of the biggest days of the year for us at Baseball America and continues to be a huge growth area for us, so I’m grateful for all the interest we’ve had from readers. It really does fuel us to improve what we’re already doing and to keep pushing the envelope into new territory that nobody else is covering yet.
I’m fortunate to work at Baseball America, where we already had a process and structure set up in place for our draft coverage, so I was able to borrow from our draft model to shape our international coverage. A lot of the same principles apply to covering the draft and covering international signings, but the international side presents a unique set of challenges. In the draft, you have three days the whole year where you’re picking players. Internationally, July 2 is the big day, but there is no draft, so teams have the ability to sign a player (or agree to sign a player) 365 days a year. That’s part of what draws a lot of good scouts to the international side, that freedom and potential to sign a future big leaguer every day of the year. One of the obvious big differences between the draft and the international side is that in the draft, you’re looking mostly at 18-year-old high school seniors and 21-year-old college juniors, whereas internationally you’re projecting 16-year-old kids. There’s a lot more long-range projection involved and the success rate is going to be lower as a result. And in the draft, you’re seeing those players in organized games, often over multiple years when you’re talking about college juniors, including summer leagues like the Cape, and all sorts of showcases and travel teams. In Latin America, you might get a key international tournament, some games in trainer-organized leagues like the Dominican Prospect League or the International Prospect League, and while those are getting more prevalent, as a scout you don’t get to build nearly the same level of sample size or history that you do on players in the draft. Then there’s the corruption element that’s extremely prevalent throughout international scouting and has wide-ranging effects on the process.
There’s a lot more to it in terms of the differences between the draft and the international side, but without getting even more long-winded than I’ve probably already been, I think all of the challenges that come with international coverage make it like putting together a big puzzle. There are times when it drives me nuts, especially the corruption side, but that challenge of piecing together the puzzle is part of what I love about international scouting coverage.
The Braves' farm system has, understandably, gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of years. A good chunk of that has been due to drat picks and trades, but they appear to have been successful on the international market as well. How would you grade their performance in terms of signing international free agents over the last 2-3 years?
If you go back two years, that’s when the Braves overhauled the top people in their international operations, with Johnny Almaraz going to the Phillies to become their scouting director and the Braves bringing in Gordon Blakeley, Marc Russo and Mike Silvestri, all of whom are highly respected by their colleagues in the international scouting community. They’ve gone through two signing periods now, starting with their first July 2 in 2015, which so far looks very good. They spent most of their bonus pool money on three players: Christian Pache, Derian Cruz and Juan Morales. Pache and Cruz both had strong debuts and ranked on our Top 20 lists both in the Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League. Pache in particular was impressive on both sides of the ball. He’s a strong defender at a premium position and has excellent hand-eye coordination to hit. If you put him in the draft, I think there’s a good chance he goes near the end of the first round. So it’s early, but the early returns are encouraging.
Then, well, obviously they blew out their pool this year. They got Kevin Maitan, and Maitan alone has the impact potential where he could end up providing enough value to pay for the whole class. Any time you have a team spend like the Braves or Padres did this year or the Yankees did a couple years back, you’re going to have guys who other teams thought they overpaid, but that’s par for the course with international signings. And in a year where you’re going that far over your pool, teams don’t want to miss out on a guy they like over a few hundred thousand dollars. In the end, they came away with seven players on our Top 50 international prospects list, including four of the top 20, two of the top 10 and the strong consensus No. 1 overall talent. That’s a lot of talent to add to the lower levels of your system.
Have you noticed any tendencies that the Braves seem to have in terms of what kinds of players they seem to like to pursue on the free agent market?
Athleticism definitely stands out as a common denominator in a lot of their signings. That hardly makes them unique, but Cruz and Pache were two of the best athletes in their class. This year’s class had a more diverse feel, which is probably in part due to them simply having so much money to spend. From a development standpoint, the other tendency the Braves have is to push their top Latin American signings. Some teams have a blanket policy of starting all their Latin American signings in the Dominican Summer League to get them acclimated there, but the Braves like to hit the accelerator on their guys and get them to the Gulf Coast League as soon as possible to have them face better competition, even if they’re still 17.
The big name for many folks this J2 season was Kevin Maitan and you have written extensively on him. Have you heard anything else recently about Kevin and just how excited should Braves' fans get that he is in the fold?
He’s a special talent. I’ve been covering international signings for the last nine years. The only position player for July 2 who I’ve ever covered who earned as much praise as Maitan was Miguel Sano in 2009. That was the last time we ranked a July 2 signing with no pro experience in our Top 100, but Maitan has the type of exceptional talent to be the next one. He’s 16, so there’s still a long ways to go and a ton of risk. Over the next few years, at some point, I guarantee you there will be a time—maybe multiple times—where people will say, come on, why isn’t Maitan up yet? Because prospect fatigue is real, and when you’re hearing about players from the time they’re 16, impatience is going to set in. We ranked Gary Sanchez in the Yankees’ Top 10 the year after he signed as a 16-year-old, and we’ve had him in their Top 10 the last seven years. He’s been in the Top 100 five times and he’s had a lot of ups and downs along the way. He’s just now taking the league by storm, but he’s still 23. So expect some prospect fatigue to take place along the way with Maitan, don’t expect him to be in the major leagues when he’s 19, but yeah, this is one of the best 16-year-old international prospects I’ve ever covered, and the veteran scouts I’ve talked to said the last time they saw a position player this good his age coming out of Venezuela was back in 1999 when Miguel Cabrera signed with the Marlins.
Lets talk a bit about Ronald Acuna. We here at Talking Chop have loved him for a while now, but unfortunately an injury kept him from playing much this season. What was the scouting report on him before he signed and has that perception changed?
He’s a good one. I ranked him as the No. 11 prospect in a stacked Gulf Coast League last year when he made his pro debut because I really liked the well-rounded skill set he brought to the table. It’s not a bunch of 60s and 70s on the card, but he’s a good athlete who does a lot of things well with no glaring weaknesses, a good combination of tools and skills. Those tools were all there before he signed, but what was either undervalued at the time or developed later on was his contact frequency and ability to hit in games. He signed for $100,000, which isn’t a small bonus but certainly is great value, so credit to Johnny Almaraz and his Venezuelan scouting staff for recognizing Acuna’s ability. Probably the biggest change since he signed and even since last year is that his raw power has increased. That’s normal for kids to start eating better, get stronger and see their power grow from the time they’re 16, but it doesn’t always happen, so it’s good to see the ball starting to jump off his bat with greater force now.
Who are a couple of international signees for the Braves from the last year or two that could be real impact players but are not getting a lot of fanfare?
The 2015 class was primarily Pache, Cruz and Morales. I’m sure everyone’s heard about Pache and Cruz to this point. Whenever someone asks me about their 2016 signings, I always get asked about Maitan. Then I usually get asked about Abrahan Gutierrez, mostly because of his signing bonus, although the Braves were certainly going against the industry consensus in terms of his price tag. Then Yunior Severino is another guy who stands out because we ranked him as the No. 8 international prospect for July 2 this year. One player whose name doesn’t come up as often is Livan Soto, the Venezuelan shortstop they signed this year who we ranked as the No. 16 international prospect for July 2. He just turned 16 in June, and he still looks like he’s 14. He’s a kid who definitely will need to get stronger, but he’s a smooth, instinctive shortstop and a smart player all-around with a simple hitting approach, a good understanding of the strike zone and good contact skills from the left side of the plate. He gets overshadowed by some of the other kids the Braves signed, but he’s a talented player in his own right.
Speaking generally, have you noticed any changes in terms how many of these young pitchers, in particular in Latin America and the Caribbean, are being coached or developed over the last several years. We have seen a rise in power pitching and emphasizing pure "stuff" at the major league level versus say pitchability....is that similar to what you are seeing many of these young players being pushed towards?
It depends. It depends on the country the player is from and it depends on who’s coaching him. Pitchers in Mexico tend to have excellent feel for pitching for their age because they grow up playing in a lot of games and continue to be trained in game environments as they prepare to sign. That’s not the case in the Dominican Republic. Every player is different, but that same game culture doesn’t exist in the Dominican Republic at the youth level, and it tends to show in the feel for pitching and sometimes even just the ability to throw the fastball for strikes when you’re scouting pitchers there.
I do think there’s an emphasis—more so from the trainers than the scouts themselves—on developing velocity and trying to get kids to throw as hard as possible at the expense of learning how to pitch or caring where the ball is going. Steroids have long been a part of baseball and they’re extremely prevalent among Latin American amateur signings from trainers who want their players to throw harder and help their athleticism to try to make them more attractive to major league teams. But at 16, even the hardest throwers are mostly topping out in the low-90s, so the scouts I talk to are mostly looking for good deliveries, arm action, arm speed, ability to spin a breaking ball and physical projection to throw harder down the road rather than present velocity, despite the emphasis on that from a lot of the folks who are training the players.
The Braves spent HUGE in this J2 period, which was clearly a strategic decision by the Braves given the state of the collective bargaining agreement and the likelihood that the current pool system will be done away with at least partially. What changes in the CBA would you like to see made in terms of the IFA/J2 market and what changes do you see as the most likely to happen?
The purpose of the bonus pools is so that owners can limit the amount of money they spend on international players, which means the owners get to keep more of their money. MLB will always spin it as competitive balance, but it’s about owners keeping more of their money. To a certain degree, the bonus pools are doing that, but it’s obvious that the pools are not entirely achieving their objective because teams from the Dodgers to the Rays aren’t afraid to exceed their bonus pools. One of the problems if you have people in the commissioner’s office making rules who are smart people but don’t understand the realities of signing players in Latin America. They don’t realize the plans they come up with might sound good in theory but in reality are often detached from reality, which is obvious in the CBA. They set up a series of penalties for exceeding your bonus pool in the draft, and to their credit, those penalties generally work.
Teams don’t exceed their draft bonus pools, at least not to the extent where it would trigger the loss of future draft picks. They set up what they believed were parallel penalties for the international side, but teams quickly realized, hey, so what if we can’t sign anyone for more than $300,000 for two years? There’s still a ton of talent we can get at that price, and some of the best prospects in our system were signed for $300,000 or less. So you have like half the league exceeding their international bonus pool at one or another—or multiple times, in some cases—because the people who created the rules are out of touch with the realities of signing Latin American players. In the next CBA, I would have to think they will try to put a system in place where either you can’t exceed your bonus pool or where the penalties are so draconian that nobody will go over their pool, assuming they stick with the bonus pool system instead of a draft.
What I would do is get rid of the tiered pools. Why should the Twins get rewarded for being terrible by getting the top pick and the most bonus pool money in the draft in addition to the top international bonus pool? If you want competitive balance and insist on having the bonus pool system to keep costs down, give every team the same amount of bonus pool money. Let scouts compete on an even playing field that way to sign the players they want. In the first year of the bonus pools, every team had $2.9 million. That was a better system than what they have now.
I would also raise the bonus pools significantly. I don’t know what the exact optimal number would be, but I would rather see every team get a $10 million pool instead of the system they have now. If you give every team a $10 million pool, scouts would be happy to have an even playing field. Teams wouldn’t be forced to spend their full bonus pool, but it’s an amount where every team in baseball can afford to spend that type of money if they wanted. The players would be happy too because you won’t have teams handcuffed into a $2 million pool or multi-year limits where teams can’t sign anyone for more than $300,000.
Switching gears a little bit here to Shohei Otani. He is obviously a fascinating player with real potential both at the plate and on the mound. When is the earliest we could see him posted and do you think any club would give him a shot as a 2-way player?
I hope so. I’ve been following him since he was in high school, and he just keeps getting better and better, both as a pitcher and as a hitter. In some ways, I’m glad he stayed in Japan because the Fighters are letting him develop as a two-way player when I think very few MLB teams would give a player an honest chance to be a two-way guy. I understand why they won’t, but since I don’t work for a team and I just get to enjoy watching him play, I’m rooting for him to continue being a two-way player. At the very least, I’m hoping he eventually signs with an NL team, because he’s the best pitching prospect on the planet and it would be fun to watch what he could do even in his at-bats as a pitcher. But I do still think that’s a few years away. I get the sense that the casual fan thinks he can just come over any time he wants, but he’s under team control to the Fighters. More likely, he’s going to spend a little more time in Japan, then come over around the time he’s 25 or so like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka did before him.
The next IFA period, assuming the July 2nd date still means anything after the CBA is negotiated, starts in 9 months or so...are there any standout names that baseball fans should get to know?
It’s tough. The 2017 kids are still 15 years old, and I have a hard enough time as it is writing about kids who are still 16. So I’m going to wait a little bit longer to write about the 2017 class. But I do like to give credit when players get the job done on the field in games, especially on the international tournament stage, so I’ve got to shout out Eric Pardinho, a righthander from Brazil. In July, in front of a ton of high-level scouts at a 16U tournament in Panama, he pitched against a team full of supposed top 2017 Dominican prospects and blew them away with 14 strikeouts and one walk in six innings with a fastball in the low-90s. Then he went and pitched in Brooklyn in September at the World Baseball Classic qualifier. He’s definitely going to be one to watch next year.