A perfect storm of circumstances has moved into baseball on the international free agent front.
The most notable is that 23-year old Japanese superstar, Shohei Ohtani, has decided to forgo the chance for a $200M+ contract if he stayed in Japan for 2 more years and will instead be posted this offseason. That means as an international player less than 25 years old, he is subject to the international pools of money available to teams.
As a potential #1/#2 level pitcher that can also potentially either DH (more likely) or play in the outfield on his off days from pitching, he is anticipated to be the finest Japanese import since Ichiro. But with bonus pools for only six teams more than $1M, and a plethora of teams unable to sign any international free agents for more than $300K (as a result of exceeding their pools in one of the two previous years), he’s not going to initially make bank. There’s a whole other discussion about when the signing team can ethically offer him a massive contract extension, but that’s a topic for another day. The short answer is that Ohtani is a potential game-changer and every team (except for one, to be discussed in the next paragraph) would move heaven and earth to get him.
The second major development is the Sword of Damocles that was dropped on the Atlanta Braves organization. To summarize it briefly, GM John Coppolella did a wide variety of shady activities on the international front to such a degree that MLB banned him FOR LIFE from working in baseball. Considering that he’s only 38 and has been in baseball most of his adult working life, that’s a big deal for a GM that was viewed as a rising star when he was promoted in 2015.
There’s a great summary on what happened in detail by Jonathan Mayo in this article and what the ramifications are, but the short answer is that the Braves and new GM Alex Anthopoulous are not going to be able to infuse talent into the organization from international veins for a long time.
What it means in the present is that a whole raft of 12 über-prospects signed in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods are now free agents to sign with any team. The headliner of this group is SS Kevin Maitan, who signed for $4.25M with the Braves in 2016. As part of the agreement with MLB and the Braves, all of the prospects are able to keep their original signing bonuses, so that will make them appealing to all the other teams. Well, except for the Orioles, who actively disdain the international market and trade their international money for middling players every year. Baseball America’s Matt Eddy recently noted that the Orioles have made 8 trades of their international money since the July 2nd signing period opened this year; the other 29 teams have combined for 13 trades.
This all brings us to the crux of this article — never has there been this much freely available international talent available for the Pirates to scoop up at a discounted rate. As I see it, there are three paths the Pirates can take during this historic period, two of which they could use to take advantage of the situation to better themselves greatly.
PATH 1 — SIGN SOME OF THE GREAT INTERNATIONAL TALENT
As great as it would be to see Shohei Ohtani in a Pirates’ uniform, it’s simply not going to happen. Pittsburgh isn’t a prime destination for a Japanese player seeking a community to feel comfortable in. He’s either going to go to a New York team or a West Coast team so that he can be closer to Japan via flight.
But that doesn’t mean the Pirates can’t take advantage of the Braves’ downfall. In addition to Maitan, there’s a whole slew of position players and pitchers that are very highly regarded. And since they’ve already banked their money from the Braves, it’s not like they’re going to expect to sign for the exact same bonus amount with a second team. By my estimate, they’ll probably sign for about 50% of their original bonus amount with their new second team.
There’s a lot of arcane rules that teams can use to sign these players, as spelled out in the Mayo article, but the most interesting one is that the new signing team can push the player’s signing bonus into their 2018-19 period, if they so choose. As the team with the 4th highest amount of bonus money currently available to them ($2.2M), the Pirates can potentially scoop up a couple of high-impact prospects that previously may have either been out of their price range or not made available to them by pre-existing relationships with the Braves and the busçones that represented these players.
PATH 2 — TRADE THEIR INTERNATIONAL MONEY FOR PLAYERS
If the Pirates don’t want to sign any of the Braves’ ex-players or Ohtani, then they should take advantage of an overheated market for international bonus slots. There are plenty of teams that are lining up all their chances to make a run at Ohtani. The Seattle Mariners are quite blatant in their desire to add him, coming straight from GM Jerry Dipoto’s mouth.
The Mariners have already made two trades for slot money in an effort to aggregate enough to entice Ohtani to join them in Seattle. In the trade with the White Sox, the Mariners moved a very promising reliever that touches 100 mph regularly in the 25-year old Thyago Vieira in exchange for $500K of international money. Now, not every reliever that throws 100 works out (hi, Arquimedes Caminero!), but I’d rather see them take a shot than not.
The Pirates have a need in the bullpen for more power arms to bridge the gap to Felipe Rivero. In addition to maybe picking one up in free agency, if the Pirates could leverage a team’s desire to add international talent by getting an MLB-ready arm for cheap slot money, then they should do it.
PATH 3 — STAY THE COURSE
If you haven’t deduced by now, this is the path that I feel would be the worst outcome. If the Pirates choose to conduct business as usual and use their large pool of international money to sign ‘quantity over quality’, then they’re letting a historic opportunity pass them by. It would be like not buying Amazon stock a couple years ago when it was $300/share.
The Pirates have only dipped their toe in the deep end of the international market once, when they signed Luis Heredia for $2.6M in 2010. But keep in mind that 75% of that went to his Mexican club, as a quasi posting fee, and he only received $650K. The only other Pirate bonus to top $1M went to Harold Ramirez ($1.05M) in 2011.
Gazing around the Pirates’ thinning farm system, you don’t see much of the erstwhile Rene Gayo’s handiwork present on the upper level charts. There are no Starling Martes or Gregory Polancos floating around Altoona or Indy, waiting to break through and be potential impact players. Sure, there are some names like Dario Agrazal and Luis Escobar, both recently added to the 40-man roster, but neither are true high-end impact prospects.
The Pirates have never been bold enough to sign an Eloy Jiminez or Nomar Mazara type of player. Staying the course of safe prospects that typically cost less than $100,000 to sign has not produced a steady stream of talent. I’d rather take a chance on one piece of gold than sift through 10 tons of ore trying to find one, which is what the Pirates do.