Near the end of the Orioles’ video conference call with Mike Elias and Koby Perez, a question about the lack of pitchers signed among the team’s 17-player international signing class drew an illuminating response from Elias, the Orioles’ GM.
“Part of that was just random,” Elias said, “and the other part of it was these players are so young, and pitchers have a much stronger tendency to evolve late in life. Teams, overall, I think, are less oriented to signing 16-year-old pitchers on the signing date whereas the premium positional talent, it’s a much more stable evaluation when you’re watching them when they’re 13, 14, 15 years old, and even those guys change a lot, too.
“For pitchers, velocity is such a huge part of it, and you don’t get that part of the picture, often until they’re 17 or 18, so it just leads to a lot of later, older pitcher signings in the Dominican in particular.”
The players signed were 16 or 17 except for 19-year-old Venezuelan outfielder Gabriel Salazar. The two pitchers who did sign were Dominican left-handers — 16-year-old Deivy Cruz and 17-year-old Elvis Polanco.
Elias’ honesty about the reality of the Orioles and other major league teams scouting players as young as 13 provoked skepticism from some readers.
The business of dealing with buscones, the trainer/agents for many young Dominican players, is the reason the Orioles, under managing partner Peter Angelos, avoided the market.
Under Angelos, the Orioles did sign players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but they were fringe prospects signed for mostly minimal money.
International signing bonus money was often traded, and one such trade turned out well for the Orioles when they acquired left-hander Paul Fry from the Seattle Mariners for cash.
While the majority of the $5,899,600 of the signing pool allocated to the Orioles has been used to sign players, additional players who sign for $10,000 or less aren’t counted against the pool. Teams cannot trade remaining money from this year’s signing period, which runs through December 15th.
With Angelos’s sons, John and Louis, now in charge of the team because of their father’s declining health, there’s been a change in philosophy. Perez, the Orioles’ senior director of international scouting, has been aggressive in implementing the new direction.
While it might seem unseemly to fans for the Orioles to scout young teenagers, it’s a reality that’s long existed in Latin America. Baseball is king in the Dominican, and teams can’t afford to ignore this motherlode of talent.
Unlike in the United States, where talented young athletes participate in a number of sports, that’s not the case in the Dominican.
Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter was curious about young players from the U.S. He thought that if they played baseball and no other sport, they could be more susceptible to injury because of overuse of the same muscles. In the Dominican, it’s rare to find a multi-sport athlete.
Perez has often compared the preparation for a signing class to recruiting college athletes.
If the Orioles want to join other top teams in recruiting Dominican players, they must compete in the market much like teams in college basketball that want to keep up with Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina. College basketball teams navigate the muddy waters of young amateur and travel teams.
In the Dominican Republic, it’s the same.
If you look at a list of the best players under 25, you’ll find Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña, Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers, New York Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres, Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis.
All are from either the Dominican or, in the case of Acuña and Torres, Venezuela.
You can’t write the story of contemporary baseball without players from Latin America.
Now that the Orioles have signed two classes of players, it should be easier to compete for the biggest names in the 2022 signing period.
For those concerned that the Orioles spent $1.3 million on 16-year-old catcher Samuel Basallo after they drafted Adley Rutschman, keep in mind that Rutschman’s bonus of $8.1 million is more than six times as large.
The bonuses paid to Basallo and 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernández ($1.2 million) were large by Oriole standards by not by amateur ones.
The bonuses for Basallo and Hernández were what a late second-round pick in last June’s draft could have expected.
Basallo is 6 ½ years younger than Rutschman, who will turn 23 next month. Rutschman could make his major league debut later this year. Basallo is years away.
Major League Baseball has tried to curb spending and the role for handlers for teenaged players by proposing an International Draft. The Players Association has opposed one but perhaps in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement will include one.
The recently signed players probably will play on one of the two Orioles’ Dominican Summer League teams this year. The advanced ones could move stateside to play in the Gulf Coast League in a year or two.
Orioles re-sign Eshelman: Thomas Eshelman, who was released by the Orioles on December 3rd, has re-signed as a minor league free agent.
Eshelman and Travis Lakins each had three wins in 2020, which tied for the team lead. Eshelman was 3-1 with a 3.89 ERA in 12 games, four starts.
His versatility makes him valuable, and it’s a good bet he’ll see some action with the team in 2021.