The Pirates' Dominican Academy, which opened in 2008.

July 2nd Preview: The Pirates’ Successful Approach in the International Market

Don’t expect the Pittsburgh Pirates to land any big names in the international market once the 2014-15 signing period begins tomorrow. That’s not to say that they won’t land any big talents.

The approach the Pirates have had in Latin America in previous years has been very successful, especially when it comes to finding cheap talent. There’s no greater evidence of this than with Gregory Polanco, who is currently in the majors and looks like a future star, but who was signed for $150,000 in 2009. In fact, Polanco wasn’t even a July 2nd signing. The July 2nd date is usually significant for 16-year-old players who are eligible to sign for the first time. Polanco had been eligible to sign for over a year when he finally signed with the Pirates. And his deal came in April 2009, which isn’t when you expect a lot of top talents to be signed.

Polanco isn’t the only example of the Pirates finding talent for cheap prices. Starling Marte was signed under Dave Littlefield, but the Latin American signings are largely the responsibility of Rene Gayo, who was with the Pirates under both management groups. Gayo signed Marte for $85,000.

Current top prospects who were signed for cheap include Alen Hanson ($90,000) and Joely Rodriguez ($55,000). Last year the Pirates traded Dilson Herrera as a big piece to get outfielder Marlon Byrd. Herrera cost $220,000. Even some of the players who the Pirates have spent money on have come at a value. Harold Ramirez cost $1.05 M, but might have ended up costing more if other teams saw what the Pirates saw when it came to his overall skill package. Those other teams are starting to see what the Pirates saw. Ramirez was named the top prospect in the NYPL last year by Baseball America, and currently has a 23-game hitting streak in West Virginia.

Every year on July 2nd, the focus is largely on the top 30 prospects. The difference between the top 30 prospects in the draft and the top 30 in the international market is that the international rankings are largely based on who will get the biggest bonuses. There are many problems with this approach. For one, it’s easier in Latin America to dig for diamonds in the rough. There isn’t much organized baseball down there, which means teams rely much more on scouts to unearth players that very few people have seen or know about.

There’s also the fact that these are 16-year-old kids we’re talking about. A $150,000 athletic outfielder might turn out to be better than a $1 M athletic outfielder in no time at all. The Pirates tend to draft athletic players who show the ability to hit, which might be why they’ve been so successful. This market seems to be a game of attrition. Your odds are probably going to be better in finding a stud if you sign five players for a total of $1 M than signing one player for that same amount.

The 2014 Market

Baseball America previewed their top 30 prospects, and offered predictions on where each player will end up signing. One thing that stands out with the predictions is that the Yankees plan to go all-in this year with the spending. They’re predicted to sign ten of the top 30 players, despite only having a bonus pool of a little more than $2 M. They’re most likely going to go well over that pool, incurring fines and restricting their ability to spend next year. If a team spends more than 15 percent of their bonus pool, they can’t sign a player for more than $250,000 the following year. The Cubs and Rangers are restricted in this way for the current signing period.

There are several things wrong with this current system. I’m not sure if the Yankees approach is one of them. Sure, they’re going to go crazy this year, but they’re going to be severely limited next year. And it’s not like this will guarantee them success. The Pirates are good in the international market because of their scouting, and because that scouting staff is big enough to cover a larger area than most teams. I don’t know the size of the Yankees international scouting staff, but I do know that there have always been teams who make up for a lack of scouting by throwing a lot of money at players.

The approach by the Yankees won’t really hurt the Pirates, since the Pirates are rarely in on top prospects. The bigger injustice here is that the Yankees have more money to spend than the Pirates, since the Pirates finished with a better record last year. That does hurt the Pirates. They became a winner in part because of their focus on the international scene. That’s going to play a bigger role going forward. Their budget used to be $3 M per year. This year they have $1,930,400 to spend, which is a cut of $1.1 M from what they would spend in the previous CBA.

The Pirates should still be able to sign good players, since they don’t have a need to spend a lot of money to find talent. Last year their biggest expense was $400,000 for shortstop Adrian Valerio. They also spent $375,000 on outfielder Jeremias Portorreal. I’d expect the same level of signings this year. John Dreker wrote an article yesterday, focusing on three names that have been connected to the Pirates. The biggest name seems to be Yondry Contreras, a center fielder with speed, a good arm, and a quick swing. That’s a typical combination for the Pirates.

The Pirates could sign a few guys tomorrow, but don’t expect any big splashes. It won’t be a surprise if they do get some talented players, but it might take a few years before we even see how that talent works out on the field in the US.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    What does the Pirates’ International scouting structure look like? It is just good scouts or is their a commitment from the organization to hire full time scouts compare to a lot of part time scouts used in the regional?

  • SteveW

    Great article. Two things I’d add:

    1. Rather than saying a team is punished “if they spend more than 15 percent of their bonus pool”, I think it is more accurate to say that a team is punished if their spending exceeds their bonus pool by more than 15 percent.

    2. It is probably worth mentioning that teams can sign an unlimited number of players for $10,000 (or less) apiece that do not count against their bonus pool. In the Dominican, it is possible that a good scout could find a player who develops into a true prospect for that tiny signing bonus.

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