Earlier this month, we gave an update on the amount of money the Pittsburgh Pirates had remaining in their 2017-18 international bonus pool and what that could mean for them. That total came about due to Japanese superstar Shohei Otani entering the international free agent market and the Pirates having one of the highest bonus pools remaining. There is another reason to look at that bonus pool now after the Atlanta Braves had to give up 12 of their recent international signings.
I’ll start with Otani because he is the bigger prize, but I still don’t think the Pirates have a shot at signing him. My bet would be on him going to an AL team so he can continue to be a two-way player, serving as the DH when he isn’t starting. He is going to make a lot of money in the future, so it’s highly unlikely that bonus money is going to be the determining factor, especially when we are talking about such a small amount in baseball terms. If he was concerned with money short-term, then a better market for endorsements would be his choice. MLB has said that they will crackdown on any team luring him with promises of future money in his salary as a way to circumvent their remaining bonus pool.
Otani hasn’t ruled out any team, so if you want to ignore all of those reasons I just gave, then you can check out this article about the questionnaire he reportedly sent to all 30 teams to give each club a chance to give a sales pitch on why they are a good fit. I think the Pirates should at least give it the old college try for Otani, but I don’t expect them to be able to convince him that an NL team in a small market is his best fit. On the flip side, I don’t see any NL Central team as a good fit either since he wants to hit and he’s a DH. Otani could be posted as early as this Friday, as long as the new posting system is approved by the 30 MLB clubs.
The Pirates might be better served at this point in contacting the Seattle Mariners and see what they will give up for some international bonus pool money. The Mariners plan to go all in on Otani, to the point that they are willing to use aging star Nelson Cruz in the outfield three days a week. For reference, Cruz turned 37 on July 1st, played five games in the outfield in 2017 and has been a below average outfielder every season since 2006.
The Mariners recently traded a hard-throwing pitching prospect to the Chicago White Sox for bonus pool money, so the Pirates could possibly get something nice in return for a chunk of their remaining bonus pool. The Pirates have $2,226,750 left in their pool and they haven’t signed any international players since that article linked in the intro was posted. If the Mariners are desperate to pick up more money, then the Pirates should be thinking realistically about their chances of getting Otani and see what they can get in return for bonus pool money.
That brings me to the second part of this article, which is the news about the 12 prospects that the Atlanta Braves lost. You would think that having a large remaining bonus pool would help the Pirates in that area, but that’s not true. Jonathan Mayo outlined the rules for signing these 12 players and they don’t favor the Pirates.
The 12 prospects lost by the Braves will be available to sign on December 5th and you should expect all of them to agree on a deal by January 15th. After that latter date, the player is ineligible to receive a signing bonus from any club, which basically means all they would get is your standard minor league contract.
The part of the rules that hurts the Pirates is that clubs are allowed to use money from their 2018-19 bonus pool. The Pirates had the highest international bonus pool in 2017-18, but they won’t during the next signing period. Teams either get the highest international pool ($5.75 M) and a comp round B draft pick in the amateur draft, or they receive a comp round A pick in the draft and a $5.25 M international bonus pool. The Pirates recently received the highest comp round A pick, so that gives them the smaller bonus pool total.
What that means is that almost all 30 teams are in competition for these 12 players. The only advantage the Pirates have over 12 teams this year is that those clubs are in the penalty for going over their bonus pool in 2016 and can’t sign any players for over $300,000. Mayo notes that since clubs can use their 2018-19 bonus, part of that advantage has been taken away from the Pirates. Four of those 12 clubs in the penalty this year are only in penalty for 2017-18, so they can all compete for these players using their 2018-19 pool. That leaves eight clubs that can’t go over $300,000 for any of these players, plus the Braves can’t re-sign any of them before May 1st. The Pirates also can’t combine money from both pools to put in a higher offer.
Allowing teams to use 2018-19 bonus pool money makes sense for the players. If all 12 of the players looked for deals with the remaining 2017-18 pool money, then they have limited options and would likely have to settle for a smaller deal.
Baseball America recently gave updated scouting reports on the eight best players lost by the Braves (subscription required). There seems to be five top prizes who have solid prospect potential, a catcher who is raw and might not hit, two players who seem very raw and had poor pro debuts, then four players that they didn’t feel were worth mentioning. The top prospect is 17-year-old shortstop Kevin Maitan, who originally signed for $4,250,000, but his prospect status has taken a hit since scouts got to see more of him this year. I would assume that some of the lower profile players will sign for $300,000 or less, so 29 teams can compete for them (everyone except the Braves).
The Pirates likely have some of their 2018-19 bonus pool set aside for a handful of players, just because that’s how international signings work. Teams agree to deals well in advance of July 2nd, which is when they can officially sign those players. The Pirates haven’t been linked to any of the top names yet for next year, so there should still be a large amount of bonus pool money open for these Atlanta players.
The good part of all of this news for the Pirates is that they can pursue a trade for their remaining 2017-18 bonus pool money and still compete for these 12 new free agents. If the Mariners or another team like the Yankees are willing to give up something nice for added bonus pool money in their pursuit of Otani, then the Pirates could end up with a strong prospect.
The Pirates could still choose to make an attempt at Otani, as unlikely as it seems he would sign with them. The fallback of pursuing him is that they could still use that money for the 12 new Atlanta free agents if he doesn’t sign, but once Otani picks a team, the trade value of international bonus pool money will take a huge hit.
There are also some remaining top 2017-18 international prospects who haven’t signed yet. That is another avenue that the Pirates could take, but it appears that the best plan for attack would be looking to trade 2017-18 remaining bonus pool money while it’s at peak value. That could land them a top prospect with much less risk than a young international player, while also allowing them to go after one or more of the better players from the Braves.