For the past several years, the Oakland A's have been minor players in the international free agent market. However, the A's made a big splash on the international amateur free agent market this July 2, signing five of the more high-profile prospects available.
The A's came into the international free agent signing period with the fourth-highest allowed bonus pool at just over $3.8 million. The A's blew past that bonus pool amount on Saturday, inking five players to a combined $6.7 million. By exceeding their bonus pool, the A's will be paying a 100 percent tax on the amount they paid over their pool cap and they will be restricted from paying more than $300,000 for any amateur free agent in the next two July 2nd classes.
For the A's, the opportunity to sign these five prospects was well worth the penalties.
"It's safe to say that we have had a renewed emphasis on procuring as much talent as possible in the international market," Oakland A's Assistant General Manager for Pro Scouting and Personnel Dan Feinstein said on a conference call with A's media members. "We were more excited this morning when this came together. We were prepared to go over our pool for the right player and we felt that it was worth it for this level of talent. It was certainly advantageous that several teams were ostensibly restricted from signing the top available talent. We felt this was a unique opportunity for us."
Feinstein said that it was no coincidence that the A's decided to go over their pool amount this year.
"We really liked the kids that were available. We had done our homework and had scouted these guys aggressively, in some cases for two years," Feinstein said. "We thought this was going to be our best year to make this kind of a move based on the level of talent that became available."
The highlight of the A's 2016 July 2nd class is outfielder Lazaro Armenteros, better known as 'Lazarito'. The native of Cuba burst onto the scene a few years ago during the 15U World Cup in Mexico, starring for the Cuban National team. He left Cuba last year and went through a grueling journey to establish residency in Haiti and, later, the Dominican Republic. He was declared a free agent in February, but, because of his age, was considered part of the 'July 2nd' class, which limited the size of bonuses he could be offered (older international free agents, such as those from Japan or those who played professionally in Cuba, are not part of the 'July 2nd' signing class and their bonuses are not capped by the international bonus pool).
Armenteros reportedly signed a bonus worth $3 million, according to Baseball America's Ben Badler.
The 17-year-old Armenteros has been compared physically to former A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Feinstein, who said that Armenteros reminded him physically of a young Frank Thomas, called Armenteros "probably the most physically imposing young player that we have seen in quite awhile."
"We haven't seen this combination of size and strength for a player this young," Feinstein said. "As for his actual skill, he has offensive qualities that kind of abound. He has tremendous bat speed and a discernible eye at the plate. He has as much raw power as you will see. He also runs very well for his size. He has enough tools to make an impact at the major-league level."
Feinstein said the A's had been following Armenteros' progress closely since his turn in the 15U World Cup and that members of the organization had scouted him at every showcase he participated in and held several private workouts for Armenteros at the A's Dominican complex in La Victoria.
"We have had open communication and dialogue with his representatives. It was just fortunate that we were able to come to an agreement with him fairly quickly," Feinstein said.
While Armenteros may get most of the headlines from the A's 2016 signing class, Oakland is equally excited about the other four players they agreed to terms with on Saturday: shortstops Marcos Brito and Yerdel Vargas, outfielder Kevin Richards and corner infielder/outfielder George Bell.
Feinstein called the 16-year-old Vargas "a very polished all around player with an advanced bat for his age." He ranked 24th on Baseball America's international top-50 prospects list. According to Badler, Vargas received the second-highest bonus in the A's class: $1.5 million.
Brito, another 16-year-old shortstop, signed for a reported $1.1 million. He was ranked by many as the top defensive shortstop in this class. Brito ranked 13th on the Baseball America list.
"He can really play shortstop," Feinstein said. "He is a switch-hitter who has line-drive ability from both sides of the plate."
Richards is a 16-year-old outfielder who is expected to stick in centerfield. He signed for a reported $600,000.
"Richards is maybe the fastest player in this 2016 class," Feinstein said. "He's got bat speed, as well."
Bell is the son of former American League MVP George Bell, who was one of the most fearsome sluggers of the 1980s. The younger Bell also projects as a power hitter, according to Feinstein.
"George is already strong. He's already a large man," Feinstein said. "We project for him to hit for power on one of the corners. We were certainly intrigued and drawn to the bloodlines that he has, but he is an extremely projectable player."
Although the A's have listed Bell as a third baseman, Feinstein admits that he could end up at any of the corner infield or outfield spots ultimately. Feinstein said that the younger Bell has a strong throwing arm, much like his father.
Feinstein said that after the players have their physicals, they are likely to spend the rest of the summer at the A's complex in La Victoria, working on learning proper nutrition and immersing themselves in the A's cultural assimilation program. Many — if not all five — will come to the US this fall to participate in the A's fall Instructional League camp in Mesa, Arizona.
Feinstein credited Raymond Abreu, who oversees the A's scouting department in the Dominican Republic, and his staff for bringing in these five players.
"[Abreu and his staff] are tireless workers and they are the driving force behind these decisions," Feinstein said. "They know these kids better than anybody and this market and they have seen thousands of players this age that have gone on to succeed or fail, and there are things that they are looking for in players that will give them the best chance."
Feinstein said that the A's had plenty of members of their scouting department and front office see these players, including Feinstein himself, A's Vice President of Player Personnel Billy Owens, A's Special Assistant to the GM Chris Pittaro and former A's prospect and current scout Steve Sharpe, who has become the A's point person on all players on the market coming out of Cuba.