On Thursday, the St. Louis Cardinals added five international prospects to their organization. The biggest name is right-handed pitcher Alvaro Seijas, ranked by MLB.com as the 11th best international prospect for this signing period. Seijas signed for $762,500.
In order to more properly understand these signings, we first have to look at the rules governing how international signings work. Just like the First-Year Player Draft, there are restrictions on how much money each team can spend and penalties assessed to teams that violate those rules.
What are International Prospects?
International prospects who turn 17 by the end of the signing period are able to begin signing with teams from July 2nd to June 15th of the following year. They are defined as residing outside the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Furthermore, an international prospect cannot have attended a school or university in the U.S., Canada, or Puerto Rico within the previous year. These now also include Cuban players who have not reached the age of 23 and completed at least five years in a Cuban professional league.
How Much Can Teams Spend?
The simplest way to think of the spending pools is to imagine the international signing period structured like a draft. Each team is assigned $700,000 to start. Then, based on reverse order of standings from the previous season, the teams are put into four “rounds” with signing bonuses attached to each “pick.” These total up to a team’s full bonus pool.
For example, in the First-Year Player Draft, the Cardinals had a total bonus pool of $7,387,600 based on their pick in each round, their competitive balance lottery pick, and their compensation pick with their first pick having a slot value of $2,124,400. On the international side of things, the Cardinals received a total pool of $2,038,200 with their first “pick” being slotted at $553,200.
One of the wrinkles in the system is that teams can trade their “picks” and the slot value attached to them. In fact, the Cardinals did this in 2013 when they received a bonus slot from the Colorado Rockies valued at $206,000 in exchange for Mitchell Boggs. This allows teams to trade current talent for more flexibility in signing international prospects.
Just like the First-Year Player Draft, there are penalties for exceeding the assigned pool. If a team exceeds their bonus pool up to 5 percent, they must pay a 100-percent tax on the overage to MLB. Exceeding 5 percent but not 10 percent will cost a team the 100-percent tax as well as not being able to sign a player to a bonus of more than $500,000 during the next signing period. If a team exceeds their pool by more than 10 percent but not more than 15 percent, they face the 100-percent tax and cannot sign a player for more than $300,000 during the next signing period. The most severe penalty is for exceeding the bonus pool by more than 15 percent: a team must pay the 100-percent tax on the overage and cannot sign a player for more than $300,000 during the next two signing periods.
Who Did the Cardinals Sign?
As mentioned, the Cardinals locked up five players on the opening day of the signing period. As information on these players is scarce, we’ll briefly look at the two big signings of the day.
RHP Alvaro Seijas, Venezuela
Seijas was ranked by MLB Pipeline as the 11th best international prospect and the second best available pitcher behind only the 19-year-old Cuban, Yadier Alvarez. The most attractive aspect of Seijas’s game right now is his fastball. He sits 88-92 mph and has touched 94. His curveball and changeup both show promise as future above-average offerings, but they are expectedly rough at this stage of his development. The 16-year-old has decent size for a pitcher at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, and he has a good feel for pitching and strong makeup on the mound. He trained under the tutelage of former big leaguer Carlos Guillen.
SS Raffy Ozuna, Dominican Republic
Ozuna is a switch-hitting shortstop listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds. He showcases a plus arm and is exceptionally athletic with plus speed. His speed and athleticism should bode well in his chances of sticking at shortstop. The 16-year-old is the son of former Los Angeles Dodgers’ prospect and current Dodgers’ minor league coach, Rafael Ozuna.
All five new Cardinals will begin their careers in the 2015 Dominican Summer League.
Editor's update: Pirela signed for $20,000, De Jesus for $60,000 and Trompiz for $100,000, according to reporter Antonio Puesan.
Why Didn’t the Cardinals Spend Big?
As mentioned, each team has an assigned bonus pool. However, some teams blow past these pools in order to sign multiple big-name prospects. For example, the New York Yankees dropped $12 million during the last signing period, nearly $10 million over their bonus pool. Already this year, the Dodgers have spent $20.6 million on three of the MLB Pipeline top 30 prospects, and they remain in the running for the top prospect, Cuban outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez.
The Cardinals certainly could have jumped into the fray and ignored their bonus pool to spend big money. However, as previously mentioned, this would have cost the Cardinals significantly. On top of the tax they would have had to pay, they would have been unable to compete for big time prospects in the next two signing periods if they exceeded 15 percent. In fact, 2016 could be a banner year for international prospects, and the Cardinals could actually be one of the more active teams during that signing period.
Currently, there are a total of 13 teams that will be unable to sign anyone during the 2015-16 international signing period to more than a $300,000 bonus. The teams that are still penalized from the 2014-15 signing period are the Yankees, Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, and Boston Red Sox. Teams that will be penalized based on their spending this year include the Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, and Chicago Cubs.
Because of this, Ben Badler of Baseball America believes that many teams could budget $10 million to $15 million and come away with nearly half of their top 20 international targets a year from now.
Speaking of targets, there are some rather exceptional players hitting the market next July. This includes a potentially large haul of Cuban players who could be available. Right-handed pitcher Ronald Bolanos is the top pitcher; he throws 88-93 mph with an above-average slider in the low-80s. Lefty Cionel Perez touches 95 with his fastball and throws a low-80s slider, but he needs better command.
Three Cuban outfielders could leave the island and become eligible: Julio Pablo Martinez, Jorge Ona, and Luis Robert. Martinez makes good contact and plays an above-average center field with a strong arm. Ona is a big-bodied player who could become an offensive force. Robert looks to have an above-average bat with plus speed and a plus arm in a corner spot.
The most prized prospect, though, comes out of Venezuela. Switch-hitting shortstop Kevin Maitan is being touted as the best international prospect since Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins. Maitan is already receiving comparisons to Juan Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera. Maitan is dripping with raw power and is smooth in the field, although he’ll probably have to move off shortstop as his body matures.
Obviously, these teens are light years away from the majors, but St. Louis appears to have added a strong international class to its cupboard. The Cardinals signed one of the biggest names in international free agency and retained enough flexibility to be a force in what could be a bumper crop during the next international signing period.
Follow Scott Schook on Twitter @scottschook.
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