I recently had an email exchange with Ben Badler, who writes about the minors and international prospects for Baseball America. I focused my questions towards the Orioles’ international efforts as this is one of the most heavily debated topics among O’s fans and an area the Orioles need to improve significantly. Ben provided some excellent insight on the Orioles’ overall international presence, the hesitation with foreign ballplayers, and more.
Jordan Tuwiner: To start off, can you summarize the Orioles’ international efforts? Have they improved in this area over the past few years? If not, are they at least looking to further improve?
Ben Badler: The Orioles have not emphasized the international market in recent years, which is why they have developed so few international players and have only a handful of international prospects in their farm system. They seem to be trying to make inroads internationally, but they’re still among the bottom 20 percent of teams when it comes to international spending.
JT: There’s obviously greater risk when signing international players, especially when most are 16-19 years old. Because the bust rate is so high, would you say it’s better to sign a few big dollar international prospects, or sign a bunch of low cost guys and hope a few pan out?
BB: Both, which is what almost every team that has had success signing and develop international players has done. Teams like the Mariners, Yankees and Mets have signed players at the top of the market like Felix Hernandez, Shin-Soo Choo, Jesus Montero, Jose Tabata and Wilmer Flores, but they’re also finding lower-cost talent like Michael Pineda and Jenrry Mejia to bolster the system. There’s no reason it has to be one or the other.
JT: Does the concern over actual age and use of steroids with Latin American prospects vary from team to team? Do you feel this is primarily what’s holding the O’s back from a greater international presence? If not, what is?
BB: It varies, but it’s a concern for all 30 teams. Steroid testing players before July 2 has helped, but it’s still a factor. Trainers have gotten away with it in the past, some of them got away with it last year even, and so I don’t see why it would go away all together this year either. The age is the big one, though, and it gives MLB and all 30 teams a headache in this market. Some teams refuse to sign a player if he’s been caught lying about his age or identity, others don’t care, and some teams see players who are 18 or older as an inefficient market for talent that they can use to their advantage. I’m sure part of the Orioles’ hesitancy to get more involved in the international market is not wanting to give a huge bonus to a player who’s not the age he claims to be. It’s happened to every team, but with bonuses for the supposed top players escalating to upwards of $1 million, now it’s becoming a major risk.
JT: You rarely see teams like the Rockies signing big name international prospects, but prospects like Wilin Rosario, Jhoulys Chacin and Esmil Rogers seem to pop up frequently for them. Is this just pure luck? Or do the Rockies just stockpile on international guys, which leaves room for more success?
BB: It’s skill, both in scouting and player development. The Rockies have done a remarkable job signing and developing Latin American arms over the last decade and have done so at reasonable cost. Ubaldo Jimenez, Chacin, Rogers, Franklin Morales, and now guys like Juan Nicasio coming up–it’s incredible what they’ve been able to do. They have extremely skilled evaluators who are able to identify legitimate prospects, regardless of how high-profile the player is or what kind of bonus the player’s agent or trainer is looking for.
JT: MacPhail has gone on record as very gunshy regarding the whole international scouting process. What do the “workouts” consist of for Dominican players who showcase for ML scouts? Do scouts get to see any simulated game action? What kind of drills are there? Are other teams skeptical of the process as well?
BB: It varies based on the teams, the trainers and the agents involved, and of course the country. You don’t see players against the same level of competition that you would for a Division 1 prospect like Anthony Rendon or Pedro Alvarez, but you can see them in games and bring them into your academy. What teams do with players they bring into their academy depends on the organization, but if you have a hitter, you can run him through a bunch of simulated game situations and see a lot of at-bats from him in a given day that you wouldn’t get the opportunity to do with a college or a high school prospect eligible for the draft. There are also various agent- and trainer-run leagues that have popped up in the Dominican Republic over the last year or two that play games once or twice a week, so scouts have a chance to see top players in those situations as well. There are still some agents and trainers who are more gunshy of letting teams see their players much outside of BP, the 60 and throwing from the outfield or taking infield, but the international scouts I’ve talked to who have been doing for for a long time say they’re seeing players in game situations now more than ever in the past.
JT: Some believe the Orioles’ spending on free agents like Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and Kevin Gregg takes away from their amateur talent budget. Do teams set aside money each off-season and designate it for certain areas? What do you have to say to fans who say ‘the $4.5 million the O’s spent on Garret Atkins could have easily been used to sign Miguel Sano’?
BB: Again, it varies by team how they organize their budgets. Some teams break international spending and draft spending into two distinct categories, others have one pool of amateur bonus money. But look, in the end, the money’s all coming from one source — ownership. If they wanted to take the $4.5 million they spent on Garret Atkins and used that to pay for a top international prospect like Miguel Sano, ownership certainly has that ability.
JT: O’s fans are well aware of shortstop Jonathan Schoop, as he’s put himself among the system’s top prospects. But few know much about the recently signed Hector Veloz or Eduardo Rodriguez, who spent 2010 in the DSL and put up some solid numbers. Can you provide some a brief scouting report and some background information on those two?
BB: Veloz was their top international signing from 2010. He’s a power bat with solid defensive tools, but he already tested positive for steroids before signing. I’m not making a moral judgment about a player using steroids or a team choosing to sign a player who has tested positive, but from a practical standpoint, I’d be very wary about signing a steroid guy. The tools he’s showing–especially power, which is Veloz’s strength–aren’t guaranteed to be the same when he’s off steroids, which is a lesson some international scouts have told me they’ve learned first-hand. Then you have the long-term ramifications of what happens when you give a 16-year-old kid anabolic steroids, which, again, not from a moral standpoint but a practical one of needing this player to perform for the major league team six to 12 years down the road, are a risk I wouldn’t be comfortable taking. Regardless, he’ll probably start in the Dominican Summer League. Rodriguez was a nice sign out of Venezuela last year. He’ll get it up to 90 mph with good movement and mixes in a changeup with some potential and he has good feel to pitch for his age. I’d expect him to come to the GCL this summer.
Check back tomorrow for an interview with Baseball America’s Jim Callis.