International Intrigue for the Pittsburgh Pirates

If it feels like every season the league is captivated by another young International signing, it’s probably because it’s true. Ronald Acuna, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Eloy Jimenez, the league is filled with talent from outside our borders and those that play the game the right way can accelerate team building in huge leaps rather than the baby steps of yesteryear.

I’ve spent the majority of my professional life in marketing and one of our favorite sayings is that the marketing department is the most important and least recognized facet of most corporations. It’s the first thing to get cut in budget tightening exercises and the first to take blame when things don’t go well.

The international signing period each year is much the same. We notice the big hits, but when you’re signing 16-year-olds it can be hard to keep track of them as they work their way through a system, if they ever do.

Today, I’d like to dig into the International Signing Process a bit and talk about the Pirates past and future in this crucial area of talent acquisition.

The Lists

First of all, the lists are very flexible. You see them published every season and while the top 20-30 are a pretty safe bet to produce a decent player, they also fail often to account for the 5′ 11″, 16 year old pitcher who will fill out. That’s not to say these lists aren’t useful, but instead to point out, trusting the scouts on the ground is far more important than buying into the lists as undeniable truth.

For instance, on Day 1 of the period, then GM Neal Huntington pulled the trigger on 21 signings. The marquee name was probably Christopher Cruz, a 6′ 2″ Right-handed pitcher who right now has a fastball in the upper 80’s but has touched 92-94 in game action. He was 16 years old so he has room to grow and they project him to be able to get his fastball up into the upper 90’s. Sounds awesome right? Well sure, but someone like this doesn’t come cheap. The Pirates signed the young Dominican for $850,000 and that’s just about right for the number 20 guy in MLB Pipeline’s top 30 list.

Just last week, Cherington closed the deal on Po-Yu Chen out of Taiwan for $1.5 Million dollars. Fangraphs has him listed as the 22nd best international prospect available in the 2019-20 signing period. The 19-year old hurler will jump right in to development unlike Cruz who will still have to wait, but this is the culmination of 3 years of scouting and over 25 filed reports from the Pirates scout Fu Chun Chiang who really got close to Po-Yu and his family. In order to procure the slot money to get this deal done you have to look all the way back to the Jarrod Dyson deal with the White Sox and two under the radar deals with the Cardinals and Orioles that gave Ben the room to get this done.

There is a ton of maneuvering that has to take place to secure talent like this and you can’t just jump in the day before and win on these things.

The Rules

In a typical year, the signing period starts in early July and goes through mid-June the following year. In order to sign a player must be 16 and turning 17 before September 1st of the following year.

In order to be eligible, a player must be registered with MLB in advance. In other words you can’t just find someone on June 13 and sign them before they’ve become detected.

In 2016 the Atlanta Braves blew past their international pool monies by over 11-Million dollars causing them to be harshly penalized. Losing all of their pool money for the 2019-20 signing period and the forfeiture of 7 of the signees they had inked. They also lost their 3rd round pick last season and several executives stepped down. When it comes to the rules in this market, don’t mess with them.

The Pool Money

This can be confusing to say the least. First of all, teams don’t always report all their signing amounts and players that sign for under $10,000 don’t count against the pool. That’s not to say they are failing to comply with MLB rules, but the amounts don’t always leak to reporters.

That said, let’s try to make this as understandable as possible.

The baseline figure this period was $5,398,300 but if your club received a competitive balance pick in Round B the figure last year started here $6,481,200, Round A and the figure looked like this $5,939,800. Clear as mud huh? Well it gets better.

For instance, in the last period the Dodgers and Phillies each lost $500,000 for signing high priced free agents and the Nationals even more for signing a free agent and exceeding the Luxury tax figure.

On top of the starting point teams can trade pool money. Now this isn’t actual cash transferred from team to team, instead it is room to spend. So when the Pirates traded Starling Marte to the Arizona Danger Noodles for Brennan Malone and Peguero they also received international pool money that gave the Pirates room to sign Solomon Maguire the Australian phenom outfielder. It’s part of the deal but make no mistake, Arizona didn’t help the Pirates pay for Maguire, instead they gave them the ability to do so.

This is one of those nitpicky points that drive some of us who cover MLB insane. Many people see the trades for international pool money and immediately propose that Bob Nutting is lining his pockets, in reality the club is actually trading for the right to spend more money. It doesn’t excuse the areas he doesn’t spend but this at the very least is a take I’d love to see go away permanently.

Teams can trade as much of their pool as they’d like but no team can acquire more than 60% of another club’s initial pool.

The final wrinkle I’ll touch on is fairly simple, an international player who is 25 or has played 6 years in a foreign professional league doesn’t count against the pool.

Whew, right?

Who Did the Pirates Get in 2019-20

The Pirates signed 49 players in this period and we’ve already discussed 3 of the highlights. That’s not to say the other 46 won’t matter but you’d be foolish to think even a third of this list will ever grace the turf at PNC Park.

The group includes 23 right-handed pitchers, 7 left-handed pitchers, 17 position players and two catchers. Dominated by the Dominican as is typical for Pittsburgh but reach into Australia and Taiwan is on the rise.

For a great list that’s easy to digest check this out. They don’t have the very last signing in there yet but, it’s pretty comprehensive.

Out of the signings 4 are commonly accepted as top 25 talents. For some perspective, Ben Cherington compared the signing of Chen as equivalent to a 2nd round pick in the traditional amateur draft.

If you take nothing else from this piece, that’s probably the best way to look at it. The Pirates potentially picked up 4 or 5 top of the draft type talents in this signing period and that should itself tell you how important these can be for rebuilding a system.

Remodeling The Infrastructure

This restructuring started well before Ben Cherington was even a twinkle in Bob Nutting’s eye. However, he would be the one to put on the finishing touches.

Back in December of 2017 the Pirates made a necessary move in replacing then longtime Director of Latin American Scouting Rene Gayo due to him being cited for rules violations by Major League Baseball for accepting an improper payment. In stepped, Junior Vizcaino, who was given a new title as the Director of International Scouting.

Then in February of 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates’ owner and chairman, Bob Nutting, spoke of his plans to expand the team’s already existing Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic; doubling the facilities that were present at that time. The original project had cost the Pirates approximately $5 million dollars and to date had only produced a few Dominican-born prospects. In order to be a player in the competitive international market, these upgrades were obviously necessary.

Finally Cherington came in to complete the project with the hiring of Oz Ocampo as a Special Assistant to the GM. Ocampo had cut his teeth in the Cardinals system by specializing in scouting, player development and international operations for over four years. He then moved on to the Houston Astros where he served as Director of International and Latin player development before being promoted to special assistant to the GM in 2017; spending over 7 years total with the franchise. During his time in Houston he was credited with the development of several players, including Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez.

Who Are the Bucs Targeting in 2021?

Scouts have this period as one of the deepest since Atlanta wreaked havoc in 2016 and the top target for the Pirates seems to be Shalin Polanco, an outfielder from the Dominican who industry experts have pegged at around $2.5 Million for a bonus, and no, he isn’t related to Gregory. He’s a skinny lefty who scouts believe will develop power because of his compact and loose swing. Most have him as the tenth best prospect available and he has been compared to some names I’ll not pile on the kid yet lest you start picturing him flipping bats at opposition dugouts.

Another player mentioned to be in sight is Ruben Vizcaya a young outfielder from Venezuela with raw power. His ranking is less agreed upon, but he’s as high as 10 and no lower than 25. Both of these guys seem very probable to sign with Pittsburgh and the Pirates in general seem to be hunting outfield talent.

Beyond that would be overt speculation on my part many have Darlin Diaz as the Pirates top pitching acquisition in this class. There seems to be more chance they miss on him though as the relationship is newer.

Past International Signings in the System to Keep an Eye On

Ji-Hwan Bae was signed in 2017 out of South Korea. He’s yet another name in the list of potential future middle infielders working their way through the system. A total burner and slick fielder too, Bae isn’t on everyone’s radar but probably should be.

A bulk of other notable signings were made prior to, as well after the leadership change that occurred in December of 2017, when Vizcaino took the reins, so some credit is still due to Gayo on the international front. Some of these players are starting to pop up on top prospect lists, across multiple sites; giving credence to a once diminished system. Often highlighted on many are Infielder Rodolfo Castro, Third Baseman Alexander Mojica, and Outfielder Rodolfo Nolasco. The ones that haven’t yet, still leave quite an impression collectively as the dominant DSL Pirates2 of 2019.

Special thanks to Craig Toth for lending his expertise to help make this piece all it could be.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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