The Next Wave: The Cubs Go Big in 2013 International Free Agent Market

According to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, the top two international free agents signed by major league clubs during the 2013-2014 signing period were Cub’s signees Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres. According to Badler, the Cubs signed the top two and four of the top 30 international free agents. Under the direction of Theo Epstein, the Cubs went “all in” under the new international bonus slot regime in 2013, spending more than any team but the Rangers and acquiring more potential impact talent than any other MLB team. According to Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (see Podcast Ep. 11), the Cubs reached for deep impact talent in the international market during the past year; these are not “fill out the roster” type players but prospects with high ceilings whom scouts project as impact major leaguers. These players represent the leading edge of the next wave of Cubs’ minor league talent, after Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara ascend to the big leagues.

International free agents can sign with major league teams on July 2nd of any given year with the qualification that they must be at least 16-years-old by that date. This is a key difference between scouting draft-eligible players in the U.S. and international free agents. The typical high school player is 18-years-old and college players are usually age-20 or 21 and much easier to project, relatively speaking. As Badler observed, “projecting 16-year-olds is one of the most challenging jobs in baseball.”  Indeed, the difference between age-16 and age-18 can be an eternity from the standpoint of baseball development.

Look no further than the example of Mike Trout to see this phenomenon in action. Trout was bypassed by nearly every team in baseball before was selected by the Angels with the 25th pick in the 2009 first-year player draft. A few years later, he was arguably the best player in baseball. Everyone knew he was good when he was a high school senior, but why did so many teams miss that he was about to emerge as a generational talent? In Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, Rany Jazayerli posits that the most obvious answer was his age – he played his senior year of high school at age-17, a full year younger than many of his peers.  Had he started school a year later and played his final high school season at age-18, he likely would have given professional baseball scouts a more precise picture of his otherworldly talent and been drafted at the front end of the 2010 draft.  (See Jazayaerli’s fantastic article in the book, How Does Age Affect the Amateur Draft, for a deeper look at this phenomenon. #research.)

If older American high school and college players are more projectable on draft day, international free agents are indispensable to the fortunes of every major league team. As of the start of the 2012 season, players from Latin America made up 42% of minor leaguers and 24% of major league baseball players.  International scouting is crucial in today’s game and Badler’s top 30 list shows the full reach and diversity of the Cubs international operation, as it includes Cubs’ signees from 4 different countries, including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Columbia, and Taiwan. The Cubs essentially signed two year’s worth of players in 2013 – a move that could turn out to look especially good if MLB implements an international player draft in 2015, a distinct possibility. The Cubs did this by blowing past their bonus slot and spending more than any other team but the Rangers during 2013.  The Rangers spent $8.4 million and the Cubs $8.2 million; the next highest spending team was the Dodgers at $4.5 million. The Cubs will face spending restrictions during the 2014-15 signing period for exceeding their bonus pool. But since an international draft was not implemented, there are no draft penalties. Ultimately, the financial penalties and this year’s spending restrictions are modest in comparison to the amount of talent they were able to acquire during the 2013-14 period.

The top five international players signed by the Cubs in 2013, with excerpts from Badler’s scouting reports:

 Eloy Jimenez, OF, Dominican Republic (Age 17)

  • He comes from an athletic background, as his father played professional basketball for 12 years in the Dominican Republic.
  • He’s 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and a good athlete for his size.
  • With a flat, level swing path, Jimenez has average raw power that results in more hard liners than loft. With his size and strength potential, he should be able to develop above-average pop.
  • Jimenez will show above-average times in the 60-yard dash, although he has an unorthodox running stride. Some scouts say his speed plays closer to average on the field, and with his large frame, he’ll slow down some anyway.
  • After playing center field as an amateur, Jimenez will slide over to right field, where he has a 55 arm on the 20-80 scale.

Gleyber Torres, SS, Venezuela (Age 17)

  • At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Torres is a smart, savvy player with good instincts in all phases of the game and the potential for five tools that could be closer to average or better.
  • He has gap power now but he has good bat speed and should have solid power for a middle infielder, with the potential for 10-15 home runs.
  • Torres doesn’t have the prototypical wiry frame of most young Latin American shortstops. He has a compact, relatively filled out frame for his age, though he has leaned out some since signing.
  • The Cubs see Torres as an above-average athlete who can play shortstop, though others aren’t as sold on his athleticism and see him splitting time between shortstop, second and third base, a role and skill set that elicits comparisons to Freddy Sanchez.

 Erling Moreno, RHP, Columbia (Age 17)

  • Moreno is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and oozes projection to be a power pitcher.
  • He threw 87-91 mph when he signed and has since hit 92, but with his build and the way his arm works, he should eventually throw in the mid-90s.
  • Moreno is a good athlete who delivers the ball with downhill angle and works in the bottom of the strike zone. Some scouts feel his best secondary pitch is his changeup, which will flash as a 50-55 offering on the 20-80 scale when he keeps his release point consistent.
  • He also throws a slurvy curveball that he tends to get around on, so there’s a chance he may go to a true slider in the future.

Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP, Taiwan (Age 19)

  • The biggest wild card in the 2013 international signing class … entered 2013 as the potential No. 1 prospect on the international market.
  • Tseng was so advanced that he pitched for Taiwan in the WBC last year in March as an 18-year-old, but that’s where everything seemed to unravel. Tseng’s struggles at the WBC were understandable given his youth, but his stuff and control both had gone backward, with his fastball sitting in the high-80s and his breaking stuff lacking its usual crispness.
  • A handful of teams stayed on him, including the Cubs, who in June saw him bumping 95 again and were convinced enough to sign him for $1.625 million on July 25.
  • Tseng, who is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and turned 19 in October, pitched at 89-92 mph and touched 95 when he was at his best at the end of 2012. Back then, his curveball and changeup were both 60 offerings on the 20-80 scale at times, with some scouts hanging a 70 future potential grade on the changeup because of its late, splitter-like action that darts down in the zone.

Jefferson Mejia, RHP, Dominican Republic (Age 19)

  • Mejia … looks like a power forward with a thickly built, extra-large frame at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds.
  • Mejia stood out in front of hundreds of scouts at the International Prospect League all-star game last year in January, showing a lively 91-93 mph fastball. Since signing, Mejia has been up to 96, and with the way the ball comes out of his hand fairly easily, he could eventually reach the upper-90s.
  • His fastball has explosive life down in the zone, with downhill plane and hard sink. It’s an uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters, who also have to deal with a solid upper-70s curveball that Mejia has added some power to over the past year with late, sharp action at times.
  • Mejia’s changeup can be a swing-and-miss pitch at times as well, though his curveball is his No. 2 offering right now.

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