Since hiring Koby Perez to head their international scouting operations in early January, the Orioles have downplayed the likelihood of making immediate splashes in the international market, despite their nearly $6 million of bonus pool money. Club officials have preached patience, pegging the hire of Perez is part of a long-term initiative, while noting that most of the top international talent already has signed anyway.
But what the addition of Perez did in the short term is put the Orioles in a position to react should the market change unexpectedly before the current signing period ends June 15. Now it has.
The landscape shifted recently when highly touted Cuban shortstop Yolbert Sanchez was cleared to sign by Major League Baseball following his defection to the Dominican Republic. Known for his polished glove and good speed, Sanchez, who will be 22 in March, is older and therefore better known than most players subject to international signing rules. He is a veteran of Cuba's 18U and 23U teams, was the starting shortstop for the Havana Industriales and was projected to assume that role for island's national team.
Sanchez has been working out for clubs in the Dominican Republic, and he will be eligible to sign with MLB teams beginning Tuesday. The Orioles are widely seen as the favorites should they decide to target him.
Baltimore is in a prime position to do so; the Orioles possess the resources to outbid everybody. Their pool is about four times as large as the next closest team's (the Dodgers, at $1.4 million), and exceeds that of the next five clubs combined. The O's beefed up their pool in a flurry of midseason trades last summer, with the hopes of competing for top Cuban prospects Victor Victor Mesa, Victor Mesa Jr and Sandy Gaston. All signed with other teams this October after Dan Duquette's dismissal but before the hiring of Mike Elias.
Now Sanchez could provide an opportunity for Elias to jump-start the Orioles' rebuild earlier than anticipated. He also represents the first major player acquisition decision for the first-year general manager, who has called improving the O's capabilities in Latin America a priority.
Still, at this point, Sanchez is no guarantee to land in Baltimore for a few reasons.
Given his limited offensive potential, Sanchez is a consensus above-average prospect but, as one rival executive put it, "not a generational talent or anything." The executive compared Sanchez to a college senior and a potential second- or third-round pick if he were subject to the MLB Draft. That puts him a few rungs below Mesa and Gaston, but it's still enough to make him the top talent available on the international market right now.
That could be subject to change if the recent deal between MLB and Cuba Baseball Federation is approved by the U.S. government. The agreement, which would give professional Cuban players the ability to sign as free agents with MLB without defecting, would also allow the Cuban government to release amateur players through a newly created posting system.
If the agreement is ratified before the current signing period ends, it has the potential to create a new market full of previously unavailable talent. A decision to pursue Sanchez would have to be weighed against this possibility.
Sanchez could also choose to wait until the next signing period begins on July 2, when competition for his services figures to be greater. Once the current signing period ends, bonus pools for all teams are reset, meaning the Orioles' financial advantage goes away. Elias has repeatedly said he plans to redistribute any unused bonus pool money into other areas of the club's payroll.
While they long eschewed most international markets under Duquette, the Orioles do have some history in Cuba. They were part of a two-game exhibition series with the Cuban national team in 1999, when they became the first MLB team to play in Cuba in four decades. Few of the Cuban players the Orioles have signed in recent years have made impact at the big league level, and all but one -- Dariel Álvarez -- are gone from the organization. Alvarez, 30, is recovering from Tommy John surgery and last appeared in the Majors in 2016.