CLEVELAND -- Every year, the Indians’ front office puts so much time into preparing for the MLB Draft, but if it’s possible, that crew may put even more effort into each year’s international signing class.
“The international market is incredibly complex and incredibly challenging to navigate,” Indians assistant general manager Matt Forman said last July. “And our scouting group led by Paul Gillispie and our scouts throughout the world do an incredible job of building history on players.
“That’s really been a disproportionate focus of ours to see players in game settings over an extended period of time, so we have a track record of performance and a track record of how they handle themselves as individuals. So, considering the market dynamics, it’s been impressive to see the work that our scouts have done in navigating the landscape to be able to add impactful players through the international system.”
The 2020-21 international signing period was originally scheduled to begin on July 2, 2020, but the start date was pushed back to Jan. 15, 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each year’s MLB Draft may receive more national attention than the annual international signing periods, but plenty of the game’s biggest stars have been found on the international market.
Let’s take a look at the Indians’ Top 5 international prospects of all time:
1. José Ramírez, 2013-present
It wasn’t that long ago that Ramírez was in Lake County, playing for the Tribe’s Class A team, hitting .354 with an .865 OPS. After that season in 2012, Ramírez hit .272 for Double-A Akron before making his Major League debut on Sept. 1, 2013. The Dominican Republic native had sporadic playing time in ’14 and ’15 before settling into an everyday role in ’16. Outside of the slump that the third baseman fell into at the end of ’18 that continued into the start of ’19, he’s been more than what the Indians could’ve asked for. He hit .312 with an .825 OPS in his first full season, and followed that with a .318 average in ’17 with a .957 OPS, 29 homers, 83 RBIs and a league-leading 56 doubles to place third in the American League MVP Award vote. He came in third in the AL MVP vote in ’18 again and has been a force in the Tribe’s offense since he broke into the Majors.
2. Victor Martinez, 2002-09
It’s been 17 years since Martinez was sitting in the Indians’ farm system, waiting for his shot at the big league level. The former shortstop was signed by the Tribe out of Venezuela in 1996, and was asked to move behind the plate, which, ultimately, worked out pretty well for him. Martinez made his Majors debut on Sept. 10, 2002, after hitting .336 with a .993 OPS, 22 homers, 40 doubles and 85 RBIs in 121 games for Double-A Akron. He became one of the best backstops to ever don the Indians’ uniform, hitting .297 with an .832 OPS and 103 homers over eight seasons. He went on to play two years with the Red Sox and seven more with the Tigers.
3. Bartolo Colon, 1997-2002
Over a 21-year career with 11 different teams, it can be hard to remember where a player first cracked into the big leagues. But back in 1993, the Indians signed Colon, a 20-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. The man known as "Big Sexy" was once just a prospect in the Tribe’s farm system, until making his Major League debut on April 4, 1997. He made one All-Star Game with Cleveland and posted a 3.92 ERA with 873 strikeouts in 1,029 2/3 frames from ’97-2002. He spent six years with the Indians, which is the most of any club in his career, which also included stops in Los Angeles (Angels), New York (Mets and Yankees), Oakland, Chicago (White Sox), Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston, Texas and Montreal along the way.
4. Bobby Avila, 1949-58
While the Indians were winning their second World Series in 1948, the 24-year-old Avila was sitting in Triple-A after spending the previous five years in the Mexican League. The Veracruz, Mexico, native saw some time at the big league level in ’49 and ’50 before he was granted a regular spot in the lineup in ’51. The second baseman hit .284 with a .754 OPS in 1,207 games, and was selected to three All-Star teams with the Indians. Avila spent 10 years in Cleveland and made quick stops in Baltimore, Boston and Milwaukee before the end of his career.
5. Luis Tiant, 1964-69
Of all pitchers born outside of the United States who came through the Indians’ system, Tiant holds the highest bWAR (26.2). At the recommendation of Avila, Tiant -- from Cuba -- played for the Mexico City Tigers and was later signed by the Indians in 1962. The first six seasons of his 19-year career took place in Cleveland, as he recorded a 2.84 ERA in 1,200 innings with the Tribe, including an AL-best 1.60 ERA in 34 games (32 starts) in ’68. Tiant played for the Twins in ’70 and spent the next eight years in Boston before finishing his last four seasons in New York (Yankees), Pittsburgh and California.