Acuna, Soto, Tatis, Vlad ... Who's the next int'l star?

May 8th, 2019

It’s been only five years since a 15-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. launched home runs out of the neighborhood park where he used to train in Don Gregorio, Dominican Republic, with his Hall of Fame father Vlad Sr. and uncle Wilton Guerrero watching over him.

The scouts came in droves to watch the baseball prodigy and the only evaluators that left the field disappointed were the ones that knew they had no chance to sign him once the international signing period started.

But each year brings a new crop of talent, and the emergence of international stars like Guerrero Jr. and San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. have once again put the search for the next great international prospect in the spotlight.

Teams know that today’s international teenage prospects have a chance to be tomorrow’s Major League stars. It all starts July 2, the first day of the international signing period and arguably one of the most important dates on the baseball calendar, and it’s less than two months away.

“I think (front) offices now, coaches, everyone in baseball, has a better understanding and confidence to give younger players an opportunity a little bit sooner than we did 10 years ago,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “But there's a lot of variables, a lot of variables to that.”

At one point last year, the top five slots on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list belonged to international players. Those players -- Ronald Acuna Jr., 21, Guerrero Jr., 20, Eloy Jimenez, 22, Victor Robles, 21, and Tatis Jr., 20 -- are all in the big leagues this year. Gleyber Torres, 22, was also on the Top 100 list, making it six international players in the top seven spots. Juan Soto, 20, was ranked No. 15 when the Nationals called him up in 2018.

And then there’s Wander Franco, 18, who signed with the Rays in 2017 for $3,825,000. Franco, who is at Class A, is Tampa Bay’s top prospect and the highest ranked international prospect at No. 12. With Guerrero Jr. soon graduating off the Top 100 list, he might soon become baseball's new top prospect.

“It says a lot for all of us and it opens the way even more for the new international signings to have a chance so quickly,” Tatis Jr. said. “When I saw Soto last year, I got goosebumps I was so happy for him. Then Acuna, that was great. Now, me right now. Vlad, too. It’s just great to see, man.”

While the primary goal when signing international prospects is to have them move up the Minor League ranks to the big leagues, it’s ultimately about bringing value to the organization, and sometimes that value comes in the form of a trade chip to acquire a missing piece to help the Major League club.

Remember, Tatis was acquired from the White Sox in a package for James Shields almost three years ago. The next month, the Cubs traded Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman and later went on their World Series championship run. Jimenez was traded from the Cubs to the White Sox for Jose Quintana in '17, and the Red Sox traded Yoán Moncada to the White Sox in a package for pitcher Chris Sale, who closed out the World Series last year.

So, while the top international prospects that sign in July might not play in the Major Leagues for three or four years at the earliest, they can have an immediate impact on the big league level with the club that signs them if they are traded for players than can help now. It’s part of the reason why all 30 teams are involved in the international market, and it’s become extremely competitive.

Almost every team now uses strategies that include input from top decision makers and advanced technology like Trackman -- the system that measures velocities, spin rates, exit speeds -- along with swing analysis devices, Edgertronic high-speed cameras for analysis of biomechanics, Rapsodo (a portable pitch tracking tool) and FlightScope (another system used to measure hitting, pitching and running mechanics).

The players on MLB Pipeline's 2019 Top 30 International Prospects list eligible to sign starting July 2, led by outfielder Jasson Dominguez of the Dominican Republic, represent the greatest young talent from across the globe. Clubs are hoping the next Guerrero Jr. or Tatis Jr. is among them.

“I really remember all the tryouts, all the time we were in the field, those memories,” Tatis Jr. said. “When I signed with the White Sox, it was a dream come true. It was amazing. It was the beginning of a long career, hopefully.”

The White Sox are expected to sign Tatis Jr.’s younger brother, infielder Elijah Tatis. 

“I feel like we are the next generation of players,” Tatis said. “We’ve worked really hard and I think we have opened some doors for others. I’m just happy to be a part of the group of young Latinos that’s here trying to do our best and show what we can do.”