Clubs eyeing int'l slot space as trade alternative

High-profile prospects, new CBA drive trend at Deadline

August 3rd, 2018
TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 15: Outfielder Victor Mesa #32 of Cuba hits a RBI double to make it 13-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning during the World Baseball Classic Pool E Game Five between Netherlands and Cuba at the Tokyo Dome on March 15, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)Matt Roberts/Getty Images

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when baseball executives would scan another club's farm system, fail to see an intriguing name and all but eliminate them as a potential trade partner.

That's no longer the case.

A number of deals leading up to this year's non-waiver Trade Deadline involved the movement of international bonus pool slots, giving teams the ability to spend more on amateur players around the globe. Rather than dealing player-for-player, teams were exchanging pool space for players, incorporating a new aspect into one of the most intriguing weeks of the baseball calendar.

"A team that doesn't have a farm system may still have international pool money; you can get more creative," one American League executive said. "There's only two vehicles to acquire talent in the amateur world: the Draft or international free agency. You're capped, so you try to max it out."

Teams were permitted to trade slot space under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, though they were only allowed to split their pool into four "slots," meaning that a club with a $3 million pool might have had a $1.5 million slot, an $800,000 slot, a $400,000 slot and a $300,000 slot. Teams were also not permitted to acquire more than 50 percent of their bonus pool.

Under the most recent CBA, which went into effect in 2017, international slot space may be traded in $250,000 increments. The amount of slot space a team can acquire was also raised to 75 percent for '17-18. Beginning next season, that number will decrease to 60 percent for the final three years of the CBA.

"It's another thing that we can assign some value to, which is very helpful," an AL general manager said. "I'm a big fan of having everything in play that you can. This was the first time we saw it become a little more present in trade discussions. I don't know if it changes the complexion of the Trade Deadline, other than having another thing that we can assign value to and have different opinions on. The more you do that, the more likely you are to arrive at equitable trades."

The Yankees were particularly active in this area, acquiring $3.75 million in international pool space through a number of deals. The two biggest deals saw sent to the Mariners -- a team with one of the lower-ranked farm systems in the game -- for $1.25 million in slot space, while prospect Caleb Frare brought the Yankees $1.5 million in slot space from the White Sox.

The Yankees, who started with a pool just shy of $5 million, upped their total to about $8.75 million. They have spent $7.9 million of that on 23 international prospects from places like the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

"It seemed like the Yankees were trying to stockpile some of it, so clearly it had real value to them," the AL GM said. "They're one of the most active, productive and successful teams in Latin America. I'm certainly intrigued by that."

Other teams to add slot space included the Dodgers, Mets, Angels, Marlins, Rays and Orioles, the latter raising some eyebrows after being relatively dormant in the international signing area for several years.

As players such as 19-year-old Juan Soto and 21-year-old have made significant impacts in the Majors at such young ages, the importance of acquiring top international talent continues to become more prominent.

The object of everybody's affection appears to be Victor Victor Mesa, the 22-year-old Cuban outfielder considered to be this year's top international prize.

Just as teams tried to beef up their slot space a year ago in anticipation of 's move to the Majors, the prospect of acquiring Mesa may have been the motivation for teams to make similar moves before the Deadline.

Mesa isn't yet eligible to sign, but the Cuban defector is likely to become eligible before the current signing period ends on June 15. His younger brother, outfielder Victor Mesa Jr., is another highly regarded prospect in the same situation as far as eligibility.

"It's a moving target," a second AL GM said of teams' quest to add pool space. "In years when there's a big name out there like Ohtani or Victor Victor, that slot space will become very valuable. I think that's what we saw this year."

Why would teams trade away such valuable pool space rather than trying to sign some top international players themselves? That's where the CBA comes into play.

Under the previous CBA, teams that went over their bonus allotment were penalized by being prevented from signing players for more than $300,000 in the subsequent year or years, depending on the overage.

The rules have since changed, and no club is allowed to exceed its allotment, but the penalties incurred by offenders under the old CBA still stand. As a result, the Athletics, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Nationals, Padres, Reds and White Sox cannot sign an individual player for more than $300,000 this period.

Atlanta found a way to use its limitations on the international market to its advantage, dishing out $3 million in slot space to acquire Jonny Venters, , and .

"That was a great way to take part of that punishment and turn it into a positive," the first AL GM said. "They made the proverbial lemonade out of lemons."

Unlike other sports, Major League Baseball does not permit the trading of picks in the Draft, leaving the international arena as the lone non-player capital a team can offer other than straight-up cash.

"It would be a game-changer if Draft picks ever came into play," the first AL GM said. "It seems to work in every other sport. It would certainly enhance the appeal of our Draft if you could trade Draft picks."

That said, the GM acknowledged that MLB likely has sound reasons for not allowing the trading of Draft picks.

"Major League Baseball does a very good job of contemplating a slippery slope of what are the downsides and the risks," the GM said. "With the volatility of these jobs, if I was really on the hot seat, what would stop me from trading my next three first-round Draft picks in the name of trying to improve my playoff odds? That's probably not best for the franchise."

For now, the international slot space will continue to serve as the primary alternative to traditional transactions, adding yet another layer to one of baseball's busiest seasons.

"Some clubs either can't spend it or choose not to, while it's more central to other teams' strategies," a second AL executive said. "And rather than taking a lower-end prospect, sometimes you'd prefer the option to scout and sign multiple players your scouts can identify."