Inbox: All things international, O's rebuild

January 13th, 2022

It’s international week here at MLB Pipeline! With the start of a new international signing period coming Saturday, boy, do we have you covered. And when I say we, I mostly mean my esteemed colleague Jesse Sanchez.

You can start with his what to know about the signing period piece as a primer. Be sure to peruse the International Top 50 Prospects list Sanchez compiled so you know who the top players in the class are. As a side dish, Francys Romero provides a dozen Cuban prospects to know.

We caught international fever on the Pipeline Podcast this week as well, looking at the Top 50, talking to Cubs vice president of international scouting Louis Eljaua and even answering a question from you about one of the international prospects. That’s the first question in this week’s Inbox:

International Cuban baseball star Oscar Colas ... what can we expect in 2022? White Sox? -- @ScottyOBarnes

Any prediction as to how quickly Oscar Colas climbs the ladder in the White Sox system once he signs? -- @brianm731

The first of these queries about Colas is officially the one we answered on the podcast, but clearly people are intrigued by the outfield prospect who was once known as the “Cuban Ohtani” because he used to be a two-way player. No. 5 on that International Top 50, it’s long been expected the 23-year-old would sign with the White Sox for a deal reported to be $2.7 million. The left-handed hitter has shown he can really swing it, with power. He’s played all three outfield positions, but likely settles into a corner, where an arm that once fired 95-mph fastballs from the mound could be an asset.

The White Sox have certainly done well in signing Cuban players in recent years, most recently fellow outfielder Yoelqui Cespedes, their No. 2 prospect. Cespedes had a solid first year of pro ball, with an .813 OPS and 18 steals over 72 games between High-A and Double-A, before struggling in the Arizona Fall League. It stands to reason that Colas could follow the same developmental path, beginning the year with High-A Winston-Salem and moving on to Double-A Birmingham. How he hits will determine how quickly he can move and if Birmingham will be his final stop for the year, but it’s a pretty good template that could set the stage for him to make it to the big leagues at some point in 2023.

How is it decided which team can sign which international player? -- @panthermichael

I thought this would be a good way to give a primer on how the international system works, much of which can be found in the primer above. It’s basically an open market, with some fairly strict boundaries. What I mean by that is any team can sign any player -- it’s not a draft system -- but there are bonus pools so teams can’t spend freely.

Bonus pools range from about $4.6 million up to just over $6.2 million. There are basically three tiers, with 14 teams at the lowest tier of $5,179,000 and two more (Dodgers and Blue Jays) who were given that amount, but then forfeited $500,000 as a penalty for signing a free agent who rejected a qualifying offer at the onset of the 2020-21 free agent offseason (Trevor Bauer and George Springer). Teams that picked in Competitive Balance Round B in last year’s Draft have $6,262,600 to spend, while Competitive Balance Round A teams get $5,721,500.

A team could spend most or all of their pool on one player (The Yankees spent all but $300,000 of their pool in 2019 to sign Jasson Dominguez for $5.1 million, for example.), or they can spread it out among many players. The bonus pool system was put in place to try to create more parity or a more even playing field and it should be noted that 28 different teams are expected to sign at least one of the prospects in our Top 50.

There have been times over the years where teams have been limited in what they could spend. This is the first year the Braves will have their full pool at their disposal since Major League Baseball penalized them for international signing infractions in Nov. 2017. And not all teams have always been active in the international market. The Orioles, for example, were pretty dormant on the scene until Mike Elias took over as general manager, and they’re the favorites to sign two players in the Top 50 in this period.

Will Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Kyle Stowers, and other higher profile Orioles prospects be enough to keep the team from losing 100 games again? -- @mcleod_brooks

It’s always tough to project how long a rebuilding project is going to take. Sometimes it can take longer than expected and sometimes teams take steps forward in a more accelerated pace. The Orioles have lost 100 or more games in their past three full seasons, obviously not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Two of those saw the club lose 110 or more. Mike Elias was hired as the new general manager following the first of those seasons (2018) and has been working to rebuild what had been a moribund farm system.

The good news is that restocking has been successful, thanks to picking very high in the Draft, getting the aforementioned Rutschman No. 1 overall in 2019, and being more active on the international market. That led us to rank them as the top farm system in baseball when we re-ranked them in August last year. Having the No. 1 hitting prospect (Rutschman) and the No. 1 pitching prospect (Rodriguez) certainly doesn’t hurt. (It should be noted that Rodriguez was drafted in 2018, before Elias and Co. came in.)

Stowers, a 2019 draftee, had a breakout season last year, certainly accelerating his timetable. I think you will see the three prospect you mentioned, plus D.L. Hall, from the top prospects in the season make very positive contributions in 2022. And there’s plenty more to come after that, with some exciting talent on pace to break through in 2022 ... which is why I think I’d target that year as the one where you see a larger uptick in wins. Could they lose less than 100 games this coming season? Sure, that would be an uptick of just nine games. But it’s not something I would count on, nor would I use that as any kind of barometer of how things are going on the rebuild front.

The Orioles are going to get there, I sincerely believe, and there’s some pretty good correlation of teams going from top farm system to playoff contender over the years. So be patient Baltimore! And remember, you get the No. 1 pick in the 2022 Draft as well!