In the early 2000s the A’s gained an advantage through finding players that were undervalued. Every team has adopted this method of thinking and have put their own various spins on it. The Astros fell in love with spin rate and the Pirates carefully monitored pitch framing. The defensive shift swept throughout the game and heavy bullpen usage has become the norm. Mediocre teams also realized that finishing with 80 wins every year and a mid-round draft pick is not as helpful as losing 100 games and getting the top picks. More than that, in order to go about losing so many games you must give up your decent players and in return you get prospects who will help you three or four years down the line. The Cubs made the playoffs in 2007, but then got progressively worse over the next few years. From 2010-14 they never won more than 75 games. When they came out of that funk, they had a stacked farm system and money to spend on Free Agents like Jon Lester and John Lackey. The Astros followed this blueprint aggressively and from 2011-13 they had one of the worst three year stretches in MLB history. When in 2014 they lost 92 games, it marked a 19-game improvement from the year before. Of course, trading your good players away and losing a bunch of games is the easy part. The success the Astros and Cubs have are because their scouting departments struck gold again and again. The Mariners have had a few decent seasons since 2004, but most of those seasons were terrible. However, entering 2019, they have just three top 100 prospects, and all three are from trades. Teams are using technology in ways that baseball people from ten years ago would never have dreamed of. Over the last few years, a few teams have tried to gain an advantage a different way.
In 2016, MLB and the MLBPA agreed on a five-year CBA that added a new wrinkle to building a team from the bottom up. Teams each have a certain amount of money to use on international signings and there is a hard cap. In this one area of the market the small-market teams are on a level playing field. Realizing that a changing market was coming, several teams decided to spend like there was no tomorrow. The A’s, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds and Royals (whew) all went over the limit in 2016. The Red Sox signed Yoan Moncada to a signing bonus of 31.5 million dollars. Under the previous CBA, they had to pay a 100 percent tax for overspending the limit, but the Red Sox were able to swallow that. The differences in prospect’s salary were immediate. In 2016, Luis Robert’s signing bonus with the White Sox was 26 million. Despite being a similarly touted prospect, a year later Julio Pablo Martinez signed with the Rangers for 2.8 million. Teams like the Red Sox and Yankees will not have the opportunity to splash money at these kids and sign the no-brainers. Of course, when we talk about international signings, no-brainers don’t usually exist. Small-market teams must quickly come up with the best ways to scout kids who don’t have the same exposure as American ballplayers and this can often lead to busts. Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that small-market teams are at a disadvantage. It has been rare for them to have any sort of level playing field since Free Agency started in the ‘70s. Right away, things got weird.
Shohei Ohtani hit the market and every team had a shot. If he would’ve been posted a year earlier, he could have made untold millions, instead he was going to have to settle for a bonus under 4 million. It isn’t every day that the vast majority of teams have a shot at a proven commodity who can hit and pitch. Of course, Ohtani chose the Angels and ended up winning Rookie of the Year. On one hand Ohtani is a rare case, but on the other hand Luis Robert was signed for 26 million just the year before. It means the top international players are being paid less and the top teams are restrained from handing out those gaudy signing bonuses. A player as great as Ohtani was affordable to everyone from the Rays to the Red Sox.
We will have to wait to see which teams take advantage of these new rules and whether it will cause some change in the competitive lineup. The top 100 prospects of 2019 were released by mlb.com, and only four of the players on it have been signed since the rule change. Well above the others is number 13, Wander Franco, who was signed by the Rays for 3.825 million. The number 88 prospect in baseball belongs to the Rangers who signed Julio Pablo Martinez for 2.8 million. At 98 is Eric Pardinho, who signed with the Blue Jays for 1.4 million. One place behind him is Victor Victor Mesa, who was signed by Miami for 5.25 million. Aside from Tampa, we probably wouldn’t refer to those teams as “small-market,” but each of them has a lower than average payroll. However, when we look deeper into international prospects signed in the last two years, a surprising team seems to be taking advantage. It might not make you so happy to hear this, but the New York Yankees are stockpiling international prospects. The Yankees are coming off a 100-win season and they have a slew of young players who are getting better every year. Even with all those prospects jumping to the majors, most rankings of Farm Systems still have them from 15-20. It seems that part of Cashman’s plan to cut payroll and get younger involves the international signings. In the last two years the top 30 international prospects have been spread out with 19 teams having at least one prospect (of the 11 who don’t, 7 of them decided to spend over the limit in the last year of the previous CBA). The Yankees had 5 in 2017 and 4 in 2018, the next closest are a few teams tied with a total of 5. For those 9 prospects and multiple years of cheap control, the Yankees paid a total of 11.3 million in signing bonuses. That is less than half of what Luis Robert received and less money than they will pay DJ LeMahieu this year.
Younger talent for less money is a bargain for any team. The faster that teams start trading for international signing bonus money the better off their futures will be. In the near future a playoff lineup will be displayed that has a good number of players who were international free agents and were signed for a small amount. Brian Cashman seems to have already envisioned this, it would do well for the other GMs to envision it as well.