One of the great things about holidays is that they come at the same time every year. There’s a consistency that we come to expect and in which we find comfort. There are traditions we look forward to and reminisce about over the years. When those traditions don’t happen for some reason, we react in two possible ways: one, it ruins our holiday and makes us miserable; or two, we make the best of it and start new holiday traditions.
Well, July 2nd is like a holiday for me. I have always found the International Free Agent period to be the most intriguing and exciting part of baseball prospecting. Perhaps it’s because the players are so young and so raw that you still have the ability to imagine they could be superstars. Perhaps it’s seeing kids that often come from very poor backgrounds getting a chance to make a new life for their family. Whatever it is, I have always loved it.
But this year, the consistency of the July 2nd holiday has been shaken. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement placed a $2.9 million budget on each team for signing international amateurs. Gone are the $4 and $5 million bonuses spent on players like Michael Ynoa and Nomar Mazara. So what will the July 2nd International Free Agent signing period look like now? Will we take path one or path two this holiday? We will soon find out as we see how teams react and how the landscape will now look.
What has not changed, however, is the talent. There is still a bevy of talented prospects turning 16 this year who can now be signed by Major League teams. Today, I’ll lay out my personal Top 21 prospects for this year’s International Free Agent signing period.
I will warn you that my list will not look like other lists you see. I evaluate IFAs slightly different from other talent evaluators. With hitters, I value advanced approaches relative to age but also raw tools. I will rank players with raw power much higher than other evaluators. Why? Because it’s a Major League skill. I don’t get excited about players who are average across the board. What will make a player into a Major League regular or star? That’s what I’m looking for. With pitchers, I value secondary pitches and mechanics. Big fastballs are fun to talk about but what is going to make a player into a Major League pitcher? Again, that’s what I’m looking for. So, after watching video and considering the opinion of other scouts and evaluators, what follows is what I believe to be the 21 best talents available in the International Free Agent market, starting today, July 2nd, 2012.
Urias is still 15 and his birth date is not totally clear. Players, of course, cannot sign until they are 16. He’ll draw a higher bonus than other players because only the percentage of the bonus that goes to Mexican-born players (the rest goes to the player’s Mexican League team) will count against the MLB team’s $2.9 million budget. As to what any team would actually get, Urias is a lefty that already throws in the high 80s to low 90s. He has good command of the fastball also. What I like most about him is that he has a changeup that is a future plus or better pitch. So we’re talking about a kid with two plus pitches in the bag. He also has a curveball that I think could be a plus pitch. The only drawback on Urias is that he’s only 6’0” tall. However, with his clean and easy delivery, I’m less worried about him breaking down. He isn’t rated nearly this high by anyone else but I think he is clearly the top talent on the IFA market.
Castillo is another young lefty but clocks in at 6’4” and 200 pounds. He is the one player in this class who truly already looks like a grown man. He has a low 90s fastball that could reach into the mid 90s as his body matures. He also has a changeup and a curve, with the changeup currently his second best pitch. Castillo doesn’t have the advanced secondary pitches that I normally like in young pitchers. However, not to sound like one of the much-maligned pre-Moneyball scouts, he just looks like a Major League pitcher. He has nice, clean mechanics and shows the ability to develop into something special.
If the Urias ranking didn’t tip you off, my ranking of Carlos Belen really shows how I feel much differently about the evaluation of IFAs than other people. Belen’s big red flag is that he may not be able to stay at third base. He’s slow and doesn’t have great footwork. He’s currently 6’2”, 190, and his defensive ceiling is an average third baseman. And to that, I say: so what? Because I think he has a special bat. He already has a good approach and hits well in games. That is an important thing to look at with these players because so many scouting reports are based on batting practice hitting. But Belen has hit in games. He will likely hit for average and his hitting mechanics tell me he will generate serious power as he develops. If that’s true and he’s an average defensive third baseman, he’s a star. If he has to move to the outfield, he has a plus arm that will fit in RF and his bat will play in a corner OF spot.
Now watch me go back on my manifesto on the evaluation of IFA hitters. Cabrera does not yet have an advanced approach at the plate. He has a problem with staying balanced in his swing. I don’t agree with some scouts that his swing is all that long, however. And the reason I’m high on Cabrera even though he doesn’t have the advanced approach that you want is that he is unanimously regarded as having the best raw tools and being the best athlete in the IFA class. He has plus-plus speed, plus raw power, and contrary to scout’s suggestions that he won’t hit in games, he has hit in games. While it’s not exactly the Major Leagues, Cabrera has led his team to RBI championships on U.S. soil. At 6’0” and 190, there are questions about whether he can stay in centerfield. Due to his athleticism, I like his chances.
Ramirez is a 6’3”, 185 pound kid who only recently converted from shortstop to pitching. That’s part of the reason he’s only now starting to climb up team’s IFA boards. Obviously, due to his lack of pitching experience, he’s not nearly as developed as some other IFA pitchers. However, even with his inexperience, he already flashes a fastball that sits 88-92 and has a lot of natural movement. He has also shown feel for a curveball and changeup. If he had more experience on the mound, Ramirez might be even higher on this list.
Barreto is widely considered the best IFA talent available. I struggle to understand that. His history of excellence in international competition is unquestioned. His approach at the plate is unquestioned. I think most scouts are correct that he’s the kind of guy that could be a plus hitter. Add that to the fact that he’s an up-the-middle player defensively, though maybe not at SS, and he would seem to have a lot of value. My concern is that he is 5’9” and 175 pounds. There just is not a lot of precedent for 5’9” players being the kind of hitter that scouts are projecting Barreto to be. However, I keep him high on the list because if he can be a .300 hitter and hit double-digit home runs at 2B, SS, or CF, he could be an all-star.
Torrens is generally considered the second best Dominican hitter on the IFA market after countryman Franklin Barreto. Obviously, I like Torrens a little less than that. The reason for that is that I don’t see Torrens having the upside that Belen and Cabrera, for example, have. Torrens definitely has the advanced approach that I love to see. He has also definitely gotten it done in-game situations, leading numerous Dominican teams to international championships. My concern with Torrens is that he seems unlikely to develop much home run power. While he has a lot of value due to his ability to catch, I don’t see the path for Torrens to become a star when I look at his swing. Still, he’s the kind of guy that could be a long-time Major League catcher. There is obviously a ton of value in that.
I would love to put Gohara higher on this list. He’s a 6’3”, 215 pound lefty, which would put him in Jose Castillo territory. He is reported to throw somewhere in the high 80s to low 90s, with reports being that his velocity is improving. He also already has a slider that gets a future plus grade. All that being said, he seems to compare very favorably to Castillo and Osiris Ramirez. However, I’m not alone in being one of many people who have not laid eyes on Gohara. Having not even seen video of him and having to rely totally on reports, it’s hard to place Gohara much higher. That is especially true when he comes from Brazil, which is not a country known for its pitching prospects. So even though the reports get me very excited about Gohara, I have to play it safe. Gohara won’t turn 16 until July 31st, so he definitely won’t be signing for a little while.
Amed Rosario’s presence in this IFA class should make many international scouts and scouting directors happy about the $2.9 million budget. Because he’s the kind of player that could cost you your job after you swear the GM should drop $5mm on Rosario and he busts. I personally think Rosario could be a superstar but if you felt the opposite, you’d be in good company. Scouts see Rosario in one of two ways: the first, more positive, way is that Rosario could stick at shortstop and be a plus hitter with true power; or, under the second view, his swing is a mess and he is going to end up a corner outfielder where his power really won’t play. The truth is there are problems in his swing. It’s long and he has a high potential for strikeouts. But he has very quick hands and, once he gets his wrists moving, brings the bat through the zone quickly and compactly. When you add that to a guy who gets high marks from all scouts on his great makeup, I see a player who is going to fall under the more positive view and truly has a chance to be a superstar.
Mujica is 6’2”, 180 pounds, and seems to have projection left in his body. He already throws in the low 90s and projects to end up in the mid 90s. He commands his fastball well and has a changeup that is a future above average pitch. His third pitch is a slurve but it hasn’t shown much promise to this point. Still, it’s hard to sneeze at two above average pitches. There are improvements that could be made to his delivery, namely allowing his body to drive over his front leg, that could improve deception and the action on his pitches. Perhaps it could even shore up that slurve. At this point, however, he projects as a very solid Major League starter that doesn’t have the upside of the guys I’ve ranked above him here.
Palma is another member of this year’s IFA class that has done well for himself in international competition. He mashed during the 16-and-under World Championships, proving that his mechanically sound swing plays in games. The question on Palma is power potential. There is a divergence among scouts on whether his plus power grades out to average or plus. I tend to err on the side of average power with Palma. He’s a big kid with strong legs that looks like he should generate a lot of power. But when you watch him hit, the ball just doesn’t come off the bat the way you’d expect. I have him rated this high primarily due to scouting reports contrary to my own view.
De la Cruz is 6’1”, 190, and projects to stick at third base even though he’s a bit slow already. His hands and arm should allow him to stay at the position as long as he continues to develop his footwork. So the real question about de la Cruz is what kind of hitter he can be. There’s no question that he has a hitch in his swing but he has shown the ability to hit in games. Obviously, as he moves up in competition, pitchers will be more and more able to exploit that hitch. However, when I see him hit, I see a very nice approach and a swing that will continue to be effective. I think he has a very real bat. Even if your swing isn’t perfect, if you can do it the same every time and have good coverage of the plate, you can be a successful hitter.
Magallanes is another guy who is already very big. He’s 6’4”, 195, and has a large frame even for that size. He’s already sitting in the low 90s and has shown a feel for changeup and a breaking ball. While the secondary offerings aren’t where I would normally like them, the projection left in his body tells me that he may be able to get into the mid 90s with his fastball. He’s already ahead of the vast majority of 16-year-olds by even having a feel for secondary offerings. All that indicates that if he can continue to develop those pitches, he can be extremely good.
There are a couple of intriguing IFAs out of Nicaragua this July 2nd but I like Medrano the best. He’s only 6’0” and 170 but, at 16, he already shows not only a feel for pitching but also a feel for secondary pitches. He has the high 80s/low 90s fastball that all of these prospects seem to have but what sets Medrano apart is that he displays the ability to command his fastball for strikes to both sides of the plate. He also shows a curveball and a changeup that could be effective pitches for him.
Rodriguez is a 5’11”, 190 pound catcher whose best skill is an advanced hitting approach. He has great contact skills and is able to drive the ball to all fields. Looking at his swing, he doesn’t have great bat speed but has quick hands. I also disagree with the scouting consensus on Rodriguez that he won’t develop power. His strong legs and ability to use those legs and his hips in his swing tell me that he’ll improve on the power he has currently. On defense, I like his footwork more than some scouts but all agree that he has good arm strength. There is no reason he shouldn’t be able to stay at catcher.
Almonte lands here mostly due to his projectable frame, coming in at 6’2”, 185. He does have a nice fastball but there’s some suggestion that it has slightly regressed from hitting the low 90s to the high 80s. At this point, there’s no indication why. Regardless, he has nice mechanics and already has a curveball that flashes, though very rarely, as a plus pitch.
Sanchez currently comes in at 6’1”, 180, and he is going to be a big kid. I have him here in part because reports from the Dominican Prospect League indicate that his offensive game is way ahead of most of the hitters there. When you add that to his current and future power, he’s someone worth spending a couple hundred thousand on and hoping for good development. His swing has a little too much movement in it for me but he has obvious raw power.
Here’s a guy we may have to follow for a while because he won’t turn 16 until August 30th. He is probably really a first baseman, and isn’t likely to be anything better than average there defensively, so he’s going to need to develop power to be a good investment. He shows a lot of raw power but his swing hasn’t translated yet to games. The power he does show is pretty much all generated from his hands. He has not tapped into how to use his hips and legs to generate power. I think good coaching could unveil some impressive power.
As we get farther down this list, I’m just looking for players who show anything that indicates a possibility of a high upside. Morales is a 6’2”, 170 pound lefty, who clearly has projection left, having just turned 16 on June 26. Morales throws from a three-quarters arm slot that creates a lot of deception. He’s currently sitting in the high 80s with his fastball. The secondary stuff is way behind but he has shown a slider and a curveball. The best secondary pitch he has is a changeup that clocks in around 80 mph. A lefty who has a fastball in the 90s alone is a valuable commodity. Morales will become more and more valuable with each secondary pitch upon which he improves.
One thing you learn if you follow the IFA market enough is that the Braves are pretty good at picking pitchers out of Latin America. I already liked Torres a lot but when I heard the Braves were in on him, he definitely moved up my list. He’s a 6’1”, 165 pound pitcher, who is clearly going to fill out some. His delivery is gorgeous. He definitely understands how to drive toward the plate, which is why, even with his lack of strength, Torres’ fastball already sits in the low 90s. It also has nice tailing action away from a left-handed hitter. He has a curveball and changeup and while the curveball is said to be ahead of the change, he doesn’t have much feel for the curve just yet.
Arias is a huge, strong kid at 6’3”, 220. His raw power is impressive, though it hasn’t totally translated to hitting in games yet. I believe it will for a few reasons. First, he has shown an ability to work the count. That tells me that he has pitch recognition skills. Second, he has a very quiet swing and good hands. Nothing about his swing screams that it will be hard for him to maintain consistency. If Arias were more advanced, he’d be way higher on this list. His defense is also a question mark. Still, he has a chance to be a big power bat.
Thanks for checking out our 2012 top 21 International free agents. We look forward to updating you on the progress of signing these players starting today.
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