The Twins, like most MLB teams, will send scouts to a showcase in the Caribbean this week for Venezuelan prospects, a chance to measure and evaluate players who will eventually sign contracts to play professionally. But this gathering of baseball talent is unusual — though it reflects the new reality of international scouting.
All the players will be 14 or younger.
“There’s nobody there eligible to sign now, or in 2018. They’re all 2019 players,” said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president for player personnel. “Under the system we have now, we’re being asked to scout 13-year-olds.”
Not only scout, but offer millions of dollars to the best of them.
The reason? New spending limits for teenage talent have encouraged the network of trainer/agents (known as buscones), who make their own deals with players to showcase them and negotiate bonuses in exchange for a percentage of the contract, to find and accept handshake commitments from major league teams well before their players turn 16 and are eligible to be signed. That has caused teams to commit money to younger and younger players.
“Teams are agreeing with players for 2020 now, that’s how far out it is,” Radcliff said. “Almost all of the best guys for next [July] are locked up already and off the market. And since everybody wants a [top player], to assure you get one, you have to move on to the next year, and the next one.”
It’s an unintended consequence of the new collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the Players Association, which established concrete limits, $4.75 million to $5.75 million, on how much a franchise can spend each year to sign players from countries — Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and others — that are not part of the amateur draft. One need only look at the Twins roster, which includes such non-draft-eligible players as Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Ervin Santana and Max Kepler, to understand how important international signings can be.
A half-dozen years ago, teams could simply offer huge bonuses to the best players near signing day, a process that had the effect of keeping most players uncommitted until signing day neared, in hopes of leveraging a bigger contract.
The previous CBA attempted to curb bonus inflation by imposing penalties on teams that exceeded suggested limits, a system that didn’t deter big spenders from swallowing the penalties and blowing past their budgets. Make no mistake, teams value potential star players far beyond the limits MLB is trying to impose: When a bidding war broke out over Bahamian outfielder Lucius Fox two years ago, the Giants ponied up $6.5 million, or more than the entire annual international budget that each team is allotted today.
The Twins, under the leadership of Latin American coordinator Fred Guerrero and with their new Boca Chica academy now in place, have had success signing some of the top Dominican players under the old system, with Sano in 2009 (he received a bonus of about $3.1 million), Wander Javier ($4 million) in 2015 and Jelfry Marte ($3 million) in July all choosing Minnesota. With money potentially drying up under the new system, though, buscones are eager to get commitments on seven-figure contracts — though nothing can be in writing — earlier than ever.
It’s all legal because it’s nonbinding, though teams generally are reluctant to “raid” each other’s committed players. Still, teams “do a lot of babysitting,” Radcliff said, as signing day approaches, just to make sure.
“It feels like we spend almost as much time trying to find out who’s still available and who’s not as we do going to scout players,” Radcliff said of the new scouting reality. “And it’s impossible to know what a 13-year-old is going to turn into. Did you know what you would be when you were 13?”
Still, the Twins will have scouts at that Venezuelan showcase next week. “If you want to keep up with the Joneses,” Radcliff said, “this is what you do now.”
As the 2017 season winds down, AL Central teams face some big challenges in building toward 2018. A look:
Cleveland: The Indians’ AL-record 22-game winning streak is incredible, and if they win the World Series, their decisions might become easier. But Carlos Santana, a cornerstone of their lineup, is a free agent, and stretch-drive acquisition Jay Bruce is, too. Both will seek close to $20 million a season, making it much less likely that both will be here in 2018.
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Kansas City: The era that produced back-to-back AL titles and a World Series crown for the Royals is probably over. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Jason Vargas are free agents (as is Melky Cabrera), and Kansas City, with a $143 million payroll, figures to let many of them leave. Which ones, and how to replace them, will be difficult calls.
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Detroit: The Tigers’ problem isn’t the players who might leave, it’s those who might stay. Ian Kinsler (35), Victor Martinez (38), and Miguel Cabrera (34) all showed signs of aging and are owed a combined $59 million next year (and Cabrera $192 million through 2024). If they can’t be moved, those are big obstacles to a roster overhaul.
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Chicago: The White Sox rebuild looks a lot like the Twins’ from a couple of years ago, with huge talents in development. Another similarity: finding veteran pitching to keep the team respectable in the meantime. That’s not easy, as a year with Derek Holland (6.20 ERA), Mike Pelfrey (5.51) and James Shields (5.43) reminded them.
Barring a late-season collapse, the 2017 Twins figure to become the most improved team in franchise history:
Largest single-season improvement, Twins history
23 wins — 1965 (from 79 to 102)
21 wins — 1991 (from 74 to 95)
21 wins — 1962 (from 70 to 91)
18 wins — 1969 (from 79 to 97)
18 wins* — 2017 (from 59 to 77)
*-15 games remain in season, entering Saturday
Still, the Twins won’t approach the modern record for one-year improvement:
Largest single-season improvement (with 162-game schedule)
35 wins — 1999 Diamondbacks (from 65 to 100)
33 wins — 1989 Orioles (from 54 to 87)
31 wins — 2008 Rays (from 66 to 97)
31 wins — 1993 Giants (from 72 to 103)
29 wins — 2011 Diamondbacks (from 65 to 94)
29 wins — 2004 Tigers (from 43 to 72)
29 wins — 1991 Braves (from 65 to 94)
29 wins — 1980 Athletics (from 54 to 83)