In a span of about two weeks, the Phillies (may have) signed Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a contract that could be worth up to $59 million, a record for an international free agent, as well as 16 year old Dominican third baseman Luis Encarnacion for $1 million, nearly a team record for an international prospect, just behind Korean pitcher Seung Lee who received $1.2 million in 2001. A philly.com article from Bob Brookover a month ago indicated the Phillies won’t have a new philosophy when it comes to signing international players, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.
Spending as much as they (may) have on Gonzalez is a huge risk, even if the money is spread out over a long-term contract. Obviously they didn’t sign either player, but reports indicated they were legitimately in the bidding for two other Cuban defectors that required big financial commitments, Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler. Even if the Gonzalez signing never actually comes to fruition, it seems like they are valuing these high dollar targets differently and feel that risks to acquire talents like these players are worth taking. With more talented Cubans that could defect sometime soon, we’ll see if they remain aggressive.
Besides the defectors, the Phillies’ international spending still seems to be on the way up. From 2006 (when Carlos Ruiz made his major league debut) to this year, seven international free agents signed by the Phillies have reached the majors with the club: Ruiz, Yoel Hernandez, Brad Harman, Sergio Escalona, Antonio Bastardo, Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. Obviously, besides Ruiz and Bastardo, the Phillies haven’t been getting much value from this group to this point. Other players like Carlos Carrasco, Jonathan Villar and Domingo Santana were signed by the Phillies, but they’ll be helping other teams.
Having an international prospect reach the majors is like hitting the lottery because so few players make it, but the Phillies weren’t doing themselves any favors by not being willing to spend greater than $500,000 for the more talented players. Some of the players they have uncovered without paying a seven-figure or high six-figure bonus could help out the team soon. In my mid-season top 15 prospects list, there are four international free agents: third baseman Maikel Franco (2), second baseman Cesar Hernandez (4), center fielder Carlos Tocci (10), and right-handed pitcher Severino Gonzalez (14). Signing Tocci two years ago right now seems to be the turning point in the organization being more aggressive signing this talent.
When Tocci signed two years ago, it was for a team record of $759,000 for a Latin American free agent. To get an idea of how little that is compared to other teams, in the 2011 signing period, Tocci’s bonus ranked 20th. Just in that year, 19 players signed for more than what became a new team record. Tocci’s stats as a 17 year old in low-A have not been good, or even adequate, with a .212 average and .270 on-base percentage. Usually when a young player struggles in Lakewood like this, he gets sent down to Williamsport in June. Santana and Sebastian Valle have gone that route, but the Phillies have stuck with the tougher assignment for Tocci. Reports on him have still been good, and if he can gain some strength, his advanced approach to the game will start to come through when he’s not as physically overmatched.
Their two bigger signings last year didn’t get the dollar value Tocci did the year before, but they were both considered to be top 20 talents by Baseball America. Catcher Deivi Grullon signed for $575,000, which nearly didn’t even make the cut for the top 30 list of bonuses for that signing period. His OPS of .634 is below the league average of .666, but he’s doing it as one of the youngest players in the league at 17 years old. His average and on-base percentage are actually better than league average, and that’s a good indicator because one strike against him pre-signing was a tendency to sell out for power that’s probably never going to develop. His defense is very good too, so depending on how the organization’s depth chart at catcher pans out over the next eight months, he could start in Lakewood next year too.
Jose Pujols, who signed on the same day as Grullon last year, is a different kind of player. He can hit for power, and he also strikes out a ton. He has lived up to his billing so far in the GCL; his five home runs are tied for third most in the league, and he’s also batting under .200 while striking out in 29.5% of his plate appearances. He’s definitely a bit of a project, but with a signing bonus of $540,000, they definitely see talent in him.
Finally, this brings us to Encarnacion, whose $1 million bonus beats Tocci’s Latin American team record. Baseball America ranked him as the fourth best international talent this year, and the Phillies gave him the money necessary to get him into the organization. Like Pujols, he has a lot of power, but Encarnacion is noted for actually performing well in games which isn’t necessarily common for some of these big bonus players. He should hit, which is something the team clearly needs, but he’s not a good defender at all which means he’ll really have to hit to have value.
It’s possible these signings are just an aberration, and they’ll go back to their thrifty ways soon. I think three years in a row of being a little more aggressive indicates that Sal Agostinelli’s international department is getting more money to work with. Next year, they’ll have even more to spend with MLB’s new signing bonus rules, and money with a knack for finding undervalued players and building relationships could be a great combination for adding more talent to the organization.
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