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All's Quiet on the International Front

Early July.... a time for cookouts, fireworks, and sweltering heat.  And in the baseball world, a time for the signing of teenagers from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to contracts worth hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

Last Friday, as most of us attempted to tolerate the boredom of our offices for a few more hours before we could rush to the boredom of traffic on the interstates and the security theater of the airports, the signing period for international free agents in Major League Baseball began.  The rules of international free agency are pretty loose - a player must be a citizen of a country other than the United States or Canada and must be sixteen years old on July 2nd.  And, well, those are the rules.

These rules, or the lack thereof, have changed the face of baseball over the last couple of decades.  In 2010, over 25% of Major League Baseball players received their original contract as international free agents, including Orioles  Felix Pie, Alfredo Simon, Miguel Tejada, Cesar Izturis, Koji Uehara, and Frank Mata.  As of today, three of the top ten position players according to WAR were international free agents (Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre) as are three of the top ten pitchers (Francisco Liriano, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Felix Hernandez).  More and more, our national pastime is an international game.

However, the Orioles remain one of the organizations for whom this is least true.  Baseball America recently looked at which teams have had the most success in the international free agent market by totaling up the players listed as among the top 30 prospects for all the teams in baseball, and counting which teams had originally signed these players.  The Orioles were tied for third-worst in baseball, having only three prospects who made the list: Luis Lebron, Pedro Florimon, and Garabez Rosa.  Only the Pirates and Marlins have signed fewer international free agents who are currently significant prospects.

This failure to date represents a failure of Andy MacPhail on one of his key goals when taking over as General Manager of the Orioles.  After being hired in the middle of the 2007 season, MacPhail spoke to fans about his plans at the 2008 Fan Fest, emphasizing the need to rebuild the international scouting department and to find talent all over the globe like the Yankees and Red Sox

The disappointment here is not simply due to inactivity, as it was in previous Orioles regimes.  One of MacPhail's first major moves was to lease a baseball academy in Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic.  The Orioles have expanded their presence in the Dominican to the extent that last season, they split a second Dominican Summer League team with the Brewers, and this year, they are fielding two full teams in the Dominican Summer League, and this year returned to Venezuela after shutting down operations there five years ago.  But while spending on infrastructure has increased, money spent on players has lagged.

In 2007, when MacPhail took over, the Orioles signed a dozen international free agents for a total of $370,000.  In 2008, they signed twenty-one players for a total of $750,000.  And in 2009, they signed thirty-six players for a total of about $1.5 million, according to the club, including handing out one six figure bonus (probably to Guatemalan Manuel Hernandez who was reported to have received one of the highest bonuses ever given by the O's to an international free agent), and three bonuses of more than $75,000.  To put this into perspective, in the last several days, the Blue Jays have signed Venezuelan pitcher Adonis Cardona to a deal worth $2.2 million, and even the cash-strapped Rays signed Dominican outfielder Yoel Araujo to a deal worth $800,000, a number that exceeds our total spending from merely two years ago.

The penurious stance of the Orioles towards international free agents has many roots.  One has been the notable failures of the Orioles most high-priced international free agents in the past.  In 1999, the Orioles gave Dominican right-hander Sendy Rleal a bonus of $135,000.  Rleal pitched one season in the majors for the Orioles, achieving an ERA+ of 104 in 2006 in 44 2/3 innings.  Other big investments in international free agents in the 1990s also were failures, particularly in Australia, where the Orioles signed right-handed John Stephens, who provided the Orioles with 65 innings with an ERA+ of 71, and catcher Andy Utting, who never reached the majors. 

Another reason that the Orioles may be reticent to spend big on international free agents is the taint of scandal that surrounds them.  Numerous international prospects have been caught faking their ages and identities, most recently top Dominican pitching prospect Rafael DePaula, who admitted he lied about his name and age last month.  And even if you can establish with a high degree of confidence that a player is who he says he is and is as old as he says, you cannot be certain the performance is real: Baseball America reports that as many as half of the top 40 Dominican prospects this year tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs

Under these circumstances, a cautious attitude towards international free agency has some justification.  And the lower-priced international free agents can become stars too; David Ortiz, for example, was signed for a mere $10,000 out of the Dominican by the Seattle Mariners.  But the fact remains that the Orioles, three years after MacPhail declared international scouting to be one of the keys to rebuilding the franchise, are the most miserly team in the AL East and among the cheapest in baseball when it comes to finding talent outside North America.  The team knows and has expressed that international talent is necessary for them to be competitive, yet they continue to choose not to compete for the best international talent.

And so, for yet another year, we have created an extra impediment to fielding a competitive team in the toughest division in baseball.