Today is July 2, an important day in the world of Major League Baseball. This is the beginning of the "year" for the signing of international amateur free agents, which will run from now until next July 1 before the calendar turns over again. You'll be forgiven if you weren't aware of this before now because as far as the Orioles are concerned, there's nothing to separate this day from any other.
While other teams around the league will be opening up their wallets to snatch up 16-year-olds from places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the Orioles will, in all likelihood, not be doing a whole heck of a lot. It's not in their nature to splash around the deep end of the pool of 16-year-old talent in the Dan Duquette regime, and it wasn't of particular interest to the team in the days of former GM Andy MacPhail, either.
That's not to say they have never made any international amateur signings, because one key Oriole in the near future, Jonathan Schoop, signed as a 16-year-old with the O's back in 2008. The team also signed Eduardo Rodriguez, since traded to the Red Sox, as a 16-year-old in 2010.
The process worked differently when the Orioles signed those players. Now, MLB has harnessed the chaotic, unrestrained international spending into a bonus pool system that works sort of like the one in the domestic amateur draft does. Each team is allotted a certain dollar amount, which is broken up into several slots.
The slots are free to be traded among teams, as the Orioles did a couple of months ago when they traded a couple of last year's slots to the Astros for minor leaguer Christopher Lee. Those slots were worth about $650,000. There are slots, but there's just no draft. It's a free agent market.
The Orioles don't ignore it entirely, just mostly
Under the current system, the Orioles have signed at least one player who has turned into an interesting prospect: Jomar Reyes, the big third baseman from the Dominican Republic, signed with the O's for $350,000 in January, 2014. That's a very under-the-radar signing when compared to, for instance, the expected $3.45 million bonus for the top Dominican 16-year-old, who happens to bear the familiar name of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
In general, players signed on this market are 16-year-olds from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, though some amateurs from other countries make their way onto the list. There's also the special case of Cuba, where players under the age of 23 who make their way to the United States are subject to the pools. While the Orioles have not been shy about signing Cuban players, they tend to be players who are older and not subject to the bonus pools.
This has included players like Henry Urrutia and Dariel Alvarez, and, more recently, Lazaro Leyva and Ariel Miranda. To date, Urrutia is the only one to make it to MLB with the O's, though Alvarez in particular is probable to follow.
Teams that exceed their pool amount have to pay a tax into baseball's revenue sharing fund on the overage, and if they exceed it by a lot, the team is penalized by being unable to give a bonus larger than $300,000 to one of these international amateurs for the next 1-2 years. For instance, when the Red Sox made waves by signing top Cuban player Yoan Moncada, they paid Moncada a $31.5 million bonus and paid another $31.5 million as tax to MLB. The Red Sox are now forbidden from handing out a bonus on the July 2 market in each of the next two cycles.
That means that for a team that's blown over their pool limit already, you might as well just keep signing players and grab every guy you like out there. Teams that will be penalized for the cycle that begins today are, according to Fangraphs' Kiley McDaniel, the Rays, Angels, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, and Yankees. That's three of the Orioles' four division rivals mostly out of commission... but that's only because they snatched up so many players last time.
Much like the draft, the slot amounts are allocated in such a way that teams with worse records the year previous have more money to spend and teams with better records the year previous have less. The Orioles' July 2 pool this time around is the third-lowest of all MLB teams, at $2,002,900. This is an abstract number because, unlike the domestic draft where a team would be pilloried for not spending nearly all of its pool, in the international market you can just do nothing and nobody really cares because it's your loss.
Paying the piper, or at least the buscon
So why don't the Orioles do much in this market? For those who have long viewed Orioles owner Peter Angelos as some kind of penny-pinching miser, the answer probably involves an unwillingness to take risks and spend money. There are plenty of practical reasons to be cautious, however. The whole process where these players are found and scouted is rather shady, often taking place under the guiding hand of men known as buscones.
A TIME magazine article from five years ago highlights some of the sketchy parts of the process, not to mention some of the numbers game. One eye-popper is that these men keep between 25-50% of the signing bonuses of players they train. Sure, they're not housing, feeding, and training boys out of the goodness of their hearts, but that's crazy. Another number is 2%, as in, the percentage of Dominican players who had signed in the decade previous who made it to the major leagues.
Other risks, although these have lessened in recent years, include that teams could sign players who are using false documents to present themselves as younger than they really are. 16-year-olds get better bonuses than 18-year-olds, generally, since they've got more potential. The article from TIME notes that when MLB started testing the top 40 Dominican amateurs for steroids, about a third of them failed. It's a perverse incentive structure for the buscones.
Another thing outside of any of this is just the fact that we're talking about 16-year-olds. Think about when you were 16. You were a moron. I was a moron. If you're 16 right now, you're a moron. Sorry.
These young men in the Dominican or Venezuela have much more physical potential than you or I ever did, but there is a whole heck of a long way for even the best of them to go from 16-year-old prodigies in controlled workouts and showcases to the major leagues.
Perhaps some or even a lot of the Orioles' hesitance to go big in this market is heeding the advice that Marla Daniels gives to her husband early in The Wire: "You cannot lose if you do not play." Lt. Daniels ignores this advice, of course, as do most of the MLB teams. You can't win if you don't play, either.
The price of not playing the game
This impulse fuels state lottery games around the country, and MLB teams, though their lottery tickets are more expensive, also don't face quite as long odds. A team that's shrewd in signing players, or just willing to spend their way through a lot of blanks, can get a real advantage in adding talent to its system. For example, three of the Yankees' top 10 prospects on MLB.com are former international amateur signings, and 13 of their top 30. The Red Sox have four out of 10 top prospects from the foreign amateur ranks, and 10 of their top 30.
The Orioles have one such player - Reyes - anywhere in their top 30. That's in part only because they traded Rodriguez last summer, but still, two is less than three and four and it's definitely less than 10-13.
They made exactly one noteworthy July 2 signing in the period that just ended, a $400,000 bonus given to a different Miguel Gonzalez. It's certainly a name with Orioles success, so he's got that going for him already. Can you imagine how crazy it would be if, several years down the road, we had to differentiate between Miguel Gonzalezes? Gonzalii?
If the Orioles follow the pattern of recent years, they'll make one or two signings of players on the lower end of the market and see what they can do with those guys. They'll trade their slots whenever they can entice a team to take one off their hands. Other than that, they'll mostly just be sitting around watching the clouds go by. And all the while, for better or worse, other teams will be throwing money at raw physical specimens - and at their buscones - left and right, hoping to find future big leaguers or trade pieces among them.