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Orioles announce signings of delayed 2020 international amateur class

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Among the crop of players the Orioles signed on the first day are the first two to receive million dollar bonuses from the club.

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability
Mike Elias and his staff have been doing work internationally that the Orioles never did before he arrived.
Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In the pre-Mike Elias days of the Orioles, the start of a new signing period for international amateurs meant little for the franchise. Those days are over now. The Orioles were able to jump in on day one of the signing period that begins today with a slate of 17 announced signings, including the club’s first two international amateurs to receive bonuses in excess of $1 million.

Under ordinary circumstances, the players being signed today would have been signed on July 2, 2020. MLB postponed the traditional date for COVID-related reasons. The Orioles have a pool of nearly $6 million available to give out to these amateurs without incurring any penalties. Only six teams have more pool space, with the majority of teams having less. In the Dan Duquette years, the Orioles also had among the largest bonus pools. They did not spend much of it.

What’s more, Duquette was fond of trading away his bonus pool money for insignificant minor leaguers, along with the occasional somewhat-useful big leaguer. Current Oriole Paul Fry arrived in one of these Duquette pool space dumps. There are teams that counted on being able to pry away money from cheap teams like the old Orioles in order to sign more amateurs.

However, for this period at least, MLB has done away with the practice of trading bonus pool money. This could turn out to benefit the Orioles. The nature of the international market is that teams and players often have handshake agreements in place two years out from their signing day. Since the O’s under Duquette were asleep at the wheel, even after Elias was hired, the O’s could not be a factor in signing the top talent from this class.

With the change in available bonus pool money from teams not being able to acquire extra pool space from the cheap/stupid franchises, some now-eligible players who had been promised deals by other teams saw those handshake deals broken. The Orioles, without commitments dating back to 2018 but now with a general manager willing to invest in Latin American scouting and signings, may have been able to come in and clean up.

The two Orioles million-dollar prospects, according to MASN’s Steve Melewski, are players who had previously been linked to other teams. They will be the prospects who get the most attention initially. Those players are Dominican catcher Samuel Basallo, and Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernández.

Hernández, who turned 17 in October, checks in at #30 on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 international prospects for this class. There is a long way between where Hernandez is now and MLB, but Pipeline’s scouting capsule on him certainly sounds fun:

Hernandez offers a smooth and easy swing with flashes of raw power potential. He’s considered a line-drive hitter to all fields with the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He makes tons of hard contact and shows an understanding of the strike zone. He’s also working on improving his plate discipline. ... On defense, the teenager is smooth with good actions at shortstop, solid arm strength and plus potential.

Baseball scouts love throwing out comparisons to other, more successful players that fit a certain mold when judging prospects, even if those comparisons have a 5% chance or less of coming true. Because Hernández is a shortstop on the taller side - 6’3” on his Pipeline profile, 6’4” according to Melewski - his capsule says he “reminds some scouts of a young Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Correa.”

No one should expect this outcome. For today, though, the optimistic comparison can be enough to feel nice about the signing. Two signing periods ago, the Orioles were still the doofuses trading away their pool money for the likes of Jack Zoellner.

Hernández received a $1.2 million bonus from the Orioles. Basallo, the catcher, came in slightly higher at $1.3 million. Melewski wrote that Basallo “has some raw power and an arm that gets some 60 grades from scouts” - that’s well above average in baseball’s odd 20-80 scouting scale. He also said that the lefty-batting Basallo is already 6’3” and could outgrow the catching position.

This group of players consists mostly of 16-year-old players. Some, like Hernández, may have turned 17 since, July 2, 2020, the day that traditionally would have been the start of the signing period for this class of players. Projecting the professional baseball prospects of a bunch of 16-year-olds is not an enterprise where even the best in the business have flawless judgment.

There are busts and disappointments even among players who command $3+ million bonuses. There are also future stars waiting to be found who get bonuses in the $1 million range. Some get bonuses even smaller than that and turn into good big leaguers. Pipeline’s top 30 rankings from the 2015 class include a couple of today’s brightest young stars: Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. Soto signed for $1.5 million. Tatis signed for $700,000.

The 2015 Orioles paid shortstop Everth Cabrera more money ($2.4 million) than these two combined bonuses to post a .479 OPS in 29 games and be released in June. Plans in the Duquette era were short-sighted. It was fun until the winning stopped, and then things got ugly in a hurry.

It’s going to take a long time for that to be fully fixed by Elias and company. Consider that if things work out great for one of today’s class and he’s able to debut at age 21 or 22, that will be five or six years from now in 2026 or 2027. Perhaps if the Orioles are good in 2023, they can use extra prospect depth from finally making these signings to make trades to help the big league club without totally depleting the farm.

Elias has also tried to make up for the lack of international depth when he arrived by acquiring some players in trades in both 2019 and 2020. The Andrew Cashner deal brought back a couple of very young players. Several of the players to be named later from their 2020 season trades were young former international amateur signings as well. If the O’s are lucky, some of those will turn into real prospects.

For Orioles fans, the important thing is that today is hopefully the beginning of the team not being left behind in the search for the top talent in Latin America. As Melewski noted, 30 of the current top 100 prospects in Baseball America were signed as international amateurs. It’s hard to have a great farm system when you’ve got a 0% chance to get 30% of baseball’s top prospects.

This won’t change immediately, and even when there are successes, they probably won’t be Soto-level successes. At least now the O’s are in the hunt.

Signing tracker

The Orioles announced the following signings, listed alphabetically by last name:

  • Samuel Basallo, C, Dominican Republic
  • Yasmil Bucce, C, Venezuela
  • Eruviel Castillo, SS, Dominican Republic
  • Victor Celedenio, SS, Dominican Republic
  • Teudis Contorreal, OF, Dominican Republic
  • Deivy Cruz, LHP, Dominican Republic
  • Anderson De Los Santos, SS, Dominican Republic
  • Wilmer Feliciano, OF, Dominican Republic
  • Maikol Hernández, SS, Venezuela
  • Héctor Jiménez, OF, Dominican Republic
  • Junior Lara, OF, Dominican Republic
  • Aneudis Mordán, C, Dominican Republic
  • Ángel Peña, OF, Dominican Republic
  • Elvis Polanco, LHP, Dominican Republic
  • Carlos Rodríguez, C, Venezuela
  • Grabiel Salazar, OF, Venezuela
  • Angel Tejada, SS, Dominican Republic

This is a smaller group than the Orioles pulled in on the first day of the July 2, 2019 signing class, when they announced 27 signings from a class that ended up with 44 players in total. That seems to have been the result of an approach aiming for quantity since they had already missed out on the chance to form relationships with most of the quality players. That work had been done for the 2019 class while Duquette’s Orioles weren’t paying attention.

With two players with million-dollar bonuses in this group, it’s more targeted towards quality. According to MLB.com’s Joe Trezza, this set of players accounts for roughly $5.75 million of the nearly $5.9 million in pool space the Orioles have. Along with Hernández and Basallo, there are six more players whose bonuses exceed $300,000. Five years ago, Duquette’s Orioles did not spend more than $300,000 in total on international amateur players.

The Orioles are expected to field two teams in the Dominican Summer League this year. Maybe those teams will actually be worth checking in on from time to time for the first time in pretty much ever.

My early favorite is Eruviel Castillo, because the name Eruviel looks like it comes out of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and that’s the sort of nerd I am. I’m sure that’s not actually the reason he is named Eruviel.

Completely random fact: Basallo and Bucce, the two catchers listed first here, were both born on the exact same day, August 13, 2004. Yes, you are old. You will be older still by the time any of these players ever plays in Baltimore. Here’s hoping more than a few of them are on a road that will bring them to big league success with the Orioles.