There is no discussion of who was an elite MLB player in the 2021 season that does not include players who signed as amateurs out of Latin America. Four of the top 10 players in bWAR in 2021 were international amateurs. Three of the current top 10 MLB Pipeline prospects, and 22 of the top 100, arrived the same way.
It cannot be said enough that until Mike Elias came along, the Orioles were almost completely asleep at the wheel in this area. Today’s top 100 prospect-caliber international signings were inked 3-5 years ago, with technically forbidden but entirely common handshake agreements made as much as another two years before that. The Orioles were not trying to sign the big dollar guys. They were not trying to sign many small-dollar guys, either.
In January of this year, when the signing class that was delayed from July 2, 2020 due to pandemic-related disruption was eventually free to sign, Elias’s Orioles finally started to change this. For the first time ever, the Orioles agreed to seven-figure bonuses for players in this group, giving a $1.3 million bonus to Venezuelan catcher Samuel Basallo and $1.2 million to Dominican shortstop Maikol Hernandez, along with an additional 11 players who received bonuses of at least six figures.
These are signings that, initially at least, are more interesting as symbols of the Orioles new commitment to this avenue than they are for what they bring into the world of O’s prospects in the short term.
A team that’s very good and/or very lucky might get a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Fernando Tatis Jr. to debut for his age 20 season, or even a Juan Soto age 19 debut, but for the most part the prospects who make it will probably be 22 or 23, five or six years from now, and that’s if things go well and they make it to MLB, which is not the case even for a lot of seven-figure signings from that part of the world. Hold off on getting custom Hernandez or Basallo jerseys made.
What Orioles fans do have is a reason to at least look in on how the Orioles affiliates in the Dominican Summer League performed. One of the Orioles squads went 13-39. The other went 25-30. No surprise, as the Orioles operation is only beginning to gain steam, that their Dominican teams didn’t have the talent to compete with other organizations. This will change, we can hope.
As for the million-dollar bonus players themselves, Basallo played 41 games in the DSL, with Hernandez appearing in 40. Scouting solely based on minor league box scores and stat lines is an incomplete picture no matter what level player you’re looking at, and when you’re talking about a sample size of 25% of an MLB regular season worth of games for teenagers getting their first professional baseball action in the Dominican Republic, that is an even fuzzier picture. With that in mind, here’s how they did and why at least one prospect site likes them.
The seven-figure shortstop turned 18 years old earlier this month, which made him about a year younger than the average player he competed against in the Dominican. Over 40 games, Hernandez batted .231/.340/.308.
This would be a disheartening slugging percentage to see on a major league player, but for a just-signed DR shortstop whose body type draws at least one (probably very generous) comparison to Carlos Correa, it’s not about the .308 SLG right now, when he’s listed at 6’3” 175 lbs. It’s about how he slugs after a few years of being in the system, getting work in, gradually gaining 35 pounds to get him closer to Correa’s current listed 220 lbs. And in the meantime, a walk rate of 12.8% is something to hang his hat on.
The MLB Pipeline ranking of Orioles prospects has Hernandez as the #19 guy in the system. I will say that I think this reflects one broad quirk in the Pipeline rankings: They tend to have a lot of recency bias in them. I think, in this case, “The Orioles just gave two international amateurs $1+ million for the first time ever,” got Hernandez and Basallo onto the list initially. Other prospect writers might want to wait and see a little more from the prospects. That said, here’s what Pipeline’s report writes of Hernandez:
His right-handed swing is smooth and easy, with flashes of raw power potential and an ability to hit to all fields. He already makes consistent hard contact and shows an early understanding of the strike zone, although he would benefit from improving his plate discipline as he develops. Hernandez’s athleticism shows most obviously on defense, where he displays an above-average arm, smooth hands and good footwork. There is belief he’ll stay at the position as he grows, but could require an eventual move to third base depending on how his body matures in pro ball.
An operative word with any international amateur prospect is “upside.” If things go reasonably well for him, what kind of player will he be? You want guys with upside, because the more of them who reach that upside, the better off you are. The press release the Orioles sent out with the draft class touts his “five-tool potential.” There comes a time when you don’t want to hear about upside any more and you just want them to be good right now. Hernandez is not at that time yet.
Is this enough for Hernandez to get moved to the Florida Complex League for 2022? We’ll see how Elias treats his international signings now that he’s got some of them.
My favorite thing about the Orioles signing Basallo is that they reportedly stole him out from under the Yankees nose. Basallo was only 15 years old on July 2, 2020, and would not have been eligible until this year’s July 2 class, but when the 2020 class was pushed to January of this year, Basallo became eligible and a team with money for newly-available prospects - the Orioles - could swoop in. With his $1.3 million bonus, he’s the highest-paid Orioles international amateur, for now.
As for how he played in his 41 games for the Dominican Summer League Orioles, his batting line stands out more compared to his teammate’s. Basallo batted .239/.338/.410 in that league’s season, all while he was only 16 years old, nearly two full years younger than the average player in the league. That’s interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is that the slugging percentage across the entire DSL was .334. He’s young and already capable of getting to more game power than most of his older competition. Five home runs in 41 games for a 16 year old is something to keep an eye on.
The Pipeline ranking has Basallo as the #24 prospect in the system, with a report that includes this:
A left-handed-hitting backstop with potential plus power, Basallo wowed scouts by registering triple-digit exit velocity readings with wood bats as a 16-year-old. He stands out for his physique and raw power to all fields, producing precocious strength from his 6-foot-3, 180 pound frame. ... Scouts also give Basallo high marks for his arm strength and flexibility behind the plate, while noting he’s already big for the position and could grow out of it in time. There is room for his receiving and blocking to improve as he develops, and questions about his quickness will linger simply because of his size.
6’3” is already big for a catcher and Basallo may still have a little growth to do, so don’t etch him into stone as the guy who will eventually take over behind the dish from Adley Rutschman. There is a lot of time to figure out what position he will play. Hopefully he keeps hitting, which makes it easier to slot him in at a position best suited for his skills rather than trying to force him somewhere else.
It will be great for the Orioles franchise if Basallo or Hernandez develop as prospects. If they were American high school kids, they would only be eligible to be drafted next year. They are young. There is a long way to go, but it’s noteworthy that the O’s have finally got players like them.
Even more important than anything specific about either player is their signings being the signal that the Orioles will be looking to add players like this in every international signing class, with six-figure and even five-figure depth guys behind them in greater numbers. The organization has suffered for lack of these lottery tickets for potential stars. Now they’ve got a chance.
Monday: Jahmai Jones