Only a few short years ago, the start of the signing period for international players was the same as any other day for the Orioles. They did next to nothing, signed almost no one, and went on with their business, shut out from a pool of players that typically makes up around one-third of the game’s top prospects at any time. Since Mike Elias has taken over, things have been different.
The Orioles different, more aggressive path in the international market was demonstrated again on Saturday afternoon, when this year’s signing period opened up and the team announced 24 contracts deals right away. This marks the start of what used to be known as another “July 2” class, because the period opened on that day. The pandemic delayed the 2020 class until January 15, 2021, and that’s carried over again to this year. J2 is out and J15 is in.
The team has an available pool of $6,262,600 to give out to these players as signing bonuses without incurring any penalties. No team has a bigger pool than that. Seven other teams, all of whom liked the Orioles had a pick in competitive balance Round B in last year’s draft, have the same amount of money available. In past years, teams have been able to trade for extra bonus pool money, but MLB has not allowed that for the last couple of pandemic-affected signing periods.
Among the Orioles day 1 signings this time around is a player who is receiving a new team record for an international amateur. Dominican outfielder Braylin Tavera gets a bonus of $1.7 million. That tops the $1.3 million the O’s gave Dominican catching prospect Samuel Basallo this time last year. Tavera was rated as the #22 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s top 50 ranking for the class.
Listed at 6’3” and 165 lbs., this is Pipeline’s scouting capsule on the righty-batting Tavera:
At the plate, the lean and athletic teen shows a good approach and sound fundamentals with improving pitch recognition. He has a good feel for hitting. Like most prospects his age, Tavera’s swing is a work in progress, but he already has good bat-to-ball skills and emerging power that projects to be a plus tool. He can run now, and the run tool is also expected to be a plus tool if he continues to develop at a normal pace.
Most of the scouting reports for these types of players, even the higher-ranked ones who are getting bigger bonuses than Tavera, have phrases like “work in progress” and a lot of use of the word “if.” There’s a lot of luck involved for teams in drafting 18-21 year old American players and the luck element only expands when you go down to finding 16-17 year old amateurs. Successful teams aren’t afraid to lay out some money amidst the uncertainty, knowing that a few big hits will pay off the whole strategy.
The Orioles snagged another player on this top 50 list, bringing in Dominican shortstop Leandro Arias, the #46 prospect on the list, for a bonus of $600,000. Both Taveras and Arias will only turn 17 years old next month. Players in this group become eligible to sign once they turn 16 and most are either 16 or 17, though occasionally teams might pick up late bloomers.
Arias is listed at 6’1” and 170 lbs. In addition to being on Pipeline’s list, he also makes the cut on Fangraphs board of international players to know:
Arias has a slighter build than some of the players ahead of him here, but otherwise he has a complete skill set and very favorable general profile. He’s a slick-fielding defensive shortstop with advanced feel for contact from both sides of the plate, and Arias could have a huge breakout if he ever starts to fill out and add power.
There’s that magic word “if” again.
There is a long way to go from doing early development work at a team’s complex in the Dominican Republic to MLB. If things go very well for Taveras, Arias, or any of the teenagers signed in this group, their path would probably put them in the Dominican Summer League this year, the Florida Complex League next year, and a full-season affiliate debut two years from now at age 19.
It is exciting that the Orioles are now splashing in this market nonetheless. The lower levels of the system should start to see some of the players they’ve signed, and other teams signings who they’ve traded for, as this year rolls along. Some of these guys might help a future Orioles team by making it to the top of the ladder. Others might be prospect depth that can be used to make trades that will help the big league club.
One player in the Orioles signing class who’s a bit older than the rest is 22-year-old Cuban infielder César Prieto. He became available for this signing class after leaving the Cuban national team while it was playing in Florida last spring. At the time, he had a 44-game hitting streak for his team in the Serie Nacional league in Cuba. Prieto is reportedly receiving a $650,000 bonus.
The athletic Prieto has shown good instincts, and the ability to play multiple infield positions. Think of him as a super-utility player. For now, it’s Prieto’s bat, not his glove, that provides him most value despite questions about his power. He’s considered an average defender at second base with room for improvement.
Depending on how advanced the Orioles think Prieto’s bat is, or how much work they think his glove needs, he figures to be an exception to the typically slow climb for international players. That makes sense, since he’s older. Prieto turns 23 in May; he’s the same age as college juniors drafted in 2020. The O’s second pick in that draft, Jordan Westburg, made it to Double-A Bowie last season. I’d guess they start Prieto at Delmarva with the possibility to move quickly if his performance warrants.
In last year’s signing class, the team announced 17 signings from the drop of the hat on January 15. Last year’s class saw the Orioles give out two seven-figure bonuses.
At the very top of the list for this class are a couple of players getting bonuses of $4 million or more. That includes Pipeline’s #1 prospect in the class, Dominican shortstop Roderick Arias, who is signing with the Yankees, and the #2 prospect, Cuban outfielder Cristian Vaquero, reportedly receiving $4.9 million from the Nationals.
Sometimes the big money guys pay out. The Blue Jays look pretty good for getting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for $3.9 million in the 2015 signing class. Maybe the Orioles will try to play at that level some day. Then again, two other players in that class have already made an impact in MLB for much less money. The Nationals got Juan Soto with that 2015 class for $1.5 million, and the White Sox brought in Fernando Tatis Jr. for a mere $700,000.
According to the team’s announcement, 15 of the players in the class received bonuses of at least six figures. In addition to Tavera, Arias, and Prieto, the Orioles announcement highlights Dominican shortstop Edwin Amparo and Dominican outfielder Thomas Sosa:
Amparo, 17, is an athletic, switch-hitting shortstop from the Dominican Republic. He shows above average speed and good bat-to-ball skills from each side of the plate. He flashes intriguing power, which could become more sustained as he fills out. Defensively, he has good actions at shortstop with solid range and growing arm strength.
Sosa, 16, a Dominican Republic native, is a lanky center field prospect with an athletic body. He flashes plus power potential, along with good hit ability. His run tool should improve with age and normal strength gains, and he portrays above average arm strength.
Here is the full signing class, listed alphabetically by last name:
- Edwin Amparo, SS, Dominican Republic
- Leandro Arias, SS, Dominican Republic
- Cristian Benavides, SS, Venezuela
- Ezequiel Bonilla, RHP, Panama
- Edrei Campos, SS, Dominican Republic
- Elis Cuevas, SS, Dominican Republic
- Adrián Delgado, RHP, Venezuela
- Aron Estrada, INF, Venezuela
- Jean Mata, OF, Venezuela
- Elías Moscoso, RHP, Venezuela
- José Noguera, C, Venezuela
- Andrés Nolaya, C, Venezuela
- Jesús Palacios, RHP, Venezuela
- Andrés Parra, LHP, Venezuela
- Fernando Peguero, SS, Dominican Republic
- Juan Peña, RHP, Dominican Republic
- César Prieto, INF, Cuba
- Raylin Ramos, OF, Dominican Republic
- Yirber Ruiz, OF, Dominican Republic
- Adriam Santos, SS, Dominican Republic
- Thomas Sosa, OF, Dominican Republic
- Braylin Tavera, OF, Dominican Republic
- Henry Tejada, RHP, Dominican Republic
- Alfredo Velásquez, INF, Venezuela