One area in which the Orioles have done a 180 under Mike Elias’ watch is their pursuit of international amateurs. Prior to 2019, the organization had been “philosophically not participating” on that front, and it often resulted in the club’s minor league system possessing less talent than many of its competitors.
The methods by which international players are discovered, trained, and then signed is a complicated matter. Some view it as predatory to sign players as young as 16. Others feel it is the free market at work. It seems inevitable that the system gets overhauled in the near future with MLB pushing for a draft, in particular. For now, it’s business as usual, and the Orioles have clearly stepped up their efforts.
It often takes longer for these international prospects to have their impact felt on the organization because they are signed so young. But the Orioles’ top prospect lists have started to reflect their increased investment aboard, particularly Latin America.
Samuel Basallo is their highest ranked international player, according to MLB Pipeline, who places him 12th in the Orioles system. The 18-year-old was signed in January of 2021 for $1.3 million. At the time, it was the largest bonus the team had ever given an international prospect.
The left-handed hitting catcher spent 2022 with the O’s Florida Complex League (FCL) squad. His numbers were almost a carbon copy of what he did in the Dominican Summer League (DSL) the previous year. Over 43 games, Basallo posted a .278/.350/.424 batting line with six home runs, 15 walks, and 37 strikeouts. He seems set to start 2023 with Delmarva.
At 25th on Pipeline’s list is Frederick Bencosme, one of the organization’s breakout stars this summer. Unlike some of the other names mentioned here, Bencosme did not break the bank. The shortstop was given just a $10,000 bonus in August of 2020 to join the O’s.
So far, that looks like a superb deal for Elias and company. After posting an .816 OPS in the DSL in 2021, Bencosme played at three levels this season. A quick stop in FCL then led to an impressive stint with Delmarva, where he had a .336/.410/.432 batting line with nearly as many walks (27) as strikeouts (31). That was enough to get him all the way to Aberdeen for a 12-game cup of coffee before the summer ended.
Bencosme spent time at shortstop, third base, and second base this season, and that seems to be the way in which the Orioles will continue to deploy him. He struggled with errors, but he’s also still 19 and constantly being pushed. He likely returns to Aberdeen to begin 2023.
Just below Bencosme is one of his high-priced peers: Braylin Tavera. The outfielder currently holds the Orioles record for largest bonus given to an international free agent. In January of this year, Tavera signed on for $1.7 million out of the Dominican Republic.
The scouting report of Tavera is one of a future five-tool impact player who can stick in centerfield. Of course, he is also just 17 years old and likely to add weight to his 6-for-2, 175-pound frame, so that could change.
His professional debut came down in the DSL, where he had a .243/.411/.319 batting line with two home runs, five RBI, 36 walks, and 47 strikeouts. He spent the entire season in centerfield, where he had five assists.
What seems to be the next logical step for Tavera is a jump up to the FCL. He will play the entire 2023 season as an 18-year-old, so there is no reason to rush. A strong showing in Florida could quickly move him up to Delmarva. Anything beyond that next year would be gravy.
There are, of course, more notable international players in the O’s system. Leandro Arias signed for $600,000 in January and FanGraphs had him 13th in the organization, above Connor Norby, in their most recent rankings. And there is Maikol Hernandez, an infielder that signed for $1.2 million and drew comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Correa, although the 19-year-old has struggled at the plate to this point.
The list goes on, and sometimes it is a fool’s errand to get too high or low on these players until later on in their careers. Think of how long it took Félix Bautista to make his journey though the minors. That turned out OK.
In the immediate future, Aberdeen and below will be the place to see most of the Orioles international talent. But that will start to change in late 2023 as the first crop signed by Elias starts to truly assert themselves in the professional ranks.
Monday: César Prieto