Phillies’ pursuit of international players has failed to yield a superstar like Juan Soto or Ronald Acuna Jr.
The Phillies have had success signing international free agents that have become big-league players, but they have yet to sign a superstar like Washington's Juan Soto or Atlanta's Ronald Acuna Jr.
Sal Agostinelli probably has more frequent flier miles than most pilots.
The Phillies’ director of international scouting is in perpetual search mode, which is why he watched and he winced during the 2019 postseason as a parade of young international stars dominated the stage. It was impossible not to notice and, even worse, the bulk of them were from the National League East, the Phillies’ own division.
Washington’s Juan Soto, the youngest of them all, shined the brightest, hitting .277 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 17 postseason games while leading the Nationals to their first World Series title.
Soto, who turned 21 on Oct. 25 in the middle of Washington’s seven-game World Series victory over Houston, did his best work against the Astros, hitting .333 with three home runs and seven RBIs. At the moment, he appears to be a superstar without a ceiling, surpassing even Mike Trout’s remarkable feats at such a young age.
By no means, however, was Soto a solo international act. The Braves went down in five games in their divisional series with St. Louis, but Ronald Acuna Jr., 21, was every bit the star for Atlanta in the postseason that he was in the regular season, hitting .444 with five extra-base hits after slugging 41 home runs and stealing a league-leading 37 bases during the regular season.
Soto and Acuna also have tremendous Latin sidekicks who are just slightly older. Center fielder Victor Robles, 22, had 33 doubles, 17 homers, and 28 stolen bases in his rookie season for the Nationals while Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, 22, led the National League in hits and finished 15th in baseball with 75 extra-base hits.
The Astros, meanwhile, got big hit after big hit in the World Series from American League rookie of the year Yordan Alvarez, a 22-year-old Cuban originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Of course they also have Venezuelan-born Jose Altuve, who, at 29, no longer qualifies as young but is still an international superstar.
The New York Yankees’ best player during the postseason was 22-year-old Venezuelan Gleyber Torres, who hit 38 home runs during the regular season.
“I think about it every day,” Agostinelli said during a recent interview from Taiwan, where he was on a scouting excursion for international talent. “I know every time Soto walks into our park people are saying, ‘Why don’t we have that guy?’ Same thing with Acuna and Albies. I’m ticked that we don’t have at least one of those guys. I don’t sleep at night and I’m not going to until we get one.”
A trying season
To make matters worse, many of the Phillies’ top international prospects struggled in the minor leagues during the 2019 season.
The highest-rated position player among the Phillies’ international prospects going into the 2019 season was Luis Garcia, a middle infielder from the Dominican Republic who played for low-A Lakewood at the age of 18. Garcia signed for $2.5 million in 2017 and had a spectacular debut in pro ball by hitting .369 in the Gulf Coast League in 2018, but he was overmatched in his second season at a level where the average age for position players is 21.5 years old, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
In 2015, the same year the Nationals paid Soto a $1.5 million signing bonus, the Phillies gave $4 million to Jhailyn Ortiz, a 6-foot-3 slugger from the Dominican Republic. And while Soto starred in D.C. over the summer, Ortiz endured a second straight difficult year in the minor leagues, hitting .200 with a .272 on-base percentage and .653 OPS at high-A Clearwater. His 19 home runs ranked second and his 65 RBIs were fourth in the Florida State League, where the average age of position players was 22.3 years old. Ortiz played the entire year at age 20. Still, his obvious power tool will play in the big leagues only if he learns to make more contact.
Bryan Minniti, the Phillies’ assistant general manager in charge of scouting and player development, indicated that both players would likely start the 2020 season in the same place they finished the 2019 season.
“They are still both very young,” Minniti said. “We just have to keep working with them and try to refine their tools. We were very aggressive with a lot of our young players and had them play at levels where they were with a lot of older guys. Our Lakewood team was a year and a half younger than league average.”
Ortiz had a good season two years ago in the short-season New York-Penn League, but he has not been able to duplicate it since.
“In my opinion, he had a shorter swing when he first came to us,” Agostinelli said. “His swing got rotational. It got long. I think he got pull-happy. I think he’ll be fine if he gets back to being short to the ball. He had an unbelievable instructional league down in Clearwater and it looked like to me he was shorter to the ball.”
Adonis Medina, a 22-year-old righthander from the Dominican Republic who signed for $70,000 in 2014, also was a cause for concern in 2019 as he posted a 4.94 ERA and had a significant decline in his strikeout rate in his first season at double-A Reading.
Medina had gone into the season as the Phillies’ best international pitching prospect, but that distinction now belongs to Francisco Morales, a 20-year Venezuelan who struck out 129 batters in 96⅔ innings at Lakewood.
Minniti still very much believes in Garcia, Ortiz, Medina, Agostinelli, and the entire Phillies’ international plan.
“I know there are some famous young names playing on TV right now and that we don’t have them,” Minniti said. “But 25 other clubs don’t have them either. Historically over the last 15 years or so, our group has been more productive than most in terms of producing major-league players. But you always want to refine and get better.”
The international influence
The Phillies have produced their fair share of international players during the Agostinelli era despite playing from far behind when he took control of the department in 1998. A few years before he took over, they barely had an international program at all.
Now, the Phillies have arguably the best catcher in baseball because of their February trade with Miami for J.T. Realmuto. The deal would not have been made unless they parted with Sixto Sanchez, a 21-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic who signed with the Phillies for $35,000 in 2015. Sanchez could be Miami’s ace by the 2021 season.
Infielder Jonathan Villar, who signed for $105,000 in 2008, was used to acquire pitcher Roy Oswalt from Houston at the 2010 trade deadline. Villar, now 28 and with Baltimore, has developed into one of the best middle infielders in baseball. His 4.0 FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) in 2019 was tied for the 11th-best among all international players and tied for 36th overall in baseball.
Outfielder Domingo Santana, who signed for $330,000 in 2009, helped the Phillies get Hunter Pence from the Astros in 2011. He hit 30 home runs for Milwaukee two years ago. Carlos Carrasco, who signed for $300,000 in 2003, was used to get Cliff Lee from Cleveland in 2009. Carrasco, 32, has an 85-69 record and 3.82 ERA in 10 seasons with the Indians.
The Phillies, of course, also have their share of big-league international players. Their roster in 2019 included:
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who signed for $49,000 in 2006.
Third baseman Maikel Franco, who signed for $100,000 in 2010.
Pitcher Hector Neris, who signed for $17,000 in 2010.
Pitcher Seranthony Dominnguez, who signed for $25,000 in 2011.
Pitcher Ranger Suarez, who signed for $30,000 in 2011.
Catcher Deivy Grullon, who signed for $500,000 in 2012.
Pitcher Edgar Garcia, who signed for $30,000 in 2014.
That’s a lot of good bargain shopping, and that’s also the way Agostinelli had to operate because he never had a huge budget.
“In my 16 years there, I think we were always below the median in spending for international signings,” said Mike Arbuckle, who worked with the Phillies from 1992 through 2008. “I think as we started to put more money into the major-league payroll there was less money allotted for amateur scouting in general and certainly international scouting.”
New rules spurred by Yankees and Red Sox
The mentality at One Citizens Bank Way has changed, but so have the rules of the international game. Baseball installed international signing pools in 2012 and modified them in 2017. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, teams could exceed their allotted bonus pools if they were willing to incur stiff penalties.
Two teams in particular were more than willing. The Yankees, knowing that the rules were about to change, went wild during the 2014-15 signing period. They had a bonus pool of $2.2 million and spent roughly $17 million on signing players. By going over their allotted pool amount, they lost the ability to hand out bonuses larger than $300,000 for the next two signing periods and paid penalties that brought the total cost of their signings to more than $30 million.
Review the minor-league track records of their most costly signings and you’ll find that none of them are on track to reach the big leagues right now. Despite apparently striking out, the Yankees predictably have not stopped swinging for the fences. They paid a team record $5.1 million for Dominican outfielder Jasson Dominguez in July.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, far exceeded their bonus pool in 2015 by signing Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada to a $31.5 million deal. He is now an emerging star with the Chicago White Sox after being dealt by Boston for pitcher Chris Sale in 2016.
Thanks in part to those moves by the Yankees and Red Sox, a hard cap went into effect as part of the most-recent CBA agreement. Teams are no longer allowed to exceed their bonus pool, although they are able to increase their allotted pools through trades, a maneuver the Phillies have used in recent years.
If there are lessons to be learned, the biggest one might be this: Spending more on an individual player does not guarantee a better player. Arizona’s Ketel Marte, for example, was signed for $100,000 by Seattle in 2010, but he had the highest fWAR among all international players in 2019.
Still, it would be a mistake to go cheap on the international program and the Phillies have no intention of doing that.
“It’s thrilling and it’s frightening,” Minniti said of the Phillies’ pursuit of international talent. “Everyone on the trail loves the chase and seeing and signing a player. You always hope you’re making good decisions, but you usually don’t know for such a long time. It’s really hard and even the best can be wrong a lot.”
Because it takes so long it’s not unusual for international players to be used as trade bait. Of the top 20 fWAR international positional players in 2019 only half played for the team that originally signed them.
Minniti said he is encouraged by ownership to spend the full amount of the Phillies’ bonus pool. The Phillies have not done that yet this year, but that’s because they still plan to sign Yoshwar Garcia, a Venezuelan outfielder who was suspended for lying about his age. Garcia will likely sign for $2 million in March and be the most expensive player in the Phillies’ 2019-20 international class.
“The new rules work against the best scouts,” Arbuckle said. “The buscones [independent Latin scouts] will take the best kids out of the main stream until they are age-eligible and then they will shop them to the teams with the biggest bonus pools. Good scouts and aggressive scouts used to be able to sign some of the best players for $50,000 to $100,000, but now they don’t get a chance to see them. I would liken it to the system that is in place domestically. It has allowed the lazy clubs and the inept clubs to catch up.”
The new rules have also led to cheating, and in each case the Phillies benefited from the teams that were caught. Boston, limited to $300,000 signing bonuses after giving Moncada his huge contract, tried to circumvent the rules in 2016 and lost five of the players it signed. One of them was outfielder Simon Muzziotti, a 20-year-old center fielder who had a solid season at high-A Clearwater.
The Braves were caught trying to pull a similar scheme and received even stiffer penalties. The Phillies were able to sign catcher Abrahan Gutierrez for $500,000 after he had originally signed with the Braves for $3.53 million.
It remains to be seen if those bonus signings pay dividends for the Phillies, but they were clearly prudent moves.
Some baseball people would like to see an international draft put in place when the next CBA is negotiated, but that’s a discussion for another day.
A lack of Cubans and Asians
The international market is not limited to young amateur free agents. For years teams have been tapping into the Cuban and Asian markets by signing veteran players.
The Phillies’ only quest in that regard came in 2013, when they signed 29-year-old righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a three-year deal worth $12 million. They initially offered him six years and $48 million to outbid Boston, but lowered the offer after a series of red flags arose during his physical.
Gonzalez appeared in just six career games for the Phillies and died in a 2017 car accident in his native country. The Phillies have not signed a Cuban player since. They have never signed a veteran free agent from Asia, although they did unwisely invest a combined $2 million in two college South Korean pitchers in 2000.
“I don’t know if he necessarily scared us off,” former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said when asked abut Gonzalez. “We continued to look at guys. We were in on Rusney Castillo and Yoenis Cespedes and Yasmany Tomas. But we had a certain value with each of those players and they exceeded our value.”
Only Cespedes has been an impact player and big-league All-Star among the above trio mentioned.
The Phillies, with John Middleton as managing partner and Andy MacPhail as president, have expanded their international scouting team.
“We’re scouting everything,” Minniti said. “We have a full staff in Asia and we’re scouting as thoroughly as we can, including the lower levels in that region. We have a player from China, two from Taiwan, and five from Australia. I promise you we see all the Cubans.”
What everyone in Philadelphia wants to see in red pinstripes at Citizens Bank Park is a generational star of the same magnitude as Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. As soon as that happens, maybe Sal Agostinelli will finally be able to get some sleep.