MLB teams increase international spending, seeking edge

Ronald Blum - AP Baseball Writer

CINCINNATI (AP) — For all the talk about big-money contracts for major leaguers, the New York Yankees spent nearly $18.1 million on international amateurs during the last signing period.

“All of our top guys really felt that this crop of young kids was the best they’ve seen in years and years and years, so we went out and we grabbed seven of the top 10 or 11 guys,” owner Hal Steinbrenner said. “For that kind of money, I guess if one or two of them works out, you made the right decision.”

And it’s not just the Yankees. Boston spent more than $38 million, Arizona topped $10 million and the Los Angeles Angels were just below $9.7 million. And they all incurred hefty tax bills for their global splurging.

In all, the 30 clubs committed $160 million to 801 international amateurs from July 2 last year through June 15, up from $95 million in the 2013-14 signing season, according to Major League Baseball. And just this month, the Los Angeles Dodgers gave a $16 million signing bonus to 19-year-old Cuban right-hander Yadier Alvarez.

Teams hope they will follow the path of players already in the higher levels of the minor leagues. Among the international prospects on display at Sunday’s All-Futures Game were Texas outfielder Nomar Mazara ($4.95 million signing bonus), New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez ($3 million) and Kansas City infielders Raul Mondesi ($2 million) and Chelsor Cuthbert ($1.35 million).

“They are looking all over for those guys, especially in Cuba,” said World team manager Tony Perez, who left Cuba at age 17 to sign with Cincinnati, helped the Reds win a pair of World Series titles and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. “For the agents, they know it’s going to be big money.”

Teams can sign international free agents starting July 2 in the year they turn 17 by Sept. 1. Beginning with the 2012-13 signing period, teams were penalized for exceeding their signing bonus pools. Thirteen teams went over their pools for 2014-15, resulting in $71.5 million in tax.

Five teams owe most of the money: the Red Sox ($36.1 million), Yankees ($15.9 million), Diamondbacks ($7.9 million), Angels ($7.3 million) and Tampa Bay Rays ($3.4 million). That quintet also lost the right to sign any international player to a bonus of more than $300,000 for 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Management may again propose an international draft in bargaining for the labor contract that replaces the current deal, which expires in December 2016.

“Unfortunately, I think that the increased flow of talent from Cuba has stressed that system, and it hasn’t done as well in response to that stress,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “It hasn’t quite worked the way that we thought it would.”

More than one in four players on big league opening day rosters, 26.5 percent, was born outside the 50 states, according to the commissioner’s office, and the most came from the Dominican Republic (83), Venezuela (65), Cuba (18) and Puerto Rico (13).

Among players with minor league contracts, the figure rises to nearly half, 48.8 percent.

Cuthbert, who made his big league debut Tuesday, signed with the Royals in 2009 when he was 16. He said the Royals arranged English classes for his first two years, with one-hour sessions two-to-three times a week.

“Right now they’re doing such a good job of making Latin players learn English, and I think that’s something that really helps Latin players,” he said. “I can talk to people. Ordering food and stuff like that. That helped me a lot.”

While U.S. players are subject to a draft, limiting their option to one team, international players have all 30 organizations to choose from

Cuthbert said he picked the Royals because he and his family had a great relationship with Orlando Estevez, Kansas City’s coordinator of Latin American scouting, and Juan Lopez, the Royals’ Nicaragua scout.

Mazara, whose bonus was a record for an international player when he signed with Texas as a 16-year-old in 2011, said he didn’t have a choice of team. Mazara said his deal was negotiated by Ivan Noboa, who runs an independent academy in the Dominican Republic.

“That was my buscone,” said Mazara, using the baseball term for local trainers who often sign young players in exchange for a percentage of future earnings. “He just told me the last day. I didn’t have a choice.”

Ronald Blum

AP Baseball Writer