The beginning of the international signing period is like the draft was 25 years ago, shrouded in secrecy even on the opening day, when players 16 years old and up all over the globe can sign with clubs.
Only the players have no known statistics, and scouts in the Dominican and Venezuela sometimes only bear down on a player for three or four days before reaching a decision to sign them. There are exceptions, such as when clubs find a way to hide players at their academies, but that's another story.
Either way the international scene takes scouting to a whole new level. So let’s get to some names for an update on what’s happening:
Dominican outfielder Kelvin DeLeon has signed with the Yankees as expected, for a bonus between $1.6 and $1.8 million according to several sources. Yankees officials did not immediately return calls to confirm the signing.
Colombian righthander Julio Teheran is still considered the top pitcher in this year’s international class and remains linked to the Braves. The 16-year-old righthander pounds the zone with an 88-91 mph fastball, and also features an above-average curveball and plus changeup--which is easily his best offering.
The Braves have also been on the elusive lefthander Carlos Flores, who we originally reported on Friday as a 16-year-old from Barquisimeto. But according to several scouts based in Venezuela, Flores is 19 or possibly 20 years old and his buscone, Martin Hernandez, claims that the lefthander and his parents had a parting of ways and moved Flores to Fort Lauderdale so more teams could see him.
But the Braves are the only club in on Flores, according to one source, and he could command close to $2 million. “We call him ‘Fantasma’ because that’s exactly what he is--he’s a Phantom,” one international scouting director said. “We’ve followed up and tried to see him, but it’s always met with some kind of opposition. That’s one way of how you know a deal is done with somebody down here.”
Venezuelan lefthander Martin Perez is actually 16 and unlike Flores, a lot of teams know he actually exists. Reports have varied on Perez, however, with some scouts saying his fastball was 89-90 with a solid-average curveball and others saying he was 82-86 with a 62 mph curve.
The Red Sox were in on Dominican shortstop/third baseman Michael Almanzar all spring and are reportedly set to sign the 16-year-old offensive-minded third baseman, who projects to hit for plus power. The Sox declined comment Sunday regarding Almanzar, though according to several sources the deal is done for $1.5 million.
The Yankees were also on Asuni Baez, but the Dominican shortstop reportedly changed his name after it was revealed he was 18 and posing as a 16-year-old. “He’s got a great body, good hands and range, but after they found out he was older they dropped the bonus money,” another scout in the Dominican Republic said. Baez’s buscone was looking for a signing bonus in the $1.8-1.9 million range.
The largest players on the international market were also after 16-year-old outfielder Henry Pena. The lefthanded-hitting Pena has a thick lower half, which will relegate him to a corner spot almost immediately, but has above-average power potential.
Clubs were also all over Dominican third baseman Bernardo Villar, a thick-bodied 5-foot-9 infielder with a nice, short line-drive stroke. Villar played his amateur career in the D.R. as a catcher, but several teams like him better on the corner.
“He’s got a nice, easy swing,” an international scouting director from an American League club said. “The ball really gets off his bat and he can use the whole field, which is something advanced at this stage. His body kind of looks like someone sawed him in half--(he’s) real stocky. But I like his approach and the way he goes about it. Big arm strength, OK hands and I think power could come.”
The latest name to jump on the radar is Venezuelan shortstop Gabriel Noriega. The Reds were reportedly in on Noriega early, but the Mariners upped the offer to $800,000.
“He’s got a 60 arm (on the 20-80 scouting scale) with good hands,” another scout based in Venezuela said. “I have a feeling he’s going to get big. He’s 5-foot-11, 180 pounds now, but I just think he’s going to thicken out and move to third base or maybe even first. His body looks like (Orioles first baseman) Chris Gomez right now. He takes a nice BP, but doesn’t carry that over into games. He needs to learn some pitch recognition, like big time.”
The international signing period is still four months away, but the Reds have already made a big splash in the Dominican Republic, giving a $2 million signing bonus to 16-year-old outfielder Juan Duran, a player who many thought would not be eligible to sign until July 2.
"We've scouted him extensively," Reds scouting director Chris Buckley said. "We had not thought he was eligible until this coming July 2. But we found out he was eligible, and when we did we were able to react. (Assistant general manager) Bob Miller and (director of Latin American scouting) Tony Arias deserve the credit on this one, because Bob was going over guys we were preparing for this year's signing period, and he said, 'You can sign this guy right now.'
"We did not know that, but when we found that out, we were able to go get him because of the work Tony has done. He compares favorably to this year's high drafts."
Players who are 16 years old are eligible to sign with major league teams during the international signing period, which lasts from July 2 to Aug. 31. Players who turn 16 years old during the international signing period are eligible to sign with teams on their birthdays.
Duran's birthday is Sept. 2, 1991, making him a 16-year-old who seemed to have barely missed the cutoff point to sign during last year's international signing period, and it appeared he would have to wait until the commencement of the 2008 period to sign. However, the rules state that for an international player to be eligible to sign, he must be 16 years old at the time of the signing and turn 17 years old by either Sept. 1 or by the end of his first professional season.
Players signed during the international signing period are not eligible to play that same year, so their first professional season comes the following calendar year. For example, a player signed during the 2007 international signing period would have his first professional season be the 2008 season.
The Reds realized that they could sign Duran if they assigned him to their 2008 roster in Billings in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, where the regular season ends on Sept. 5. Since Duran will turn 17 before the end of the 2008 Pioneer League season, he was eligible to sign before the 2008 international signing period and was eligible to sign back on his birthday last year.
One American League international scouting director said that he had Duran in for a workout as recently as last month.
"I think it caught everybody by surprise," he said. "Even his agents were promoting him as a July 2 guy. He really doesn't follow the July 2 cutoff for this year. I guess we all thought that, with the Sept. 1 cutoff in mind, we all figured he was eligible this year instead of last year."
Duran, who bats and throws righthanded and checks in at roughly 6-foot-6, 190 pounds, likely will not play a game this year in the PL, however, where at 16 years old he would be by far the youngest player in the league. The Reds cannot assign him to the Gulf Coast League, since the GCL season ends on Aug. 27, so sending him to the GCL would void his contract.
Buckley and Arias were both with the Blue Jays when the team drafted outfielder Alex Rios as an 18-year-old with the 19th overall pick in the 1999 draft.
"He compares favorably, only he's bigger and stronger at this age than Rios was," Buckley said. "He's more physical, and he has shown some of the same feel for hitting that Alex displayed.
"We don't have a second-round pick this year so we wanted to be creative and get more talent any way we can."
The $2 million bonus that Duran received was $500,000 more than the Red Sox gave to Dominican third baseman Michael Almanzar, who received the highest bonus of the 2007 international signing period. In 2006, the Giants gave Dominican first baseman Angel Villalona that year's top bonus at $2.1 million. It is the highest international bonus in Reds history, and tied for the third-largest signing bonus given to any player in club history.
Arias said that Duran was one of the Reds' top targets for July 2 before they realized within the last week that they could sign him.
"His body and offensive ability stick out like a sore thumb," Arias said. "In batting practice, he was just hitting them over the trees in our complex, hitting them out to center and right-center field. You can tell just tell from the way the ball jumps off his bat.
"I've never seen a 16-year-old with this type of ability. I talked to some people in the Dominican Republic who crossed paths with Vladimir Guerrero at that age, guys who have been scouting in the Dominican for more than 20 years, and they said they've never come into contact with a bat like this. He's got 80 power potential (on the 20-80 scouting scale) and just gets tremendous loft. In my opinion, in terms of his bat and his body, he's a better overall package than Angel Villalona. We wanted to change the perception in the baseball industry that Cincinnati is a cheap organization. We want to get back to being the Big Red Machine."
Another AL international scouting director said his team was also interested in Duran.
"We liked him," another AL international scouting director said. "We saw him as a corner outfielder, big, long-limbed, real bat potential. He's definitely a guy a lot of people liked."
One National League international scouting director compared Duran's body to that of a young Juan Gonzalez.
"He might end up being in center field because he's a plus runner. It's all going to come down to how big he gets and if he slows down," the scout said. "He's going to put on some weight, so whether he retains that speed will tell if he ends up at a corner.
"He's got some bat speed, and the power will come from the bat speed, but it all comes down to how thick he grows."
The same NL international scouting director also noted that Duran has been bothered by an elbow problem—which Arias said might have something to do with Duran having grown six inches in the past year—and that Duran only started throwing as far as 40 feet last month.
"He went to a tournament in Puerto Rico in the winter, and he didn't throw there. I saw him in February, and all he did was hit. I don't know what the up-to-date situation with his elbow is, but maybe they already checked him. Was he worth that kind of money? I guess he was to the Reds because they think he's an impact guy, but to me, I don't think so." One AL international scouting director called him "one of those guys who don't come around very often."
"He's got all the tools," he said. "He's a pretty good player, very advanced for his age. I think it was a good investment. He's a good athlete, he has above-average power right now and he has a chance for 80 power (on the 20-80 scouting scale). He demonstrated every ability that you like to see in a kid. He's a very outgoing kid, good swing. There's no doubt about his approach, bat speed and power . . . he has all the common denominators you like to see, good balance, rhythm and a pretty good idea of what to do at the plate.
"If he has to go to a corner (outfield position), he certainly has the power to go there. But right now I'd give him every opportunity to play center field because he's light on his feet and has a good idea how to play out there. He's probably 6-foot-6, 195 pounds, somewhere in that area, so he could gain a whole 40 pounds with no problem. You look at this guy, and you hate to compare guys to major league players, especially at his age, but he could be a young Dave Winfield in the making."