The international signing period can be a bit strange in how it works. Most of the big signings happen between July 2nd and the end of August – just a two-month period of time. The reason that happens is because the “new” signing period doesn’t begin until July 2nd, and players are eligible to sign if they are 16 before the end of the minor league season. Once the minor league season is over, the “new class” of players are all available, and guys aren’t waiting around to sign as they’ve generally been in agreements to sign for at least a year prior to actually putting ink to paper. The exception to that rule, however, is Cuban players. They will defect from the country at any time and then wait to be approved to sign by Major League Baseball.
Currently the 2019 signing period is still going on. It will come to an end on June 15th. For the two weeks and change between then and July 2nd, there is a freeze on international signings. Most teams have spent most of their bonus pools already, though. Thursday saw multiple reports on a big Cuban prospect, outfielder Pedro Leon, agreeing to a deal worth about $4,000,000 with the Houston Astros. It was reported at both Baseball America (Ben Badler) and ESPN (Kiley McDaniel and Jeff Passan). It appears that unless something changes, he will be waiting until the 2020 signing period begins this upcoming July to sign, as that’s when the Astros will be able to write him that big of a check.
Within the article written by Badler at Baseball America, though, he also takes a look at some other 7-figure bonus players in the upcoming class. Two of them are linked with the Cincinnati Reds. One of them, outfielder Malvin Valdez, we first heard about back in September. The other player listed in outfielder Ariel Almonte, a tall left-handed hitter out of the Dominican Republic.
Both players are expected to sign bonuses for 7-figures. In the current class there have been 30 players total that have signed for bonuses that large, and two of them were signed by the Reds. The team picked up Cuban infielder Michel Triana for $1,300,000, as well as Dominican shortstop Braylin Minier for $1,800,000. It seems that once again that Cincinnati is going to put down big money on a few players.
That is a rather stark difference from what the team has historically done. The Reds went big in 2008, signing both Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran to 7-figure bonuses. The next time that Cincinnati signed a minor league contract of an international player for 7-figures was in 2015 when they signed outfielder Cristian Olivo for $1,000,000. The following year was the last time in which teams could spend freely – there were penalties to be paid for going over what Major League Baseball “allowed”, but if you were willing to face those penalties, you could do so. And plenty of teams did so – including the Reds. That year they went big and spent, with penalties, nearly $30,000,000 to sign three Cuban players. They’ve had mixed results from the class that included pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez and shortstops Alfredo Rodriguez and Jose Garcia – Garcia’s currently the best prospect of the group, ranking as the organizations 4th best prospect.
Due to the penalties faced, in the 2017 and 2018 signing periods the Reds were only able to spend up to $300,000 on an individual player. But once that period cleared, the team went back to spending big. The organization hasn’t had much luck in getting international players to the big leagues, much less getting ones there who have found success – except the ones they signed to big league deals (Aroldis Chapman and Raisel Iglesias).
Over the last two decades they’ve got a great success story with Johnny Cueto, who signed in 2004 for $35,000. He was great for the Reds in his time with the organization – finishing in the top four of the Cy Young voting twice. He’s really the only international player the Reds signed, and kept around, who has really done a whole lot.
Two players that the Reds didn’t keep around, though have had some success elsewhere. The biggest one is Didi Gregorius who signed with Cincinnati in August of 2007. He’s accumulated 16.6 WAR in his career to this point. He briefly played in Cincinnati in 2012, getting into eight games in September before being traded away that offseason.
The other guy on the list left as a minor league free agent after the 2012 season. Miguel Rojas signed with the Reds in November of 2005 and spent seven seasons in the organization, never reaching the big leagues. He didn’t get there in 2013 with the Dodgers after signing with them, either. But the next season they needed someone to fill in around the infield for them, and he would get called up at 25-years-old and play in 85 games in 2014. Miami then traded for him, and he spent the next three seasons as a part-time player for the Marlins. In both 2018 and 2019 he played most days, getting over 525 plate appearances. Not much of a hitter – he’s got a career .662 OPS – he’s a strong defender at shortstop and thanks to the glove he’s racked up 9.0 WAR in his career so far.
After that, unless I’m drawing a blank on someone, you are getting into the debate of Aristides Aquino’s two whole months in the Major Leagues or Juan Francisco’s few years of power and low on-base skills as a part time player. Two decades have turned out one starting pitcher, one every day player (Gregorius), one solid role player (Rojas), and one incredible month so far from Aristides Aquino.
Now, there’s certainly something to be said about needing time to see how the more recent classes develop. Aquino, for example, was 24-years-old when he was called up this year, and he signed all of the way back in 2011. But even today when you look at the farm system’s international prospects, you’ve got Jose Garcia in the Top 5, and then a bunch of question marks.
There are plenty of Major Leaguers who weren’t the big bonus signings. But a lot of Major Leaguers were those guys. And for nearly all of the last two or three decades, the Cincinnati Reds didn’t play in the market like other teams did when it came to spending money. That has changed in the last five years. The results have been mixed thus far, but it appears that they’re at least trying to go after more top end talent at the start rather than hoping to find guys that one day have the potential to have some tools that they can develop.