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The Pirates have never been a team that spends a lot on individual players in Latin America. While the Dodgers have spent about $22 M on six players — including $16 M on 19-year-old Cuban right-hander Yadier Alvarez — the Pirates have maxed out their individual bonuses this year in the six figure range.
Dominican outfielder Kevin Sanchez received $450,000 for the biggest reported bonus from the Pirates so far this year, and that seems to be the Pirates’ ceiling lately. Last year their biggest bonus went to Dominican outfielder Yondry Contreras, who got $400,000. Dominican shortstop Adrian Valerio received $400,000 for the top bonus in 2013. They spent a little more in 2012, when Michael De La Cruz and Julio De La Cruz both received $700,000.
Granted, they have gone bigger in the past, landing Harold Ramirez for $1.05 M and Luis Heredia for $3 M. Those bonuses would be a bit harder to pull off under the current system, with harsh taxes and penalties imposed on teams that go over their bonus pools. The Pirates have a $2,111,900 pool to work with this year.
“When we believe that it is the right player and the right deal, we’ll play in the big market,” Neal Huntington said on whether the Pirates could sign seven-figure guys. “We also need to be on the other side of the market. We need to be effective and efficient in the lesser dollar amounts and the lesser known guys.”
It might seem like a bad thing that the Pirates don’t sign guys to seven-figure deals, and keep most of their signings to low dollar amounts. After all, in most cases, more money equals better talent. MLB free agency pays the most money to the best players. The MLB draft is arranged so that the best talent receives the most money, and the guys taken in the first round tend to have a higher success rate than guys taken after the first round.
This isn’t the case in the international market. The guys who are receiving the big bonuses are getting those amounts because they are on the radar at a very young age. This happens because they’ve shown some sort of big potential, or because one or more of their tools have developed early. They’re seen as more of a guarantee than the lower bonus guys, almost like the first round picks compared to the middle round guys. But this just isn’t the case on the international market, with the risk still being very high for big bonus guys, and the separation being much smaller from the low bonus players.
So much can happen at the ages of 16, 17, and 18. Players can see a massive change in value, and a huge stride in their development. For example, take 17-year-old left-handed pitcher Luis Diaz, who the Pirates signed this year for a mere $50,000. A year ago he was sitting in the high 70s with his fastball, and as a result he went un-signed. A year later he was throwing in the upper 80s, and now he’s sitting 89-92 MPH with little effort. It took him one year to go from a fastball that would never play in pro ball, to a fastball that gives him some potential on the mound.
But Diaz is just a recent example of a low-bonus guy seeing a big change in a short amount of time. And I don’t want to suggest that Diaz is going to be a breakout player in the future, but I wanted to use him as an example of how a player can change so much at a young age. If you want an example of a low bonus guy who broke out, you don’t have to look beyond the Pirates’ system, and you can take your pick from several options.
Pirates Low Bonus Success Stories
The biggest success story for the Pirates so far has been Starling Marte. He was signed in early 2007, and made his pro debut in the DSL at the age of 18. The results weren’t good, with a .595 OPS, and that led to a return trip to the level in 2008. He did better this time around, posting an .822 OPS, and that led to an aggressive promotion to West Virginia the following year. The Pirates continued pushing him aggressively up the ladder, and he’s now on pace for his third straight season with a 4.0 WAR or better. Marte ranks 22nd among hitters in WAR since the start of the 2013 season.
All of this is impressive for any player, but it’s even more impressive when you consider Marte’s signing bonus of $85,000. He was a guy who wasn’t even good enough to sign in his first two years of eligibility, struggled at the lowest level at the age of 18, and then saw everything click at 19, propelling him to become an MLB star a few years later.
Gregory Polanco saw a similar path to Marte. He was signed before the 2009 season, at the age of 17. At the time he was tall and extremely skinny, with his appearance being compared to a “sick giraffe.” He didn’t exactly put up strong numbers his first three years in pro ball, but something clicked for him in 2011. He started adding muscle to his tall, skinny frame. The next year he came into Spring Training with some new-found power and had a breakout year in West Virginia. He kept developing each year, and although he has struggled in his initial jump to the majors, he looks like he’s got the potential to be a star player. All of that came from a $150,000 bonus.
The Pirates also have some future starters in their minor league system who were low bonus guys. Elias Diaz was signed in late-2008 for $20,000, and made his debut in 2009 at the age of 18. He has some of the best defense behind the plate in the system, and looks like the catcher of the future in the short-term, bridging the eventual gap between Francisco Cervelli and Reese McGuire. Alen Hanson was signed for $90,000 in 2009. Unlike the others, he was 16 when he signed. However, he clearly wasn’t highly coveted at the time, and it was only two years later that I first started hearing scouts raving about his potential after seeing him in the GCL. He has the chance to start for the Pirates or another team at second base in the near future.
If you want examples of how bonus money doesn’t reflect talent on the international market, you just have to look at what the Pirates have done. Marte, Polanco, Hanson, and Diaz signed for a combined $345,000. That’s less than any of the five big bonus players the Dodgers have signed this year. You could argue that the only success story from the group so far — in terms of MLB production — is Marte. But that would be a double-standard to dismiss prospects like Hanson and Diaz who haven’t made the majors, while giving credit to guys who haven’t even seen or thrown a pro pitch, all because they were recently signed for a lot of money.
The Importance of the Dominican Academy
What the Pirates have done in Latin America isn’t solely banking on the unpredictability of young players. They have focused on areas where it counts. That includes their $5 M investment in their Dominican Academy back in 2008. I was at the academy a few weeks ago, and not only had a chance to tour the entire facility, but got a chance to see several other academies for other MLB teams. Even in the seventh year of operation, the Pirates have one of the nicest facilities, to the point where it is basically a mini-version of what the organization has at Pirate City in Bradenton. Several of the academies built after the Pirates used their facility as a model, with some teams sending members of their organization for a visit up to six different times before building their academy. I’ll note that the Dodgers have one of the oldest academies, meaning they’re spending a ton on players, but not nearly as much on modern facilities to develop those big bonus guys.
The initial investment in the Pirates’ academy might not seem like much in an age when individual international players are getting eight figure deals, and the average MLB salary is between $3-4 M. But despite the relatively small amount, the Pirates are still one of about 10-11 teams that own and operate everything in their academy in the Dominican Republic. And that means everything, down to employing the kitchen staff and managing the food.
The latter part ensures that they can have full control over the nutrition for their young players, which is a key aspect when you’re signing athletic players and hoping to build them up by adding muscle to their frames. Other organizations rent their academies, and that rental comes with a food service that is supplied by the owner of the academy. The teams get a set amount of meals each day. If they have a few extra players at the academy on a certain day, it’s possible that 60 prepared meals would be divided up into 65 meals, leading to smaller portions for everyone.
The Pirates don’t have to worry about that, as they are footing the bill for everything, and can just prepare a few extra meals to accommodate the extra players. They also have full control over what they are serving the players, and the frequency at which their players eat, which is a huge focus throughout the organization in building strength and developing the young, projectable players they seem to covet in all markets.
And if you want an example of the disparity between a team like the Pirates that owns their facility, and a team that rents and has little control of operations, consider this story I heard in my time in the Dominican. One NL team (I’ll leave the name out) actually has a person put on gloves and lay chalk down on the baseline and in the batter’s box by the handful before the game, all because their academy doesn’t have a wheelbarrow to do the job, which seems like a pretty basic thing to have when you’re running a baseball academy.
When you consider that some teams don’t care enough to even have basic field equipment, and that most don’t even own their own facility, it really shows how focused the Pirates are in the Dominican compared to other teams.
It All Starts With Scouting
The Pirates put a huge focus on fully controlling the development of their players at their Dominican Academy, and that has led to a lot of the success they’ve seen with international players over the last few years. But the low-bonus success stories all start from one key aspect: Scouting. Lots and lots of scouting.
The Pirates employ 32 scouts in nine countries in Latin America. The collective group is internally referred to as “The Octopus”, or “El Pulpo” in Spanish. It was a name that Rene Gayo started using in Cleveland in 1999, back when he was signing guys like Johnny Peralta for $20,000. Some members of Gayo’s scouting group have been a part of “The Octopus” for 15-16 years, joining him with the Pirates.
Increased scouting seems like such a simple thing to do, and yet it’s not as widespread in Latin America as it is in the United States. The Pirates cover a lot of ground in Latin America, including scouting some areas where other teams won’t go. This allows them to find diamonds in the rough, getting talent that would probably be much more expensive if other teams knew about those players.
The increased scouting also gives the Pirates more looks at players, which is key when you’re following young players who can see massive improvements in the matter of months. The ability to see more players, and the ability to see those players more often increases the chances of the Pirates finding talent that other teams don’t know as much about, or don’t know anything about at all.
Other teams are starting to increase their efforts in the Dominican Republic, and while the Pirates continue signing players from the country, they have also focused on other areas in Latin America in recent years. Tito Polo is a talented player, playing in West Virginia this year, who signed out of Colombia. The Pirates continue to sign players out of Venezuela, despite political turmoil in the country that has chased some organizations away. Last year they signed 6′ 4″ right-handed pitcher Brian Sousa out of Panama to a six-figure deal. And this year they went to a new location, signing two players out of the Bahamas, including their second biggest bonus so far, given to outfielder Larry Alcime Jr.
“Rene Gayo does a great job of spanning the globe to find great talent for us,” Huntington said. “He’s passionate, hungry, and a hard worker. A couple of years ago, he made a push to get into [the Bahamas] and find out what type of talent might be available there as the Dominican Republic gets more and more heavily scouted. He’s done a tremendous job of finding guys that maybe are off of the beaten path. Look at Polanco, Hanson, and Diaz; they haven’t been the huge dollar signs. Rene is a tireless worker, and he does a great job.”
The results from Gayo and his crew have been there for years, not just with the Pirates, but with other organizations before that. The Pirates have started seeing the results in the upper levels of the system and in the majors the last few years. And the low bonus success doesn’t seem to be limited to those guys signed in 2007-2009. Guys like Yeudy Garcia, Tito Polo, and Adrian Valerio are among the sub-$500,000 international signings who are currently showing potential in the lower levels of the Pirates’ system.
The Pirates put a huge focus on scouting in Latin America. They’ve spent a lot on their Dominican Academy, aimed at maximizing the development of their Latin American signings. There aren’t many teams in baseball that have the Latin American scouting presence the Pirates have, and not many teams that own and operate their own facility like the Pirates. The fact that the Pirates do both gives them a big advantage, and that advantage is a big reason why they don’t need to spend big in order to get talented players in Latin America.
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