Morning Report: The Road to Signing a Pro Contract Out of Australia

Back in April, I did an article on what it was like to sign with a Major League team out of Mexico. That article showed how different the process is for players from Mexico to sign, compared to anywhere else. While that country is the most extreme case, I thought I’d go through the process of what it’s like to sign out of Australia, a country the Pirates scouted heavily for a few years, signing a total of seven players in a short time. They haven’t gone back there in awhile at this point, with their last signings (and only remaining players from the country) being Sam Kennelly and Nick Hutchings, who both signed in 2012.

We reported the Hutchings signing here in January 2013, the first to break the news, even though it happened two months earlier. Hutchings was being scouted by the Reds, Phillies, Astros, Padres and Pirates. The Padres made an offer first, but he ended up signing with the Pirates. We have covered his career since he signed, but this article will focus on how he got to that point.

While his story in itself would be good since we usually don’t go into full details on how someone becomes a pro baseball player, this is more about giving you a general idea of what it’s like to sign out of Australia. The differences between there and the United States, where kids are being selected right out of high school and college. Just the draft alone is a huge difference between the two countries.

Australia falls under the international rules. Players are eligible to sign once they turn 16 if it’s between July 2nd and August 31st. If it’s after August 31st, then they can sign the following July 2nd. Their bonus counts against the international bonus pool. Hutchings was born on February 10, 1996, which means he was eligible to first sign on July 2, 2012.

Shortly after he was able to sign, he attended  the MLBAAP (Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program), which he describes as being very similar to Spring Training. That’s a key part in his signing process and something we have heard from all of the players who signed from South Africa, as well as Claudio Scotti out of Italy and Paul Brands out of the Netherlands. They all attended MLB academies first before they were signed. So a big part of signing out of Australia is attending one of these programs to begin with, because they send the elite unsigned players there.

Hutchings went from the MLBAAP to the Australian Baseball League (ABL), which should be familiar to anyone who follows our winter ball coverage. I always mention at least once that while we call it winter ball or off-season ball, the ABL is the regular season league in Australia and it’s summer when they play. That’s where his story strays from the normal kid who signs out of Australia. You don’t see too many 16-year-old kids playing in a league where the play is equal to what you see in Double-A.

For Hutchings, he played for the Adelaide Bite in the ABL, who were managed by Tony Harris. He is an international scout for the Pirates, so the fact he had Hutchings on his team, and saw him pitch well against the older competition, gave the Pirates an edge in signing him. Once they did sign Hutchings, they then had their own scout helping him become a better player just by performing his managerial duties.

An interesting note on the ABL. Hutchings hasn’t played the last two seasons, but he is still reserved for Adelaide. While the Pirates can put restrictions on his off-season pitching, which was necessary last year as he returned from a shoulder injury, the ABL itself has no restrictions for the players in the off-season. Once they sign though, that is their ABL team until the team decides to part ways.

Players in Australia are almost always considered raw due to the lack of playing time they get, which I will get into using Hutchings’ path as an example. Considering that he’s one of the successful ones, it shows you how hard it is to make it out of that country. Here is the scouting report right from our article from back when Hutchings signed:

“Hutchings has been working with Harris on improving his control, velocity and off-speed pitches. He currently throws in the upper 80s with his fastball, and complements that with a slider and a changeup.”

That’s not bad for someone who was still a month shy of his 17th birthday at that time, but here is another note that points to the raw side of Australian baseball. When Hutchings made a second appearance in the MLBAAP the year after he signed, he won the Golden Arm award for the academy, which is given to the best pitcher there. When you compare his scouting report to 16-17 year old players signing out of baseball hotbeds, such as the Dominican, it would fall well short.

Even after missing most of last year, the 20-year-old version of Hutchings was hitting 94 MPH in Extended Spring Training this year. Teams were scouting him more on potential than current results, seeing the frame/arm, and looking ahead to someone who could possibly do what he is doing now.

The players are scouted young there, though nothing near Mexico, the Dominican, Venezuela, etc, where we have heard cases of scouts sticking with kids from ages 11-12. Hutchings said he first got notice from scouts when he is 14. That would be a high school freshman age, so some of those players in the U.S. at that age get noticed just based on having teammates who are being scouted.

Taking it all the way back, Hutchings began with a familiar route, though a little bit older than we hear for U.S. kids. He first played baseball at age seven in T-Ball. He then started playing club ball the next year, which would be equal to little league ball here. From age 8 until age 14, he only played one game a week, which was always on Sundays. They called that Division 1 baseball, which is not to be confused with college baseball here.

After that, he played men’s baseball and was then playing twice a week. That only catch was that both games were on Sunday, so he was pitching one game and playing shortstop in the other. He was playing those games in two different leagues, the under-16 league and Division 2. While he was playing in those leagues, he practiced four days a week, usually traveling up to an hour to get to those practices.

Besides international events, he represented South Australia in a national tournament every January. We covered those in our winter coverage while Hutchings and Sam Kennelly were still eligible to play and those tournaments are a big deal in Australia. They go on for a week and they have different age groups.

Even though he signed at 16, part of the deal was finishing high school, which he did in 2013. The Pirates were able to bring him over to Extended Spring Training for three weeks back in 2013 so he got a taste of pro ball. He didn’t come over for good until Spring Training of 2014. He actually got in another abbreviated year in the ABL, and was able to represent his country in Taiwan in November of 2013, before he joined the Pirates full-time.

What I haven’t mentioned up to this point is his high school baseball experience and there is a good reason for that. There is no high school baseball in Australia and they don’t have college baseball either. The Pirates have reliever Sam Street at Bradenton, who is from Australia. However, Street needed to go to college in the U.S. to play, which eventually led to the Pirates drafting him at 22 years old.

If you want to play baseball, you play club ball, and if you’re good enough, you play in the international tournaments and get invited to the MLBAAP. As far as actually getting into games though, those are once a week and you might imagine by now that with an hour travel time one way for practices, you had to be pretty dedicated to the sport.

The reason that the options are so limited is due to the popularity of the sport. While baseball is a growing sport in Australia, it is not very popular in the country yet. I asked Hutchings which sports were more popular and he said it’s behind Australian Rules Football, rugby, cricket, soccer, tennis and others.

So you basically have limited playing time and a sport that falls well back in popularity, then you’re going to have a hard time getting better at the sport because the competition is weaker. As I mentioned above, players like Hutchings are signed more on the potential aspect, rather than what you are seeing on the field. The ABL becomes a scouting ground for older players, but for the younger players, you have to stand out among the competition during the few opportunities you get.

It’s a difficult road to get signed out of Australia and you have to be dedicated to the sport. The more popular the sport becomes over the years (assuming it continues to grow), then that journey will get easier, because the practices will be closer, the games will be played more often, and the level of competition will be better.

PLAYOFF PUSH

Indianapolis is in second place in their division, trailing by six games. They trail by 12.5 games for the lone wild card spot.

Altoona leads their division by 1.5 games. The top two teams in the division go to the playoffs, with the first place team getting the home field advantage in the first round.

Bradenton won the first half title. They have home field advantage in the playoffs.

West Virginia is in sixth place in their division, trailing first by four games.

Morgantown is tied for fourth place in their division, trailing first place by 12 games. They are six games back for the lone wild card spot.

Bristol is in fourth place, trailing by 6.5 games. The top two teams in each division go to the playoffs.

The GCL Pirates are one game back in their division. This is the only league where you have to win your division to make the playoffs.

The DSL Pirates Pirates trail their division by 18 games. They trail in the wild card by 16.5 games.

PIRATES GAME GRAPH


Source: FanGraphs

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pirates lost 7-3 to the Reds on Sunday afternoon. They have off today, before starting a three-game series at home against the Padres. Chad Kuhl will get the start on Tuesday. He needs to be added to the roster before the game.

In the minors, Drew Hutchison makes his second start since joining the Pirates in the Francisco Liriano deal. He went seven innings in his first game on Wednesday and allowed four runs on four hits and four walks, with five strikeouts. After displaying control issues early in the season, Luis Escobar has walked one batter in each of his last three games, throwing a total of 16 innings. He has allowed three earned runs or less in all nine appearances this season.

Second round pick Travis MacGregor is scheduled for the GCL Pirates, while Ike Schlabach is scheduled to start for Bristol. Altoona is off today.

MLB: Pittsburgh (55-54) vs Padres (48-63) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Chad Kuhl (4.19 ERA, 5:13 BB/SO, 19.1 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (58-58) vs Toledo (53-63) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Drew Hutchison (5.14 ERA, 4:5 BB/SO, 7.0 IP)

AA: Altoona (62-51) vs Harrisburg (61-53) 5:05 PM 8/9 (season preview)
Probable starter: Brandon Waddell (4.09 ERA, 48:68 BB/SO, 88.0 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (56-55) vs Palm Beach (46-64) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD

Low-A: West Virginia (56-56) vs Greensboro (62-51) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Logan Sendelbach (3.58 ERA, 29:79 BB/SO, 110.2 IP)

Short-Season A: Morgantown (22-27) vs Williamsport (28-21) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable Starter: Luis Escobar (3.22 ERA, 18:29 BB/SO, 36.1 IP)

Rookie: Bristol (17-26) vs Kingsport (16-28) 6:00 PM (season preview)

GCL: Pirates (16-22) vs Yankees West (15-21) 12:00 PM (season preview)

DSL: Pirates (21-33) vs Cubs1 (21-32) 10:30 AM (season preview)

HIGHLIGHTS

Here is a walk-off hit from Morgantown catcher Chris Harvey because who doesn’t like walk-off hits

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

8/6: Arquimedes Caminero traded to Mariners for two players to be named later. Curtis Partch recalled from Indianapolis

8/6: Jason Creasy assigned to Morgantown on rehab.

8/6: John Kuchno assigned to Indianapolis. Josh Outman assigned to Altoona.

8/6: Chris Harvey assigned to Morgantown

8/4: Ryan Vogelsong activated from disabled list. Max Moroff optioned to Indianapolis.

8/4: Pirates release Wilfredo Boscan.

8/4: Kelvin Marte placed on disabled list.

8/4: Henrry Rosario promoted to Bristol. Sam Kennelly assigned to GCL Pirates.

8/3: Chris Harvey promoted to Indianapolis. Trey Haley sent to Altoona.

8/3: Elvis Escobar promoted to Altoona. Justin Maffei assigned to Bradenton.

8/3: Erik Lunde assigned to Bradenton. Jose Regalado activated from disabled list.

8/2: Wilfredo Boscan placed on disabled list.

8/2: Tomas Morales assigned to Altoona. Chris Diaz activated from temporary inactive list.

8/1: Pirates trade Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez for Drew Hutchison.

8/1: Pirates acquire Ivan Nova from New York Yankees for players to be named later.

8/1: Pirates trade Jon Niese to New York Mets for Antonio Bastardo and cash.

8/1: Blake Cederlind placed on disabled list. Evan Piechota assigned to Bristol.

8/1: Edgar Santana promoted to Indianapolis.

7/31: Pirates recall Max Moroff. Steven Brault optioned to Indianapolis.

7/31: Erik Lunde assigned to GCL Pirates.

7/30: Pirates trade Mark Melancon to Washington Nationals for Taylor Hearn and Felipe Rivero.

7/29: Pirates recall Steven Brault. A.J. Schugel optioned to Indianapolis.

7/29: Austin Meadows assigned to Morgantown on rehab

7/29: Jin-De Jhang sent to Altoona. Tomas Morales assigned to Bradenton.

7/28: Frank Duncan activated from disabled list.

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus two transactions of note. We start with the trade and it’s one that helped the Pirates short-term, but really hurt long-term. On this date in 1990, the Pirates dealt Moises Alou, Willie Greene and Scott Ruskin to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Zane Smith. Pittsburgh got six wins the rest of the way from Smith and he stuck around for another four seasons, but Alou went on to become a great player, making six All-Star teams. He was considered to be a good trade piece because he was close to Major League ready, but the Pirates had no spot in the outfield for him.

On this date in 1934, the Pirates signed pitcher Burleigh Grimes, who was 40 years old at the time and nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. This was his third and final tour with the Pirates and it didn’t go well, with a 7.24 ERA in 27.1 innings over eight appearances.

Players born on this date include:

Ross Ohlendorf, pitcher from 2008 until 2011. Will forever be remembered as the pitcher who won his arbitration case after a 1-11 season. For the record, he won just one game the next season as well.

Brett Gideon, pitcher during the 1987 season. He was traded to the Expos in a deal that worked out much better than the Moises Alou deal. The Pirates got Neal Heaton back and he spent three seasons in Pittsburgh, while Gideon pitched 5.2 innings for the Expos.

Mark Ross, pitched for Pirates in 1987 and 1990. Threw 12.2 innings over nine games for the 1990 NL East champs.

Clise Dudley, pitcher for the Pirates on September 15, 1933. He recorded one out, but not before allowing five earned runs, leaving him with the highest ERA(135.00) in team history. Other pitchers have failed to record an out, while giving up runs, but they get an “inf.” next to their name for infinite. I think I’d rather have that than a 135.00 ERA.

Billy Gumbert, pitcher for the franchise in 1890 and 1892. He did something you will never see again from a Major League pitcher. He also played for Louisville for one game in 1893, so it wasn’t just a coincidence from the team he was on. Gumbert was from Pittsburgh and only pitched home games, never traveling on the road. His only game for Louisville was as a fill-in when they were playing the Pirates and needed a pitcher on short notice. The official reason from the local papers at the time, was that he had business ventures he couldn’t be away from for any amount of time.

  • regardless of where the players are from the best one’s cost a significant amount to sign. The pirates are to cheap to play in that sandbox.

    • I would say they would rather not pay the same amount in taxes when the players are all such a crapshoot, and then limit themselves the following two year not knowing what could possibly be available. Plus, money spent doesn’t equal success with 16 year old kids. These teams going over slot are paying ridiculous fees just in taxes. Yankees spent an extra $20M for their one big year, Red Sox and Dodgers spent even more, just in taxes! They didn’t get any extra players, they paid twice for the same players and a large majority of those players will fail.

      Be careful what you wish for though, because the Pirates will have a much bigger budget on international players next year unless they start winning games in a hurry

    • This article was also more for learning what baseball is like in Australia and what it’s like to sign out of there. An inside look you don’t get often, but you can compare it to what you might know about U.S. baseball

  • After 26 years, my memories may be getting clouded, but wasn’t Alou being in the deal, sort of forced, because GM Larry Doughty bungled the waiver rules? I can’t remember the details, and again, after 26 years I may be thinking of a deal involving someone else.

  • John: Thanks for the background on Hutchings. Years ago, the Doyle Baseball Folks would send a team over to Australia to play in an International Friendship Tournament. My son was a D-Boy, working the Doyle camps down in Orlando during the Summer and Holidays through HS, and was selected to play on the team representing the USA that traveled to Adelaide. I think that was either 2nd mortgage No. 1 or No. 2, but well worth giving him the opportunity to experience something like that.

    • I wanted to use him as the example of signing out of Australia instead of Kennelly, because Hutchings didn’t have three brothers who signed pro deals before him. I figured Hutchings was a lot more relatable to the average player signing out of the country. It has to be easier when you know what pro ball is likely already and have three older brothers to practice with, who were all among the best players in the country. Not that Kennelly didn’t put in the work, because from everything I’ve heard, he’s an absolute baseball rat

      • But, because of the fact Kennelly had 3 brothers precede him, you may have expected better results so far. At least I have expected more.

        • I expected more because the reports from coaches who had all of the Kennellys were that Sam was the best of the group. Two of his brothers made Triple-A, so that’s a fairly high standard to begin with. He was also playing in the ABL at 16, which is a crazy jump in competition from where he is now.

          It’s hard to believe how bad he is doing because I know how much time he puts in and I watched a lot of his winter at-bats this year (full games are on Youtube) and he had a lot of well hit outs.

          I could have used him for this article as he is always willing to answer questions, just thought Hutchings was a better fit for the average player angle.

  • Moises would not have made much difference for us after ’92 and Zane helped us make the playoffs in ’91 and ’92.

    I’d make that deal again.

    • Smith was a free agent after the 1990 season and he didn’t sign right away with the Pirates, so I assume they could have gone out and signed him as a free agent anyway, especially since there was enough interest there to give up a big package to get him for two months

      • I’m not seeing your point, John. We DID sign him as a FA after ’90.

        We needed him during the ’90 season, tho, but he was with Montreal so we had to make a trade. He went 6-2 with a 1.30 ERA and was lights out most games.

        Heck, we gave 16 starts to the deplorable Walt Terrell for crying out loud. 🙂

        • You included Smith’s 91-92 contribution as part of the trade. They made the deal for two months of him, then ended up signing him as a free agent. If you include what he did after signing as a free agent, then the deal looks better, but they didn’t know he would sign when they acquired him. He didn’t sign until December, so he had a month to talk to other teams after the Pirates window to negotiate exclusively with him ran out.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 8, 2016 8:39 am

    Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Hutchings and Kannelly will ever amount to anything….both are still at very low levels and their numbers are not good. Maybe it’s time to take not of Cuba…They’ve produced some good players

    • People always say Cuba, not realizing that only the best players leave there and it’s very expensive to sign those players, who count against the international bonus pool. They tend to forget that the Pirates have signed players from Cuba over the years and it amounted to a few starts from Yoslan Herrera, who cost almost $2M. No one seems to remember Cesar Lopez failing for $600K or Carlos Mesa for $490K or Serguey Linares, who went from a strong 20-year-old pitcher in Cuba, to someone who stalled at 25 in Low-A. The Pirates have spent 10x more in Cuba than they have in Australia and have three MLB starts to show for it

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 8, 2016 10:40 am

        You are right John, I have forgotten about most of those guys you cite above – except for Mesa, who I do remember. But, those amounts are peanuts compared to what you need to pay to get the most impactful guys. The Pirates can’t stop trying there, as with the DR and elsewhere in Latin America. Other than the draft, that is where you will get your best players – not in India, Australia, South Africa, or Italy.

        • Except for Kennelly, who signed for $225,000, the other players signed for minimal amounts. We don’t have the official numbers on any of them, but going by what the Pirates had left in their bonus pool, I can say that the two players from South Africa and Claudio Scotti signed for a lot less than $100,000 total. The two pitchers from India I believe got a total of $8,000 to sign, may have been as high as $12,000, but I’m almost positive it was the lower number.

          I don’t have a number for Hutchings, but it had to be fairly low as well just based on the money unaccounted for on smaller bonuses that signing period. Basically signing the best players out of these countries doesn’t prevent anything else from happening and it doesn’t hurt to have your international scout there checking everyone out because you don’t know what you’ll find.

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