The Pirates parted ways with Rene Gayo last week, after MLB concluded that Gayo had received kickbacks from a Mexican team for previous signings. The Latin American market has long been the wild west, but MLB is beginning to crack down heavily on illegal and unethical activity.
The decision by the Pirates to part ways with Gayo leads to a lot of questions about the future of the Pirates’ international signings, along with the chance to recap Gayo’s results with the team. I wanted to break all of those categories down, and look at what to expect from the international market going forward.
Gayo’s History of Finding Talent
There has been a growing sentiment that the Pirates haven’t been successful in the international markets in recent years. They had a very promising group coming through the lower levels around 2012, led by Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Jose Osuna, Willy Garcia, and Elias Diaz in West Virginia. Those guys paired with Starling Marte in the upper levels, and all of their low bonus totals gave Gayo a lot of recognition as a guy who could find value.
That wasn’t the only track record that Gayo had. He was the Latin American scouting director for the Indians from 1999-2003, and during that time he signed Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez, Jhonny Peralta, Danys Baez, Edward Mujica, Willy Taveras, and Rafael Perez.
However, most grading and evaluating isn’t on the basis of what has gone right. It’s on what went wrong.
Gayo should be known in Pittsburgh as the guy who found Starling Marte for $85,000. Instead, he’s more known for the Miguel Sano situation, where the Pirates came up short on the top international player, in large part due to Sano’s agent having personal issues with Gayo that stemmed from the negotiation process with Sano. Half of that story was made very public in the documentary “Pelotero”, which put Gayo in a bad light. That’s not to say that Gayo was completely innocent in his handling of the Sano negotiations. But as we’re now learning, the Latin American market has been the wild west for some time, and negotiations weren’t straight forward on either side.
The Pirates also had a rough stretch during the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, seeing their budget cut by a third, or sometimes by almost half of what it used to be. That didn’t pair well with some poor signings like Michael De La Cruz and Julio De La Cruz in 2012. They did get Dario Agrazal and Eduardo Vera in that class, but that’s not enough to carry a group. It also didn’t help that their biggest signings of 2011 — Harold Ramirez, Cesar Lopez, and Elvis Escobar — all saw their stock fall before or around the time they arrive in Double-A. The same happened with their big signing in 2010 of Luis Heredia.
Gayo has still managed to find international talent. The 2013 class was highlighted by Adrian Valerio and Luis Escobar, with Escobar recently making the top 10 in Baseball America’s rankings. That group also included Edgar Santana and Yeudy Garcia.
The 2014 class hasn’t been as strong, due to the struggles from Yondry Contreras. Domingo Robles provides the most promise from that group.
Things got back on track in 2015 when they signed Lolo Sanchez, who had a breakout year this year in the GCL. They also added Oddy Nunez, Rodolfo Castro, Samuel Inoa, and a few other promising prospects who have shown potential in the lower levels.
The combination of those classes has the lower levels with another strong international group, possibly rivaling that 2012 lower level group.
Gayo has still had success on the international side. Most of the struggles came around the time the Collective Bargaining Agreement came into place, restricting what teams could spend. That, combined with the Pirates becoming a contender, led to a budget that was cut by a third, and sometimes closer to half.
There were calls for the Pirates to spend more and take on penalties during this time, allowing them to go for higher priced targets. The irony of that is Gayo didn’t see results with the higher priced signings, and performed best with the lower cost options.
Overall, Gayo was a good evaluator of talent, showing a consistent history of being able to find inexpensive talent. He probably wasn’t as flawless as his biggest supporters would argue, since he was prone to some bad calls. That’s a normal thing in talent evaluation, even with the best scouts. But the Pirates need help from the draft and international markets, which means any miss in talent evaluation is going to be magnified in a big way. For that reason, Gayo isn’t nearly as bad as his biggest critics would claim. He was a good talent evaluator, and continued to find talent for the Pirates, although he did have some notable misses.
The New Latin American Market
MLB has been increasingly cracking down on people who break the rules in Latin America. The ethics issues are widespread, and have been going on for some time. They range from kickbacks, skimming bonus totals, under the table deals, handshake agreements well before a player is eligible to sign, and so on.
Unfortunately, Gayo received kickbacks, and was caught during MLB’s efforts to clean up the market. The kickbacks create an issue, because it’s impossible to say whether the scout signed the player because he was a legitimately good option, or if he signed the player for personal financial incentives. You’d want to think the best and assume the kickbacks were an added bonus to signing a good player, but it’s impossible to avoid the doubt and assumptions of the worst.
I’d expect this crackdown to continue across baseball. I’m not sure how much more the Pirates would be impacted, although they’ve clearly seen their biggest impact by losing Gayo.
How Will the Approach Change?
The Pirates will now look for a new director of Latin American scouting. I don’t know who could take over that responsibility, whether it’s someone internal, or someone from the outside.
What I do know is that there will inevitably be changes to the approach, as there is when anyone new takes over. The question is how much will things change?
Will we see the Pirates make more of an effort to sign big bonus players, especially now that the most recent CBA gives them the most money to spend? Will we continue to see signings from places like Curacao, or will it be mostly the usual places? And most importantly, will the Pirates continue to be able to bring in talent, especially at low bonus totals?
I’d think that last question wouldn’t be much of an issue. Gayo always gave credit to his entire scouting team for finding those discount players. That team is still in place. Gayo had a hand in every signing, and it all went through him, but the Pirates still have some good scouts on the international side who contributed in a big way to some of their best signings.
The Pirates will be hurt by the loss of Gayo. Anyone who says otherwise is over-reacting to the bad signings, or ignoring the good results that have continued in recent years. But while they will be hurt by losing him, parting with him is justified, as it follows the trend that MLB is setting to clean up the Latin American market.
The question is whether they can find someone who can continue producing results in the international market. It’s not impossible for them to find a good scouting director and continue getting good results. It’s just going to be a new challenge, and one that is necessary to be successful with, since the Pirates still need to be getting talent from the international side.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.