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01/02/13 10:00 AM ET
New rules put spin on international scouting
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
Sometimes, the scouts sit directly behind home plate. Most often, they gather -- stopwatch in one hand and a clipboard in the other -- behind the batting cage or down the first- or third-base lines. A few scouts roam the outfield, sharing it with the prospects to get a better look. Some scouts hide in plain sight. Others scour the back roads of the Caribbean to hunt for undiscovered players. One of the worst kept secrets inside the game of international scouting is every big league scout's desire to find the next "guy" in Latin America, sign him at age 16 and put the teen into their club's academy before the competition can beat them to it. Inside this circle of scouts, a "guy" is slang for a good prospect. He's usually big -- almost always at least six feet tall and close to 200 pounds -- and he's definitely athletic. He's often a right-handed power pitcher, a country-strong corner outfielder or a slick-fielding shortstop or center fielder who can run and has some pop in his bat. Gustavo Cabrera, ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's International Prospect list, is a "guy" everyone knew about last summer. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound outfielder signed with the Giants for a $1.3 million bonus on July 2 to kick off the international signing period. He could be a big leaguer one day. Ronny Carvajal, ranked no. 14, is a prospect the Rangers believe in, and that's why they signed the outfielder in December when other clubs passed on him. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Carvajal has the physique and some of the tools scouts are looking for, but what he represents might be just as significant: Carvajal is one of the new faces of the evolving scouting and signing system in Latin America. The movement made headlines last year when new rules restricted the amount of money a team could spend on the international market. Some believe those new rules, combined with prospects being evaluated in games against their peers, is helping to even out the market, somewhat similar to the way the new spending guidelines impacted the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Scouting through the traditional tryout format, which dates to the 1970s, is still a key part of the international game. The quest to find the right prospect for an organization hasn't much changed in the last 40 years. However, the methods and circumstances that determine who fits the criteria is evolving. Just ask Carvajal and the Rangers. In 2011, the Rangers signed two players and set a record for the highest international amateur bonus when they paid Nomar Mazara $4.95 million, and later singed Ronald Guzman for $3.45 million. The club signed teenage outfielder Jairo Beras for $4.5 million in February before the new guidelines were instituted, but Major League Baseball suspended the teen for a year because of a dispute over his age. Those types of paydays appear to be over. Carvajal signed with Texas for $80,000. In accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, each team was allotted $2.9 million to spend on the international market starting July 2, 2012, without penalty. Exceptions -- such as a team's six highest signing bonuses of $50,000 or less and players signed for $7,500 or less -- do not count against the spending cap. This July's international signing period works in a similar way and the amount clubs are allowed to spend will be based largely on its record in the 2012 season. The pools for each team will range from an estimated $4.9 million (for the lowest winning percentage) to $1.8 million (for the highest winning percentage). Clubs will also be allowed to trade pool money. "[The new system] has the same effect of the Draft without naming it a draft, and obviously teams don't have the ability to pick in a certain round on the international market like they do for amateurs in the United States," said Brian Mejia, co-founder of the Dominican Prospect League. "If scouts are out there working, it is fair for everybody because the worst team gets the most money. ... If you compare it to the Draft, it's fair because it's about evening talent amongst teams." Additionally, the growth of leagues like the Dominican Prospect League, International Prospect League and Major League Baseball's Prospect League, which provide a neutral environment for prospects, have also helped to shape the baseball landscape in the Dominican Republic by allowing scouts to evaluate under game conditions. "The idea is not to devalue the player, but to get a truer gauge of who a player is," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "It is about giving the club best chance at evaluating a player and seeing who is who. The more games the better." It's unclear how many offers Carvajal had on July 2, or if his trainer, who also serves as his agent, miscalculated his player's value on the market. Scouts also wonder if Carvajal was hurt a bit because he struggled against live pitching and had a high amount of swings and misses during games, which are now an important part of the scouting process. A frustrated Carvajal almost quit playing the sport altogether before signing with Texas. "The top guy will set the market, but the middle tier is tough for trainers to figure out what they should be asking for," Araujo said. "And before you know it, the market has moved and it drops drastically after July 2. When negotiating, the trainers go off of history, and there was no history because last year was a transition year. Next year will also be a transition year with the new restrictions as well." Several players have already signed. According to MLB.com's analysis, more than 400 international prospects from Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Taiwan and Venezuela have signed with Major League teams since the most recent international signing period began. The Mets gave Ahmed Rosario the highest bonus at $1.75 million, followed by Jose Castillo, who signed with the Rays for $1.55 million and Juan Paniagua, who signed with the Cubs for $1.5 million. In all, 10 players signed for at least $1 million and 62 players signed for more than $250,000. The average signing bonus for players was $283,000 -- excluding exceptions. "As far as a class and how it compared to other years, it was a solid 'average'," Mejia said. "The abilities were not as outstanding as the previous years, but in an open market without the restraint of $2.9 million, I can see them getting more money. There was also more information out there for teams and more strategic play than before because teams had a better feel about the money their competition had and what they were doing with it." The Rays have spent the most money on the international market since July 2, $3.7 million on 22 players. Overall, half the teams have spent more than $2 million. "It's all been positive," Araujo said. "It's always a good thing when you can get a clear evaluation of a player and sign him. There are also a lot of guys are still signing." In addition to Carvajal, recent signings include pitcher Alex Reyes, who signed with the Cardinals for $950,000, and outfield prospect Geraldy Martinez, who signed with the Brewers for $50,000. "Ronny is a good kid and his goal is to prove everyone wrong," Mejia said. "One of the lessons here is that trainers have to really evaluate a player's talent before declining substantial money. When all 30 teams have multiple evaluations and have an offer of 'X,' you can't ask for 'Y' and always expect to get it in this new climate."