The Blue Jays have traditionally been aggressive players in the International Free Agent market. In the past, they have inked players such as Roberto Osuna, Richard Urena, and Franklin Barreto on the annual July 2nd signing day. 2016 was a hangover year, as the team was limited by the slot-busting deal they signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr to the year before.
Toronto was limited to a bonus pool of $2.1 million last year, and could not sign a player to a bonus larger than $300 000. By trading prospects Chase DeJong and Tim Locastro to the Dodgers for some of their pool money after signing Guerrero, they were able to avoid a two-year penalty.
Players as young as 16 are eligible to sign, but they do not begin play until the following year. There has been increased talk of an International Draft one day, and MLB owners pushed for one in the last round of collective bargaining last fall with the MLBPA, but dropped their insistence on one in order to forge a new deal with the players. After signing, prospects are invited to stay at the Blue Jays complex at Boca Chica, near Santo Domingo. They play in the "Tricky" League against other recently-signed prospects in July and August, then head back to their homes. They return for the Dominican Instructional League in late October for six weeks, then return once more in the New Year. The Blue Jays close their complex in March, then re-open in mid-April for extended spring training. After that, some play in the Dominican Summer League, which runs from mid-June to mid-August; the more advanced head to the Gulf Coast League in Florida, which begins play in later June, and ends in late August.
Two players were given the $300K bonus in this crop: 3B Joseph Reyes, a left-handed hitting Dominican by way of New York, and SS Hugo Cardona from Venezuela. Blue Jays Assistant General Manager Andrew Tinnish, who oversees the scouting and development of International Free Agents along with Director of Latin America Operations Sandy Rosario, says that Reyes has an approach that the team really likes, is selective at the plate, and makes a lot of hard contact. His size may eventually force a move to the oufield. Reyes uses a toe tap as a timing mechanism, and while his swing is a little long, he gets the barrel of the bat into the strike zone quickly, with a slight uppercut to provide loft:
Reyes has flown under the radar the last few seasons and went unsigned. This is not unusual, as some International prospects have game skills and baseball IQ that does not always show up in pre-juy 2nd workouts, and as Tinnish observed, not all prospects develop at the same rate and at the same time. Because of his age (19), his advanced skills (he was invited to Instructs last fall), and the fact that he's fluent in English means that he will start in the Gulf Coast League this year.
Cadrona has the fast-twitch athleticism that will likely allow him to stay at short. His swing is more of the line-drive type at the moment. Tinnish calls his arm "plus'" and his speed "plus-plus," and if his bat develops, he could profile as a top of the order hitter. Cardona, who is 17, will begin in the Dominican Summer League, and is likely to spend the season there.
Dominican RHP Roither Hernandez went unsigned on deadline day the previous two seasons, was signed for $150K, and has what Tinnish calls a "heavy fastball," with good downward movement as it approaches the plate. Tinnish terms Hernandez a "large, athletic power pitcher," with a fastball that sits anywhere from 90 to 97. His secondaries are developing, with a slider that is coming along between 84-89 as he works at finding the right arm slot and release point. Hernandez also throws a change up in the upper 80s that's a great complement to his fastball. Tinnish lauds his make up, and says that he's a hard worker. He struck out the side in his first inning of spring training work earlier this week. Given his age (18), his advanced feel for pitching, and the fact that like Reyes he was at Instructs last fall, he should begin the year in the GCL. SS Kenny Mauricio was another player who joined the organization on July 2nd, signing for a $110K bonus.
All told, the Blue Jays signed 13 players on July 2nd, and twice that number after the deadline. There are always some "sleeper" prospects included in that number, and Tinnish mentioned four in particular:
-Mexican RHP Felix Castaneda, who Tinnish lauds for his pitchability, already has an above average change up;
-Venezuelan RHP Elixon Caballaero, who Tinnish says is a "smaller guy (5'9"/160) with a smooth, athletic delivery." Caballero topped 90 with his FB last July, but caught the eyes of the Blue Jays when he was hitting 94-95 4 months later. He's currently at the Blue Jays minor league facility in Dunedin for spring training. Think about Marcus Stroman as a high school junior, and you have a picture of Caballero.
-LHP Naswell Paulino, a converted outfielder who has shown feel and polish quite quickly despite being very new to pitching. He has a solid FB that he can command both sides of the plate with.
-RHP Eliezer Medrano, a tall, lean power righty, who liked Caballero experienced a spike in velo, jumping up from 89 after signing to 95-96 this fall. Also like Caballero, he's at spring training in Florida.
The Blue Jays signed 13 players altogether on July 2nd. What is the chance that we see any of these players reach even AA or AAA? Admittedly slim. While the other teams were shopping at Nordstrom's, the Blue Jays and several other teams on sanction were buying at Giant Tiger. Given the lengthy gestation period of most IFAs, most names fade out of our consciousness long after they have signed, and when they do pop up again, it's often at another position, or with another team. After going all in to sign Vladdy Jr, regarded as the top International prospect in 2015, the Blue Jays were content to look for diamonds in the rough the following year.
With $4.75 million and no restrictions this year, Tinnish was understandably reluctant to discuss the Blue Jays strategy this year. Given their history of being players for the top names in the past, the Blue Jays will no doubt be looking to sign some higher profile prospects this year.
One thing that has impressed me in the conversations I have had with Blue Jays front office executives over the past few weeks is how they insist on giving credit to their colleagues. Tinnish was no exception, deferring to the Dominican-based Rosario. "He does a great job," says Tinnish. "We work extremely well together, he calls me up to tell me to get down to the DR to see players. He's a very, very good scout."