Toolshed: International signing bargains

Prospects who overcame small bonuses to rise to prominence

Keibert Ruiz is a two-time Texas League All-Star with Double-A Tulsa. (Tim Campbell/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | June 28, 2019 11:10 AM

Next Tuesday is July 2. To most in this country, that's Fourth of July Eve Eve. To anyone following baseball -- especially those beyond the borders of the United States -- it's one of the most important days on the baseball calendar. 

Every July 2 opens a new international signing period, when players aged 16 or older (as of Sept. 1 of that year) and born outside the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico are allowed to sign freely with any Major League organization. As of now, there is no international draft. There are, however, rules that cap international spending, with most clubs having a $4.75 million bonus pool from which to spend. (If an organization has a Competitive Balance Round A pick in the June Draft, that goes up to $5.25 million, and it can grow to $5.75 million for those with a Competitive Balance Round B pick.) 

The headlines tend to mention the prospects that receive the biggest signing bonuses. In 2018-19, for instance, that involved players like Victor Victor Mesa, Orelvis Martinez and Marco Luciano, all of whom signed for at least $2.6 million. Just as in the Draft, though, time will reveal players who got smaller bonuses but ultimately became legit prospects and top-flight Major Leaguers.

What follows are some of the current prospects who rose to prominence despite earning smaller bonuses, including many among MLB.com's ranking of Top 100 prospects. Of note, this is not meant to praise organizations for paying so little for what became such good talent. Rather, the praise is reserved for the players, who were not highly regarded as teenagers but have become top talent through their own hard work. (All stats are through Wednesday's games.)

Braves C William Contreras, $10,000: Five figures for a player with these bloodlines may seem like a steal these days, but when the brother of Cubs backstop Willson Contreras signed with the Braves out of Venezuela in February 2015, his older sibling was coming off his Class A Advanced season. Four years later, Contreras is in Double-A, showing off a strong arm by throwing out seven of 16 attempted basestealers in the Southern League so far. His bat is still a project -- Contreras has a .653 OPS between Mississippi and Class A Advanced Florida this season -- but the building blocks are there to make him a regular behind the plate in the Majors.

Cubs RHP Adbert Alzolay, $10,000: It's already a win for the Cubs to turn this type of investment into a player currently on the Major League roster, no matter what else happens in Alzolay's career. Since signing out of Venezuela in March 2013, the 24-year-old right-hander has grown into a starting option with a plus fastball, plus curve and good control, though he's had injury issues along the way. The Cubs have notoriously struggled to develop pitching in recent years, but Alzolay could be a homegrown arm that sticks, which is all the more impressive given the low early expectations.

Video: Iowa's Alzolay strikes out side

D-backs SS Jazz Chisholm, $200,000: It can seem jarring to jump from $10,000 signing bonuses to $200,000 and still call the latter a bargain, but if any organization had a chance to sign a Top-100 prospect like No. 59 Chisholm for low six-digits, it'd jump at the chance. After hitting 25 homers between Class A and Class A Advanced last season, the 21-year-old has 15 blasts in 65 games at Double-A in 2019. He's batted just .192 this season, but a .236 BABIP is partly to blame. With an above-average bat overall at the Minors' second-highest level, the Bahamas native still looks to like Arizona's future everyday shortstop.

Video: Generals' Chisholm's solo shot

Dodgers C Keibert Ruiz, $140,000: The Dodgers thought they were getting a good defensive catcher when they signed Ruiz from Venezuela in July 2014, only to see him turn himself into much more than that. Ruiz hit above .300 in each of his first three professional seasons before being promoted to Double-A Tulsa last year as a 19-year-old. His bat has stalled a little there, but he does have a positive K/BB ratio at 48/49 over 159 career games in the Texas League. Given his youth and history, the switch-hitting backstop is still one of the best catching prospects in the Minors at a time when top catchers are few and far between in the Majors.

Video: Drillers' Ruiz goes deep

Marlins RHP Sixto Sanchez, $35,000: This is our first case of a player who signed cheap for one organization and now calls another home. The Phillies made out well when they signed Sanchez on the cheap in March 2015, only to see him become a Top-100 prospect two years later and the main trade chip in a blockbuster trade that sent Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto to Philadelphia. In a way, Sanchez's signing bonus is a moot point to the Marlins now. From a player perspective, though, the right-hander deserves accolades for reaching Double-A at 20, thanks to a plus-plus curveball and above-average off-speed offerings. 

Video: Jumbo Shrimp's Sanchez tallies 10th K

Marlins RHP Jorge Guzman, $22,500: A similar situation here, although this one goes to another level. Guzman signed with the Astros on June 15, 2014 (with about three weeks left in that signing cycle), only to be dealt to the Yankees for Brian McCann two years later. He was traded again in December 2017 as part of Miami's haul for Giancarlo Stanton. That's going from a five-figure signing to a key piece in not one but two Major League trades. Credit Guzman for going from an unheard-of signing out of the Dominican Republic to one of the Minors' hardest throwers and the No. 9 prospect in a rising farm system.

Video: Jacksonville's Guzman's final K

Padres INF Luis Urias: $100,000: This is a little complicated. As discussed in this story from The Athletic, Urias's rights were owned by the Mexico City Red Devils, and any Major League club that wanted to sign him had to work out a deal with the club, knowing the player himself would only get 25 percent of that fee. For example, the White Sox had hoped to sign Urias for $300,000 in December 2013, but he would only get $75,000 of that. However, the Padres worked it out with the Red Devils to make sure the infielder would get all $100,000. (It helped that the Mexico City owner was also a minority owner of the San Diego club.) Nearly six years later, Urias has been one of the Pacific Coast League's best hitters as a 22-year-old, and Padres fans are clamoring to see the 5-foot-9 infielder pair up with Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego.

Video: El Paso's Urias homers to right field

Padres RHP Luis Patiño, $130,000: Only 22 Colombia natives have ever played in the Major Leagues, though seven of them (including Jorge Alfaro, Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran) have done so in 2019. Still, the country is far from a baseball hotbed like the Dominican Republic, Cuba or Venezuela. So Patiño being undervalued in 2016 may not come as a huge shock. Now, however, the 19-year-old right-hander has already climbed to Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore, where he has a 3.15 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings. MLB.com's No. 40 overall prospect has three above-average to plus pitches in his fastball, curveball and slider and is a main piece of an impressive Padres farm system -- all for about $6.6 million less than it took to sign MacKenzie Gore.

Philies RHP Adonis Medina, $70,000: Medina signed late in his international period, inking a deal with the Phillies in May 2014. He's methodically hit every step of the Phillies ladder since then -- he has yet to receive an in-season promotion but has risen one level each year -- and now finds himself at Double-A Reading and on the 40-man roster. The No. 77 overall prospect's stuff can be special with his fastball, slider and changeup all receiving above-average grades, though he isn't getting many swings-and-misses this season (45 strikeouts in 65 innings). Nonetheless, Medina has put himself in the Philly rotation discussion, and that's more than can be said of the Phillies' top international signing that year, Luis Encarnacion ($1 million), who was released by the Astros in March.

Video: Medina's season-high fifth K

Rays 2B/SS Vidal Brujan, $15,000: News broke Thursday that the 21-year-old middle infielder was being promoted to Double-A Montgomery almost five years after signing out of the Dominican Republic in October 2014. A switch-hitter, Brujan has always been impressive at the plate, aided by his plus-plus speed and tremendous ability to defend the strike zone. He struck out only 13.3 percent of the time during his 44 games with Class A Advanced Port Charlotte this season while hitting .290 and stealing 24 bases in 44 games. In the last week, the Rays got a taste of what a future infield with Brujan and Wander Franco might look like, and their combined toolsets make such a partnership tantalizing. It's just crazy to think Brujan cost the Rays about 1/256th what Franco did.

Red Sox LHP Darwinzon Hernandez, $7,500: The lowest signing bonus of anyone on this list goes to the only player besides Alzolay to see Major League time so far. The Red Sox signed Hernandez out of Venezuela in August 2013 as the ultimate lottery ticket, and it paid off (at least a little) when the 22-year-old southpaw stepped onto the Fenway Park mound on April 23. Hernandez has three above-average pitches in his fastball, curveball and slider, but poor control will likely keep him from hitting a starting pitcher ceiling. Even if he doesn't, he has the potential to be an important bullpen piece at a time when Boston needs all the relief help it can get. All it took was a four-digit deal six years ago.

Video: Portland's Hernandez notches his 10th K

Twins RHP Brusdar Graterol, $150,000: MLB.com's No. 50 overall prospect has not had an easy road through pro ball. Since signing for low six figures out of Venezuela in August 2014, Graterol has thrown over 50 innings in a season only once, in part because he underwent Tommy John surgery before the 2016 season. When he has been on the mound, the 20-year-old righty has a mid-to-upper-90s fastball with the makings of a plus slider, average curve and developing changeup. That has allowed him to reach Double-A already and become the top pitching prospect in a system with several high-ceiling youngsters. But he'll need to stay healthy -- he's back on the injured list with a shoulder injury right now.

Video: Blue Wahoos' Graterol fans Lien

Yankees RHP Deivi Garcia: $200,000: One of the themes of the Yankees system the last few seasons has been New York's ability to turn young pitchers into real prospects quickly, and Garcia is becoming one of their best success stories. Despite standing just 5-foot-9, the Yankees' No. 4 prospect leads full-season Minor Leaguers with a 40.8 percent strikeout rate between Class A Advanced Tampa and Double-A Trenton. That's mostly because he can throw in the low-to-mid-90s with his fastball and toss a high-spin rate curveball that fools hitters at all levels. Garcia isn't in the Top 100 yet, but he's certainly trending that direction, making it interesting to see if the Yankees will be willing to discuss him in potential trades next month.

Video: Thunder's Garcia strikes out 15th batter of game

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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