Jan. 15 isn't typically a big day on the baseball calendar. It's another step toward Spring Training, sure. Another number to rip off of the daily countdown to the arrival of pitchers and catchers, but often little more. The big headlines last Jan. 15 were the free-agent signings of Alex Wood and Todd Frazier and some minor trades.
Then again, what's been typical about 2020 and the first few weeks of 2021?
The beginning of Major League Baseball's 2020-21 international signing period was pushed back from July 2 to Jan. 15 following the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. Any player who was 16 or older (as of Sept. 1, 2020) and has residence outside the United States, Canada or Puerto Rico is eligible to sign with Major League clubs as of Friday. That means a lot of talent will hit farm systems Friday and then in the coming weeks and months as clubs continue to dip into their international pools before Dec. 15.
To prepare fans for this new big date, Toolshed dives into some of the details about this year's international prospect signing period.
What the 2021 changes mean
From a practical sense, it will be interesting to watch how some of the newly signed prospects are handled as they begin their professional stateside careers. Normally, the July 2 date means these signings happen in the middle of the Minor League season. The 16- and 17-year-old players don't normally see action and instead work out at the complexes, hoping to get settled in pro ball for the first time. The new offseason date could mean more freshly signed prospects see Minor League action in their signing year, albeit still likely in the complex leagues in Arizona, Florida or the Dominican Republic. Older players, such as Cuban sluggers Yoelqui Cespedes and Pedro Leon, will likely open straight with full-season clubs and be given longer chances to make first impressions, rather than shuffling onto a club for a closing couple of weeks.
There is also the matter of a downstream effect. The move to a Jan. 15 date this year is expected to mean another Jan. 15 opening in 2022. No decision has been made yet on the 2022-23 international signing period, but that will be something to keep an eye on in coming years.
Also as part of the changes in the past year, international bonus money was not allowed to be traded ahead of the 2020-21 signing period, so the amount of money assigned to each club by Major League Baseball is what they'll have to work with this year. Speaking of which...
The following are the amounts of money each club can spend on international players (excepting those 25 or older who played six years overseas) after Jan. 15. Of note on the tier system -- clubs with a Competitive Balance Round B pick received the highest pools with clubs with a Competitive Balance Round A selection coming in a tier below. The Braves are still dealing with the loss of international money stemming from their signing scandal last decade and were docked another $500,000 for their signing of Marcell Ozuna last offseason. The Yankees ($1 million), Phillies ($500,000) and Angels ($500,000) also had their pool amounts lowered following free-agent signings of Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler and Anthony Rendon respectively.
$6,431,000: Brewers, Marlins, Rays, Reds, Tigers, Twins,
$5,889,600: Cardinals, D-backs, Indians, Orioles, Padres, Pirates, Rockies, Royals,
$5,348,100: Astros, Athletics, Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Mets, Nationals, Rangers, Red Sox, White Sox
$4,732,700: Angels, Phillies
Names to know
Yoelqui Céspedes, OF, Cuba: Yoenis Céspedes' half-brother comes in as MLB.com's No. 1 overall prospect in this international cycle, albeit with a different profile than his sibling at least for now. The younger Céspedes is a plus runner with above-average power potential and a strong arm that could play anywhere on the grass. That said, above-average pop doesn't match Yoenis' mashing abilities, but it's been reported that Yoelqui put more of an emphasis on that particular tool in his pre-signing workouts. Céspedes turned 23 in September and last played in the Cuban National Series during the 2018-19 season, when he hit .319/.355/.389 over 21 games. He is expected to sign with the White Sox and will likely become the club's top outfield prospect, following the graduation of fellow Cuban Luis Robert.
Wilman Diaz, SS, Venezuela: The 17-year-old right-handed slugger's value is driven by his offensive potential. With impressive bat speed, Diaz is capable of hitting the ball to all fields and has shown signs of impressive raw and in-game power. His hit tool has the highest potential with a 60 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, but his pop, glove and arm also come in at above-average. Future position could be up for debate, especially as he fills out his 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame, but whether he stays at short or moves over to third, the bat here has a good chance to play. Diaz is expected to head to the Dodgers on Friday.
Pedro Leon, OF, Cuba: Some make the case that the 22-year-old outfielder is the best prospect in this class. His 15 homers and .789 slugging percentage over only 33 games in the Cuban National Series in 2018-19 make a strong case. The fact he achieved those power numbers while standing at only 5-foot-10, 180 pounds make for an even more intriguing profile. Mix in above-average speed and a good arm, and there are 55 or above grades all over the scouting report. Like so many here, there will be questions about how Leon can perform after a long layoff since his last appearance was in the CNS. He was hampered by an oblique injury in 2019, and though he was first eligible to sign that December, he held off until this signing period, when he is expected to head to Houston. Given his age, Leon should move to full-season ball straight away in 2021 and show how his electric bat can handle stateside pitching over longer stretches.
Armando Cruz, SS, Dominican Republic: Cruz fits the old-school definition of a promising shortstop prospect. Any discussion about him has to start with his glove at the six, and many believe he's the best defensive prospect of anyone this signing period. He can also be an above-average runner, and his overall bat has the chance to provide value as well. However, power isn't much of a strength at present, nor is it expected to be even with the maturation of Cruz, who turns 17 on Saturday. The Nationals are expected to be the ones betting on Cruz's glove and his ability to show more offensive potential in the coming years, and that should bring some flash to a system with a lack of ceiling among position players in the system right now.
Carlos Colmenarez, SS, Venezuela: This is a bit of a right-handed-heavy class at the top, so Colmenarez provides a little bit of refreshment as a left-handed hitter. The Venezuela native shows above-average potential across the board with promising hit and power tools at the plate -- aided by a swing with plenty of elevation -- and the right defensive skills to make him a good bet to stick to short. He is expected to head to the Rays, who know a thing or two about bringing along five-tool shortstops.
Norge Vera, RHP, Cuba: We only feature Vera -- the No. 15 international prospect -- here to highlight the dearth of top pitching in this year's international class. In fact, Vera is the only full-time pitcher included among the top 30 in this cycle. Don't get it wrong; he is a good prospect in his own right. Standing 6-foot-4, the right-hander typically throws in the low 90s but is capable of touching higher. His slider and changeup have the chance to be above-average but need more work than the heater. He is expected to head to the White Sox with Céspedes, and more on that below.
Farm systems ready to benefit most
Chicago White Sox: The White Sox have been active this offseason on the Major League side, adding Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks to the pitching staff, and that should continue on Jan. 15. Any team getting MLB.com's top prospect would be in good shape, but by signing Céspedes for an estimated $2 million, the Sox also could afford to add Vera to its group of Minor League arms. (His price tag is likely to be closer to $1.5 million.) Those two are solid pulls for any organization, but it's especially notable for a White Sox system that has three top-four prospects with Major League experience already and the fourth (Andrew Vaughn) knocking on the door. After graduations, this farm system could have taken a dive in quality. Céspedes and Vera bring some cache to the next tier of White Sox prospects. The group could take another jump in 2022 if the second-ranked international prospect Oscar Colas -- a left-hander/outfielder who has been tied to the Sox before -- waits another year to sign and maximize his bonus money.
Los Angeles Dodgers: As if the defending World Series champions with a strong farm system need the help. But it's true -- the Dodgers are the only organization expected to sign two of the top 10 international prospects -- No. 3 Diaz and No. 8 Jesus Galiz. On top of Diaz's skills at short, Los Angeles is adding a strong defensive catcher with some offensive upside in Galiz. The club has been successful in developing backstops like Will Smith and No. 68 overall prospect Keibert Ruiz, so Galiz could be a good fit. Expect the Dodgers to look even deeper and more well-rounded after Friday at a time when most World Series winners' farm systems typically head the other direction.
Houston Astros: In establishing 2021 resolutions for AL farm systems earlier this month, Toolshed reported the Astros should aim to "find excitement beyond Forrest Whitley." Leon fits that bill pretty well. The Cuban slugger could bring power potential not seen from a top prospect in the system since Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker graduated, and he has a good chance to leap past Jeremy Pena, Korey Lee and Freudis Nova as the top position-player prospect in the system. Spending a reported $4 million on Leon will hinder Houston's ability to make this a broad base of talent in the 2021 international period, but the talent he brings will be a bright spot on its own.
Tampa Bay Rays: Again, the deep get deeper. This is true of most organizations since everyone will be looking to add talent, but there's something especially notable about the expectation that the Rays will sign No. 4 prospect Colmenarez and No. 17 Jhonny Piron on top of that. Piron, an outfielder from the Dominican Republic, is primarily known for his above-average speed and ability to roam the grass in center field. (The bat needs work, but Piron started to hit for some power ahead of his 17th birthday in February.) Given the Rays' history of player-development success, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either turn into a Top-100 talent someday.
Baltimore Orioles: It really wasn't that long ago that the Baltimore organization rarely made a splash on July 2. General manager Mike Elias has helped changed the group's approach to the international signing scene, and now, the O's should be in a better place after Friday, given some of the signings they are expected to make. The biggest is likely to be Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernandez -- the No. 30 international prospect well-rounded at a premium position despite being a sizable 6-foot-3. Dominican Republic catcher Samuel Basallo -- a typical big catcher with good power and a strong arm -- is expected to bring another solid talent to the group.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.