When Jeff Luhnow was hired as general manager, he made it a point to not just rebuild the farm system through the June amateur draft, but through the international free agent market as well. Whether it was his Spanish-speaking background or success on the IFA front in St. Louis, the July 2nd date for signing 16-year old players from Latin America was soon seen as another way to infuse talent into the system. With the Texas Rangers spending enormous amounts on cash for the top talent in Latin America, it became exciting and important to see Luhnow work his magic not just through the draft, but abroad as well.
Two July 2nds later, and the Astros haven't exactly made a huge splash in the IFA market despite holding the most allotted bonus money in the league for 2013. In 2012, the highest bonus amount went toward signing Luis Payano for $500,000, and 24 hours into the 2013 signing period, none of the four players signed today appeared on Jonathan Mayo's Top 30 IFA prospect list. It was a far cry from the millions of dollars many of us might've expected Luhnow to spend for the top talent. But this shouldn't be cause for concern.
Early in 2012, Luhnow caught some flak after he compared to the Rangers' spending, with emphasis on the IFA market, to that of "drunken sailors." The Rangers had a ton of money to spend from their new television deal, and took advantage of the limitless budget by spending over $12 million in 2011. Two years later, Luhnow explained his strategy for the international market; he preferred a strategy where the bonus money (now allotted to teams) was spread around among several players instead of throwing one or two million dollars at a single players. It's a simple strategy, really; there's less risk involved, though it hasn't been popular among fans.
As fans of the team, we want excitement in the players our team signs. We drool over the tools of Eloy Jiminez, and the potential of the next Cuban star like Yasiel Puig. But in the international market, teams invest thousands, if not millions of dollars into the futures of 16 year old players; isn't that incredibly risky as it is?
The Eloy Jiminez's of the world are at the top of IFA boards for a reason; they have tools, and a lot of them. But tools don't translate into performance; we've seen that first-hand with Ariel Ovando (signed for $2.6 million). There are just so many external factors that go into the success of an international free agent. He's a teenager. Never been to the States for an extended period of time. Faced much lesser competition than he will in pro ball. They're lottery tickets, and though the risk increases with the bonuses, the ultimate reward might not. Eloy Jiminez might be a better player than a guy outside of industry rankings, sure. But in five years, when the external factors take effect and players develop, will the difference in talent really be that great?
The best example of this comes from what may be Luhnow's greatest gift to the St. Louis organization. In 2008, the Cardinals signed a Dominican outfielder for a mere $145,000. Five years later, that outfielder is the best prospect in baseball, and his name is Oscar Taveras. Luhnow has walked on both sides of the spectrum; he shelled out $1.5 million for Carlos Martinez in 2010, and he's one of the Cards' best pitching prospects. But Taveras is a prime example of Luhnow's strategy and how it can work.
It's hard to project a 16-year old's future in baseball. Teams evaluate based on tools, sign a guy and let him develop, sometimes for five or six years before he makes the big leagues. In that case, give me a handful of guys who have great work ethics, though they may be behind some of the top guys in talent. I'd take a handful of Teoscar Hernandezes, a guy who was signed as a favor to the Astros' Latin American director for $20,000 and playing well at Quad Cities, than one or two Ariel Ovando's, a bonus baby who's reportedly had some makeup issues this year. And the great thing about Teoscar? You can have a ton of them. It just takes a deeper look at the talent, and not just at the tools. Doling out millions for Dominican teenagers has proven successful, but the risk and history involved tells us that there's nothing wrong with Luhnow's current strategy. So let's hope Luhnow finds us more Teoscars than Ovandos.