July 2nd is a holiday of sorts for the most diehard baseball prospect followers. This marks the "opening" of the international amateur market for teams to officially sign international players who are not eligible for the Rule IV draft. I use the quotes because many teams already have unofficial deals in place with the top-ranked players for months before July 2nd rolls around. After a relatively conservative stategy in the international market in 2012 and 2013 years, the Astros have since made some aggressive plays for top interntaional talent. Armed with over $5 million last summer, Luhnow and international director Oz Ocampo spent all of that money, allocating it among three of the top 30 prospects and a plethora of other youngsters, mostly from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to fill out the Astros' interntaional academies. The international bonus pools are alotted in reverse-order of last year's standings, every team is given a base of $700,000, and signings for under $10,000 don't count against the pool. Here's a good primer for those interested in the rules. The Astros have the fourth-highest pool this year at $4,248,800.
The following reports are players that the Astros have already agreed to deals with- though most top players will sign today, the window remains open for other youngsters to sign until June 2016. Keep in mind that these kids are actually 15-17 years old, so their ceilings and potential are far, far away.
1. Gilberto Celestino, OF, Dominican Republic, $2.5 million bonus
Celestino is the top-ranked of the Astros signees this summer, coming in at #10 on the Fangraphs board, #17 at Baseball America and #7 at MLB.com. He's currently a bit of an undersized outfieler, measuring at 6'1', 172 lbs. so he's expected to grow into that frame. You'd expect a bonus of this size to go to a consensus top ten player, but rankings for international signings seem mostly useless because everyone is so far off, and the Astros front office obviously is high on Celestino's ceiling. He's also played a lot in what amount to Dominican prospect showcases, so he's a known quantity and people have had eyes on him for a while. The sixteen year-old profiles as a great defender with his speed and good instincts, and this guy thinks his bat compares to Jose Bautista down the line. Okay then! Everything considered, I think Celestino fits in among the Astros top 20 or 25 prospects.
Here's international director Ocampo on Celestino from an MLB.com article by Jesse Sanchez:
"Gilberto Celestino is one of the most advanced players in this year's international July 2 class," said Astros director of international Oz Ocampo. "Offensively, he is one of the best pure hitters in this class with a strong ability to hit for both average and power, and an abnormally long history of performing in games against top-level competition. He is a special defender in center field, with the body type, athleticism and instincts to be an elite center fielder. Makeup-wise, Celestino is a proven winner with tremendous work ethic, intelligence, competitive fire, and a desire to be the best. We are very excited to welcome Celestino and his family to the Houston Astros organization."
Here's Celestino's blurb from Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs:
'Celestino is rare because he's a righty hitter and lefty thrower and also because he's a standout defender already despite only being an average runner. He has some pop and feel to hit, but there's still some uncertainty about his offensive impact."
And video, also from McDaniel:
2. Yeuris Ramirez, SS/3B, Dominican Republic, $500K bonus
Not a lot out there on this guy! Can't even find his age, but he's now a half-millionaire and potentially can't legally drive a car in America.
3. Enmanuel Valdez, 2B, Dominican Republic, $450K bonus
Little more out there on Valdez- he's a middle infielder, currently playing short but will probably move to second once he starts his pro career. Valdez has a pretty solid bat, especially for his position, and people seem to like his hit tool. Here's a write-up from Baseball American July 2nd guru Ben Badler:
Listed at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Valdez has a knack for hitting, making frequent contact in games with good hand-eye coordination and a line-drive approach from the left side. He may end up sliding over to second base. Valdez trains with "Mon" and played in the International Prospect League.
4. Ronaldo Urdaneta, 2B/SS, Venezuela, $60K bonus
The Astros sign a Venezuelan guy! Time for a tangent: if you don't know the history of the Astros' presence in Venezuela, it's worth some research. In the mid to late 90s, Houston was all over the place in the country, signing future MLB regulars such as Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Carlos Guillen, Johan Santana and Melvin Mora. If I ever write a book one day, it might be about the Astros cornerning the market on Venezuelan guys in the 1990s.
Urdaneta has solid speed and "knowledge of the game" according to minor league international guy Antonio Puesan, so I'm guessing the Astros like his middle infield defense.
That's all the reported signings for the Astros so far today. By my count, they've already spent $3,510,000 on these four players, with Celestino obviously taking up most of that. They have $1,038,800 left in their pool, so expect a lot of lower-bonus signings over the next few weeks.