Thursday marked the opening of this year’s international amateur signing period. There was a time, not too long ago, when the Red Sox’ activities on and after July 2 resulted in something of a shrug of the shoulders, a reflection of the absence of impact the team saw in the international market. That is no longer the situation.
The demographics of the Red Sox’ prospect pool are shifting. For years, the upper tier of talent in the team’s farm system was dominated by domestic amateurs taken in the draft while the international yield, particularly from Latin America, came in drips.
That’s changing. At the moment, a strong case can be made that five of the team’s top 10 prospects — second baseman Yoan Moncada (low Single A Greenville), center fielder Manuel Margot (Double A Portland), third baseman Rafael Devers (Greenville), shortstop Javier Guerra (Greenville), and righthander Anderson Espinoza (rookie level Gulf Coast League) — were signed as international teenagers. All but Moncada signed as 16-year-olds. The apparent shift in the quality of prospects coming to the Sox from Latin America is considerable.
Some of the team’s lack of impact from Latin America in the past related to the inherent limitations of a scouting market that forces teams to guess when projecting how a 16-year-old is going to mature physically and develop as a player — all with relatively few opportunities to see them in organized games.
The task is daunting, even in comparison to the process of projecting the development of high school and college players.
“The international market is obviously the riskier of the markets, especially when you’re talking about big-dollar allocations,” said Red Sox international scouting director Eddie Romero. “There’s so much more information and so much more of a track record with those guys, so you feel more comfortable with a large investment in those guys.”
But even acknowledging that limitation, the Sox saw less big league impact from the Latin American market than other teams for a number of years. Felix Doubront was essentially the only player from the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic to play a meaningful role for the Red Sox under former general manager Theo Epstein. But the dynamic is now changing.
In 2009, under Epstein and then-vice president of international scouting Craig Shipley, the team spent aggressively on a trio of shortstops: Cuban Jose Iglesias (who received a four-year, $8.25 million deal), Dominican Jose Vinicio ($1.95 million), and Aruban Xander Bogaerts ($410,000). That represented the start of a wave of impact talent from Latin America.
“I think Theo wanted to be a little more aggressive back then. I think we were. That year happened to be where some of the prices for talent matched our evaluations and we were able to get some of those guys,” said Romero. “Jose Iglesias and all those guys, it was a really good year in terms of getting the evaluations right at prices where we felt comfortable.”
When Ben Cherington took over as GM in late 2011, one of his first actions was overhauling the international scouting infrastructure. Romero replaced Shipley as the head of international scouting in an effort to align the team’s processes in Latin America with those of the rest of the baseball operations department.
(Shipley was offered a job as special assistant to the GM but declined and left the organization.)
“I wanted to further integrate that department into the rest of the operation so that the processes used in that area were more similar to the [amateur] draft and other things we were doing. Eddie, in my mind, was the right guy to do that,” said Cherington. “I think our scouting and signing processes have become more consistent with other areas of the operation and we’re hopefully starting to see the fruits of that coming in the system.”
Indeed, the Sox currently feature a top-end talent pool that suggests considerable potential — and present — impact. Bogaerts is the Sox’ top player to emerge from its academy since Hanley Ramirez almost a decade ago.
“It’s exciting. It provides a model for our minor leaguers,” said Romero. “They see a kid who started at the academy, was crude, worked his way to the big leagues, did things the right way, off the field took care of business, and on the field did very well. Given the kid he is, he’s a great role model. When we put the picture up at the academy of Xander Bogaerts, people are like, ‘Man, that kid started right here.’ ”
In Margot (signed under Shipley in 2011), Moncada, Devers, Guerra, and Espinoza, the Sox have players with star-caliber ceilings — albeit with plenty of uncertainty if they’ll fulfill that upside.
Meanwhile, the emergence of a player such as Jonathan Aro, who signed for a $10,000 bonus as a 20-year-old but forged his own path to the big leagues, offers a different message to both players at the team’s academy and the scouts who scour the globe for overlooked values.
“The Red Sox’ track record recently has seen significant improvement. You start to see it with the signings of guys like Xander Bogaerts and Manuel Margot. And since Eddie Romero took over, they’ve continued to improve,” said Ben Badler of Baseball America. “A lot of guys in the lower levels of their system right now, whether it’s Rafael Devers, Javier Guerra, or Anderson Espinoza, are starting to blow up now. There’s a lot of good young international talent there.
“When you look at the talent pool they have in their minor league system, it’s safe to say they’re one of the best at doing what they do with international signings, and that’s not even including some of the Cuban guys like Yoan Moncada and going back to Jose Iglesias.”
The Sox hope that Bogaerts and Iglesias represent not just a watershed but a beginning, a long-awaited yield on a global crop of players that is just now starting to bear fruit.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.