The Tigers, International Free Agents, and Top-30 Rankings

Yesterday, the Detroit Tigers signed Cuban outfielder Roberto Campos for a reported $3 million bonus, the largest international bonus in club history. The $3 million bonus comes off of last year’s signings of outfielder Jose de la Cruz and shortstop Adisino Reyes, the #15 and #19 ranked prospects on MLB.com’s Top 30 International Prospects list for 2018-2019. Those signings were complemented by the $1 million bonus given to shortstop Alvaro Gonzalez in the 2017-2018 International Free Agent class.

More after the cut

This is normally the part of the post where I’d go over scouting reports and information on players. Thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever for your friendly neighborhood Tigers writer to grab multiple different scouting reports, video, and statistical data. Normally, we’d quote friends of the blog like Brian Sakowski at Perfect Game, or Emily Waldon at The Athletic and Baseball America. And that’s before we get into the analysis from Bless You Boys or one of the national outlets like Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, or Baseball America. And we even do some of our own on-site scouting, thanks to Andrew Welch, who’s written up some stuff on top pitching prospect Casey Mize.

Today, though, I’m not going to do that. I’m passing on that sort of thing to talk a bit about the international free agent market and ranking systems writ large. And I’m making that decision because, frankly, nobody knows much about these kids, Major League Baseball teams included. I’m sure you think that sounds ridiculous, but bear with me.

Ben Badler over at Baseball America has written extensively about the MLB International Free Agency system and how it’s broken in half. The article’s worth a read, but the quick summary is that Major League Baseball teams are scouting players as young as 10 or 11 and making decisions on who to commit to based on that information. Teams, scouts, and trainers are all upset at the system, in part because the margin for error is so high. Badler reported on one trainer who has started a program with 8 year olds. Even assuming scouts don’t start looking at those players until they’re 13, you’re talking about adding an absurd amount of risk into a system that’s already full of subjective standards.

And that brings us to a conversation about rankings. You see, Roberto Campos, the guy who the Tigers just handed $3 million to, isn’t in MLB.com’s top 30 list. It’s easy to panic when you see the Royals sign Erick Pena, the fifth-best prospect on that list, to a $3.8 million bonus. Practically speaking, though, that panic is overblown. When it comes to rankings, most fans are used to the MLB top-100 prospect list. There, the difference between players matters more. If we use the Fangraphs’ list, the difference between the #5 prospect (Jo Adell, LA Angels outfielder) and the #35 prospect (Drew Waters, Atlanta centerfielder) is about 5 points on the 20-80 scale. Adell is a projected 60 FV (future value, essentially an above average regular or all-star) and Waters, with a projected 55 FV, is somewhere between that and an average player.

But even that gap isn’t all that big. Draft rankings are the same. Some fans panicked when they saw the Tigers “reaching” for players like Nick Quintana in the second round because of their position on ranking lists. The problem is that in the MLB draft, the relative difference between prospect #50 and prospect #150 is slim. Now take the international market, where scouts make signing decisions based on how 14 and 15 year olds play. Baseball America stopped ranking international free agents this year because the system makes no sense. Not only are you projecting out young teenagers, but you’re doing so in an environment where even your scouting sources haven’t seen the player in years. As BA pointed out, #13 overall draft selection Keoni Cavaco went from an under-the-radar 17 year old to a high draft selection at age 18. Meanwhile, we’re busy ranking 16 year old players.

Maybe Roberto Campos isn’t as good as the Tigers think. Maybe he isn’t one of the thirty best prospects in this international free agent class, though at least one evaluator has him in the top five. Ultimately, though, the difference between a top-ten prospect and a top-fifty prospect are marginal. The real takeaway here is that the Tigers are finally making splashy efforts in the international free agent market. Perhaps their scouting really isn’t up to snuff. If so, we’ll find out in three or four years. But until then, keep calm.

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