What just happened or why did the Cubs do what they did yesterday?

What just happened or why did the Cubs do what they did yesterday?

Part 1-International Signing Period

Len Kasper described yesterday as a “paradigm shifting” day in baseball. He was describing the fact that the Cubs are the first and most aggressive team in acquiring international bonus pool money. The Cubs did this because they have gone after big ticket items in the international free agent market. The players the Cubs have officially signed were listed in this blog at World Series Dreaming.com. Cubs Den has the best scouting reports on the individual prospects signed (Gleyber Torres, Jefferson Mejia, and Erling Moreno).

There has been another paradigm shift that started last year, and it is the way that the Cubs and Theo Epstein approach the international signing period. The Cubs and Theo Epstein prior to the 2011 was always focused on a quantity approach when it came to Latin America. Neither the Cubs nor Red Sox are on the list of the 20 biggest international amateur bonuses. The Cubs had never given an international amateur over a million dollars prior to the 2011-2012 signing period. Theo Epstein gave four such bonuses during that time period, but three of those were for players from Cuba or Asia.

The Cubs spent $3.35 million on 3 players yesterday. The Cubs are also after the biggest, or at least most expensive, prize in this signing period in OF Eloy Jimenez. Jimenez reportedly has agreed to the Cubs for less than the most money offered due to his and his family’s love of Sammy Sosa. Jimenez reportedly was going to receive a bonus in the range of $2.5-$2.7 million. If he signs in that range, it would be close to a million more than the Cubs or Theo Epstein has offered an international amateur.
Again this paradigm shift in approach is dramatic and significant. Last year the Cubs spent virtually the entire budget on two players. This year the Cubs are going to spend the most of any team in baseball on international amateurs and it is going to be spent on four players. Concentrating the budget on only a few Latin American prospects is hardly a fool proof strategy. The list of top 20 bonuses is filled with players you probably have never heard of before or were only successful for brief periods of time. This approach was criticized in an interview with Jason Parks at Bleacher Nation.

I don’t like that approach, but I understand why the Cubs are doing it. The Cubs are in a different situation than most teams in baseball. The Cubs are similar to the big money teams – the prestige teams – in the sense that, eventually, this regime has to win at the major league level. They can’t be like the Royals and just stockpile prospects for five years and not win in the big leagues. They’re a team that doesn’t afford that kind of patience. So, instead of getting like 10 to 15 guys at $50,000 to $100,000 and then let them slowly become players down the line – survival of the fittest – the Cubs will go for the impact talent now. You can use that talent as currency sooner rather than later.

Another example from the Cubs is the fact that Starlin Castro cost a mere $45,000 in bonus and Junior Lake cost $500,000. There is a huge amount of volatility in predicting what 16 and 17 years olds are going to become as they mature. And so there is risk with this approach, and it is far from universally approved.

But there is a reason why Theo Epstein and the front office have made this shift. The focus with this front office has been on getting impact players, and spending big money gives the biggest chance at impact players. Putting this shift in context with the change in draft approach in 2013 reveals a larger pattern. These prospects are likely a couple years away from making it even to rookie ball in Arizona. The 2013 draft was heavily focused on netting college players that were closer to making the major leagues. Acquiring these top notch international prospect increases the ceiling of the amateurs acquired in 2013.

The Cubs are attempting to game the system a bit with these trades. The Cubs aren’t the only teams trying to do this. The Rays last year and the Rangers this year are trying another approach. Under 5% overage is only taxed with no other penalties, and the Cubs will probably go right up to that amount. The strictest penalty is the following year being only allowed to sign players under $250,000. The Cubs aren’t going to try that approach otherwise the trades for pool space make no sense. Instead the Cubs have made a concerted effort to stay under that penalty level to make sure that they aren’t affecting their ability to add talent the following year.

The Cubs strategy has clearly been to acquire as much international bonus pool money as possible, but some have begun to oversell the importance of these in making trades. Dave Cameron was one example of many who has cited the international bonus pool money as the key or headliner in the Scott Feldman deal. This really doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny however. The Cubs acquired nearly $400,000 in the Scott Feldman deal. The Cubs acquired nearly $800,000 dollars for Ronald Torreyes. So basically the headliner in the deal is a prospect worth half as much as Ronald Torreyes. That is an extremely underwhelming return if true. To further drive this point home is that the Cubs traded $200,000 to acquire a 34 year old reliever. Cubs certainly are being aggressive in the international market and are being a pioneer in terms of emphasizing that. However, the value of those slots is not the same as real prospects or major league ready talent.

Part two will look at the players acquired and what it reveals about the plan.

Leave a comment