Despite spending restrictions, the Yankees have an impressive collection of Latin American pitching prospects

Medina. (@MiLB)
Medina. (@MiLB)

For years the Yankees built their farm system through international free agency. They haven’t had access to top of the draft talent in more than two decades now, but they were able to spend freely internationally, so they made up for the lack of high draft picks that way. That’s how the Yankees landed Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino, among others.

The rules have changed, however. MLB implemented a soft spending cap for international players six years ago and a hard cap this year. The Yankees are no longer free to wield their financial might internationally. This year they were held to a $4.75M hard cap, which is nothing. They gave Sanchez a $3M bonus back in 2009. Three years ago the Yankees blew their soft cap out of the water and spent $30M between taxes and bonuses, and once other teams followed suit, MLB pushed for the hard cap, so here we are.

Anyway, as a result of that $30M spending spree during he 2014-15 signing period, the Yankees could not sign a player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods. That took them out of the running for the top talent. When other teams could offer millions and you’re limited to $300,000, it’s a huge disadvantage. It figured to be tough for the Yankees to attract top players, and it was. C’est la vie.

The Yankees, however, have become very adept at finding under-the-radar international talent, and turning smaller bonus players into top prospects. Severino, for example, signed for $225,000 as an amateur. Jorge Mateo signed for $250,000. Top outfield prospect Estevan Florial signed for $200,000. The big seven-figure bonuses like $3M for Sanchez get all the attention, but it’s those small bonus signings that make a big difference in the long run.

The Yankees have Donny Rowland, who returning to the organization in 2007 and has been their director of international scouting since 2014, and his army of scouts in Latin America to thank for that. Despite being limited to $300,000 bonuses during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods, the Yankees landed several interesting power arms who make up their next wave of pitching prospects. A partial list:

  • RHP Roansy Contreras: Signed for $300,000 in July 2016.
  • RHP Deivi Garcia: Signed for $100,000 in July 2015.
  • RHP Rony Garcia: Signed for an undisclosed bonus in July 2015. (Had to be $300,000 or less.)
  • RHP Luis Medina: Signed for $280,000 in July 2015.

All four of those pitchers have received quite a bit of attention recently. Contreras was considered the top pitching prospect in the Dominican Republic during the 2016-17 signing period. Jim Callis said Medina has the highest ceiling of any pitching prospect in the system. Both Deivi (“One of the Yankees’ brightest low-level arms“) and Rony (“(He) shouldn’t be anonymous for long“) Garcia received glowing reports from Baseball America recently.

Also, the Yankees have traded for several lower level Latin American arms within the last year, most notably RHP Albert Abreu and RHP Jorge Guzman, both of whom came over in the Brian McCann trade. Also, RHP Juan De Paula was part of the Ben Gamel trade. De Paula and especially Guzman have seen their stock rise considerably this year, and I have no doubt Rowland and his staff were consulted during trade talks. The international scouting department had eyes on these guys long before the Yankees traded for them.

This group doesn’t include RHP Domingo Acevedo ($7,500 bonus in October 2012) or RHP Freicer Perez ($10,000 bonus in December 2014), both of whom received small bonuses, but not while the Yankees were held to the $300,000 bonus maximum. Both are among the better pitching prospects in the system — Acevedo figures to make his MLB debut at some point next season — and both signed for relative peanuts. They’re just two more examples of how well the Yankees identify under-the-radar international talent.

It would be unwise and unfair to expect any of these pitchers to turn into another Severino. Severino has been a top ten pitcher in baseball this season and, as long as he stays healthy, he has the ability to remain a top ten pitcher for several years. It’s hard to expect that from any prospect, no matter how good. The hope is several of these Latin American arms will turn into useful big leaguers or trade chips. These days teams take lower level prospects back as the headliners in trades more than ever before. It might not be long before the Yankees cash these guys in.

The Yankees were limited to $300,000 bonuses internationally from July 2015 through July 2017, and they knew they would be following the 2014-15 spending spree. That was part of the plan. They still managed to land several pitching prospects who are already drawing rave reviews, with Medina and the Garcias in particular becoming hard to ignore. Contreras, who signed just last year, is next in line. The Yankees have graduated a lot of prospects and traded a lot of prospects recently. Now the next wave is in place, despite those international spending limits.

International Signing News: Contreras, Torres, Torrealba

The Yankees' academy in the Dominican Republic. (Groundskeeper.MLBlogs.com)
The Yankees’ academy in the Dominican Republic. (Groundskeeper.MLBlogs.com)

As always, the 2016-17 international signing period opened on July 2nd this year, and pretty much all of the top prospects wound up signing with the Padres. San Diego went on a massive Yankees-esque spending spree that has seen them pay out more than $27M in bonuses already. They’ll have to pay a near equal amount in tax too.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are still dealing with the penalties stemming from that 2014-15 spending spree. They’re unable to sign anyone to a bonus larger than $300,000 this signing period. That’s okay. The Yankees brought in a ton of talent back in 2014, and they’re pretty good at finding talent on the cheap. Both Jorge Mateo ($225,000) and Luis Severino ($250,000) signed for relative peanuts back in the day.

This signing period the Yankees had a $2,177,100 bonus pool to play with internationally. Also, any bonuses of $10,000 or less do not count against the pool. Teams can hand out as many of those as they want. Here is a recap of the Yankees’ international signings since the current signing period opened on July 2nd.

The Top Prospect: Roancy Contreras

The best prospect the Yankees picked up this signing period is Dominican RHP Roancy Contreras. We heard a deal was likely weeks ago. Ben Badler reported the signing and I haven’t seen his bonus anywhere, but I think it’s safe to assume he received the $300,000 maximum. Baseball America ranked Contreras the third best pitcher and the 25th best prospect overall this signing period. He was the top Dominican pitcher available.

Contreras, 16, is listed at 6-foot-0 and 175 lbs., so he’s not the biggest guy at this point in time. Baseball America’s scouting report (subs. req’d) says he has an upper-80s/low-90s heater and an above-average bat-missing curveball. He’s even shown a changeup already, which is rare for a 16-year-old. Contreras is said to have a sound delivery and good athleticism. It seems like the Yankees found him early, locked him into an agreement, then his stock improved.

The Other Top Prospect: Saul Torres

The second best prospect the Yankee signed this month is 16-year-old Dominican C Saul Torres. He received a $300,000 bonus, reports Baseball America. Balder’s scouting report (subs. req’d) says Torres has promising power potential and “an above-average arm with the blocking and receiving skills to stick behind the plate.” The Yankees generally do very well scouting and developing catchers, so even though Torres was not one of the top 50 international prospects according to Baseball America, I’m guessing the kid has some skills. The team’s track record behind the plate speaks for itself.

Taken from the Red Sox: Eduardo Torrealba

As you may have heard, MLB hit the Red Sox hard after it was discovered they circumvented their bonus pool last year with some shady dealings. The short version: the BoSox were held to the same $300,000 bonus limit as the Yankees, so they’d sign two players for $300,000 each, but actually pay one $10,000 and the other $590,000 (I don’t know the exact amounts, but that’s the idea). The guy getting the small bonus probably wasn’t going to get signed otherwise, so he made some extra cash for playing along. That allowed the Red Sox to game the system and sign some top prospects.

MLB found out about this and punished the Red Sox. They are not allowed to sign any players during the 2016-17 signing period, and all the players who were part of their scam last season had their contracts voided and became free agents. One of those prospects, 17-year-old Venezuelan SS Eduardo Torrealba, later signed with the Yankees for $300,000, reports Jesse Sanchez. (Torrealba got to keep his Red Sox bonus money too. Good for him.)

Now Torrealba is not some kind of elite prospect or anything like that. In fact, he was hitting only .247/.318/.247 (71 wRC+) with four strikeouts and ten walks in 22 Dominican Summer League games when his contract was voided. Badler’s scouting report from last year says Torrealba is a “smart, instinctive player with feel for hitting from the right side of the plate and the ability to use the whole field.” Badler notes he may wind up at second base long-term.

Small or Unknown Bonuses

Here is basically everyone else. The guys the Yankees signed to relatively small or unreported bonuses. Good luck finding information on these guys. We usually have to wait until they break through as actual prospects and come to the U.S. before we learn anything about them.

Assuming Contreras received the maximum $300,000 bonus, the Yankees have $1.355M in pool space tied up in the players listed above. There’s seven bonuses unaccounted for though. Last year the Yankees signed 57 (!) players even with the bonus limit, so chances are they’ve signed a bunch of other players and will sign more before the 2016-17 signing period ends next June.

Badler: Yankees favored to sign Dominican righty Roancy Contreras

The Yankees' academy in the Dominican Republic. (Groundskeeper.MLBlogs.com)
The Yankees’ academy in the Dominican Republic. (Groundskeeper.MLBlogs.com)

Although the Yankees are still dealing with the penalties associated with their 2014-15 international spending spree, the team is still favored to land one of the top pitching prospects in Dominican Republic when the 2016-17 signing period opens on July 2nd. Ben Badler (subs. req’d) reports the Yankees “look like the favorites” to sign highly touted right-hander Roancy Contreras.

Contreras has “a fastball that has reached 92-93 mph, a sharp curveball with tight spin and a delivery that should allow him to be a starter,” writes Badler. He’s a little guy at 5-foot-10 and 180 lbs., so surely the Yankees are hoping Contreras grows a few inches at some point. Remember, we’re talking about a 16-year-old kid. Chances are an awkward growth spurt is coming at some point.

The Yankees can not hand out a bonus larger than $300,000 during the upcoming signing period, though apparently that won’t be a problem. I wonder if the Yankees were on to Contreras early — teams scout 14-year-olds in Latin America, if you can believe that — and locked him into a verbal agreement at some point, then bam, he showed up to the park one day with some extra velocity and improved his prospect stock. Something like that.

The 2016-17 signing period is the last signing period the Yankees will have to deal with the penalties from their 2014-15 spree. Chances are the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement will change the system — we might see an international draft going forward — so we’ll just have to see what happens in 2017-18, when the penalties are lifted. Either way, it sounds as though the Yankees are still going to be able to add a top pitching prospect in the upcoming signing period.