Thursday, July 2 marked the beginning of this year's MLB international free agent signing period. Players from outside the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico are eligible to sign with major league clubs as free agents.
With a significant delay between the time that players declared their eligibility for signing and the actual signing day -- think of it like National Signing Day for college football recruiting -- many of the top free agents of this year's class have already signed contracts with major league teams. Several teams have already been hard at work inking players to deals, with the Tampa Bay Rays leading the pack at six players under contract.
While the Detroit Tigers have joined the party -- this year's bounty already includes youngsters Gresuan Silverio, Juan Ramirez, and Luis Laurencio -- they are failing to take advantage of a big opportunity in front of them.
Take the Los Angeles Dodgers for instance. While they are backed by the billion-dollar Guggenheim Baseball Management conglomerate, they have already spent $22 million on this year's crop of international free agents. The New York Yankees went gangbusters last year, spending $12 million on international free agents within the first 24 hours of the signing period. The Boston Red Sox spent $62 million on Yoan Moncada alone, half of which was a penalty for overspending their bonus pool limit.
The Tigers don't necessarily have pockets as deep as those three clubs, but other teams are also getting in on the act. The San Francisco Giants spent $6.5 million on shortstop Lucius Fox, snatching him from the Dodgers' clutches at the last minute. The Chicago Cubs have signed or are the favorites to sign 10 of the top 45 players on Kiley McDaniel's international free agent big board. The Blue Jays, Twins, Mets, Rangers, Braves, Mariners, Phillies, Astros, Royals (Royals!), and Rockies are spending at least $1 million on at least one prospect this year.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have all but neglected a deep talent pool. They have been in on free agents in the past -- they showed some interest in Moncada, Yoenis Cespedes, and Rusney Castillo -- but have never pulled the trigger on a big-money deal. Outfielder Julio Martinez, signed for $600,000 last year, is the biggest amateur free agent deal the Tigers have handed out under Dave Dombrowski. The team instead chooses to spend its bonus pool on lesser-known talent, handing out bonuses in the five-to-six figure range.
Spending on amateur talent can be risky. Moncada has received a lot of hype, but could end up being a $62 million mistake if he does not perform at the major league level. However, the Tigers' formula is not working. Last week, Patrick identified that no amateur free agent signed by the Tigers has ever amassed 1.0 WAR in a Detroit uniform. With a farm system that ranks last in the major leagues -- and will likely be depleted once again at this year's trade deadline -- the Tigers could afford to spend on top amateur talent in hopes of acquiring some cost-controlled talent for the future.
The lone downside to overspending on prospects in a given year are penalties that affect spending in future years. They paid a small tax on an overage from last season's bonus pool limit, but even the most severe penalties are not much of a hindrance. If the Tigers exceed their bonus pool of roughly $2 million by more than 15 percent, they would be unable to sign a prospect for more than $300,000 for the next two years. This seems harsh at first glance, but the Tigers are handcuffing themselves by refusing to spend big like so many other clubs.
When Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires after the 2016 season, many believe that the new CBA will include a provision for an international free agent draft. The format is still up in the air, but it would be similar to the amateur player draft that takes place in June. If this new draft is formed, previous oversigning penalties would likely go out the window, thus giving teams that spent big a proverbial "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
Even if the international free agent draft does not come to fruition, spending big on top amateur talent could help restock the farm system in one fell swoop. The Tigers would not see many of these players at the major league level for five years or more, but with so much uncertainty in the team's near future, grabbing a handful of talented teenagers could be worth the investment.