The Detroit Tigers have gotten very little help from signing international free agents in recent years. Since 2002, no international free agent signed by the Tigers has accumulated 1.0 WAR in a season. Only Jair Jurrjens, a 2003 signing out of Curacao, has done so with another team. New general manager Al Avila, with his strong background in international scouting and Cuban family ties, should reverse that trend. A golden opportunity awaits them if they do.
Youlieski Gurriel and his brother, Lourdes Jr., have left Cuba in hopes of signing with an MLB club. They are cousins of Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias. A .333/.414/.577 hitter in Cuba, Youlieski was listed by Baseball America's Ben Badler as the best player still on the island, and has been compared to Hanley Ramirez and David Wright offensively. He played with the Yokohama Baystars in Japan in 2014, hitting .305/.349/.536, but was released after he returned to Cuba and did not report in 2015. Here are his home run highlights from Japan.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is 22, and has the tools to be an infielder despite spending most of his career in the outfield. He also plays for the Cuban national team and is rated as one of the best prospects in Cuba. He is subject to international spending limits if he signs before his 23rd birthday in October 2016. It is not yet known when he will be eligible to sign -- both Gurriel brothers need to establish residency in another country before MLB recognizes them as free agents -- but a team would certainly exceed their bonus limit on him.
The Gurriel brothers aren't the only high profile amateur free agents on the market. Lazaro Armenteros is a 16-year-old corner outfielder better known as "Lazarito." The latest teenage Cuban baseball phenom will be free to sign with major league baseball clubs on February 10, 2016. Bob Nightengale at USA today reported that one scout compared Lazaro to Willie Mays and Bo Jackson because of his power and speed potential.
As a teenager, Lazaro is subject to international spending limits. The team that signs him will pay a 100 percent tax on the bonus paid above their international spending limit and forfeit the ability to sign any players with a bonus above $300,000 for the next two seasons.
Cuba has always been a lucrative source of baseball talent, but especially recently, as experienced players have come stateside ready to play in the major leagues. Players like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu have had an immediate impact with the clubs willing to pay them top dollar. Except for Cuba, the international market is mainly teenagers several years away from the major leagues.
With these Cuban free agents primed to receive pricey bonuses -- Lazaro may earn $15 to $20 million, and the Gurriel brothers even more -- the Tigers may also look elsewhere to spend on the international market. There is an impressive array of talent already lining up for the 2016-17 class who will be eligible to sign starting July 2. Exceeding the limit now would make the Tigers ineligible to sign players in that class. The Tigers will have a pool of over $3 million, based on having the ninth worst record in MLB in 2015. Playoff teams have a bonus pool of about $2 million, including Detroit in the current period.
If the Tigers wait until July 2 to make their splash, they could do so without much competition. The Angels, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Yankees, and Rays are currently serving two-year penalties for blowing past their bonus pool spending limits in previous years. The Dodgers, Royals, Cubs, Giants, and Blue Jays have exceeded their limits in the current 2015-2016 signing period, so they will not be able to exceed $300,000 on any players in the next signing period. That is 10 big spending clubs potentially out of action for some of the top amateur talent in the world.
Baseball America's Ben Badler pointed out the impact this could have for the Tigers.
If an organization committed $10-$15 million on international bonuses next year, it could easily come away with at least eight of its top 20 international prospects for 2016. The total cost would run nearly double that amount with a 100 percent overage tax, but a team could grab the equivalent of four to six years worth of top-level talent in one year while facing penalties for the next two years.
The fact that the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires in November should not impact the Tigers' spending habits this season. Even if the new CBA provides for an international draft, and even if the penalties for exceeding bonus limits are scaled back, the current agreement and its' penalties will be in effect for the remainder of the current season and could provide the Tigers with a one-time golden opportunity to dominate the international market stocking up on young talent that could help the team for several years.