clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Are international free agents the new market efficiency?

New, 1 comment

Small-market teams could be out of luck if international deals continue to climb in price.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

When the Red Sox signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a deal worth $72.5 million over seven years, they did more than acquire a top international hitter who can quickly make an impact at the big league level. They also set a precedent.

The deal is mutually beneficial, as Castillo will earn more than any other Cuban free agent in history, while the Red Sox will pay him the majority of his salary during the latter years of the deal. That means the team will have more payroll flexibility during the next few seasons and, as FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal notes, that'll help the Sox evade the dreaded luxury tax.

By $4.5 million, Castillo passes up White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who signed a six-year deal worth $68 million this offseason. Abreu is already making that signing look like a bargain, with his 33 homers and .962 OPS, both of which rank second in the majors. Soon, we'll have a chance to see if Castillo can make his similarly priced contract worth the money.

★★★

More so than the previous big-time international deals, Castillo's contract is certainly a gamble. He hasn't played competitively in over a year, and his numbers in Cuba don't match up to those of Abreu and Yasiel Puig. As Baseball America's Ben Badler told MassLive.com's Jason Mastrodonato, Castillo is "maybe not a super star player, but certainly a solid every-day guy."

That reality is what makes the signing so significant. By all accounts, Castillo has plenty of talent; he's considered a line drive hitter and he'll provide some power after adding 20 pounds since defecting. He also runs very well and plays an above-average outfield. But he's no Puig, even though he'll make $30 million more than the Dodgers outfielder over the same number of seasons.

More likely than not, we'll be seeing a lot of deals like this in the future, and the teams signing top international talent probably won't vary much. On Wednesday, when Castillo's status was still unclear, several teams were reportedly in the mix. ESPN.com revealed that the Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Yankees and Giants were finalists, and of those teams, only the Giants have a 2014 payroll outside the top five. (They rank seventh.)

The recent overwhelming success of international signees, combined with Castillo's massive contract, should ensure that the cost of bringing on foreign-born talent will remain high, or perhaps grow higher. If that's true, small-market teams could get the short end of the stick if signing international players becomes a trend. Everyone now realizes how vital it is to bring in international talent, and you can bet the frequency of signings like Castillo's will increase.

"It's about doing everything we can to be the best organization in baseball," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez in February 2012, "and you can't be the best organization in baseball unless you have a strong presence in the Dominican and a strong presence in Latin America."

Thus far, teams with minimal payrolls have gotten in on the market. Yoenis Cespedes signed with the A's for $36 million over four seasons in 2012, and the White Sox, who rank 20th in payroll in 2014, acquired Abreu this offseason. Under different circumstances, Jose Fernandez also went to the Marlins, though it's unlikely the team would have been involved in bidding had Fernandez gone the conventional route of most international players, instead of entering the draft. Now, amateur international players will see the huge contracts players like Castillo are receiving, and it's hard to imagine they'll want to play for free, as Fernandez did in high school upon defecting.

As Castillo's signing shows, big-market teams are willing to dole out millions for unproven talent. The strategy of backloading contracts ensures those teams can avoid dealing with the luxury tax, and will allow them to bring on even more top international players in the time being. That could create a trend that will give the game more of an uneven distribution of talent, like what we observed in the first decade of the 21st century when the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies either won or appeared in all but three World Series.

MLB has worked to fix that with recently implemented changes, like the addition of the second wild card and supplemental rounds in the draft. Now, if international signings get out of control and it becomes clear that only the rich are signing the future Puigs and Castillos that will inevitably follow, the league might have to step in.

20140423_jla_bd3_130.jpg.0_mediumFuture contracts for international players of Puig's caliber should dwarf the Dodgers outfielder's annual salary of $6 million. Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, it already has, though it's hard to say whether the effect will be positive. MLB recently implemented a rule prohibiting prospects within six months of signing eligibility or those under the age of 16 from being at a team's facility. That prevents clubs like the Cubs, for whom CBS Chicago says international scouting is a "main pillar of their rebuilding plan," from putting too much stock in that particular market.

Essentially, the rule encourages big-market teams to swoop in on top foreign-born players when they reach the threshold stated in MLB's rule, instead of allowing teams like the Cubs—who rank 23rd in payroll in 2014—to foster relationships with the players when they're younger.

Will the league have to make additional rules to ensure that teams like the White Sox and A's can continue to bring on the likes of Abreu and Cespedes? Or is that out of MLB's control? Will it even become an issue? For now, we can enjoy the talent and excitement these players are bringing to the game, and hope that the teams with the most cash to burn aren't the only ones to continue to sign them.