Keeping the pipeline of cost-controlled talent flowing is critical to succeeding as a small or mid-market team. It's especially important for the Reds, given their outflow of talent during this offseason's trading frenzy. It's going to get harder with the amateur draft and international signing period spending caps under the new CBA. In addition to the two supplemental picks, they'll receive in the 2012 Amateur Draft, the Reds still have the chance to re-stock their farm by staying aggressive in pursuing international talent.
The new CBA, which phases in winning-percentage based spending limits over several years, limits teams to spending $2.9M during the 2012-13 period - which begins July 2, 2012. Spending above that limit is subject to penalty. Players that have logged a certain amount of time in an MLB-recognized international professional league and have achieved free agency, do not fall into that void. MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo explains:
Players in leagues deemed to be professional (those in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Cuba apply), are at least 23 years old and have played a certain number of years in those leagues can be signed without the money counting against the pool. Yoenis Cespedes, the 26-year-old outfielder who is a free agent after defecting from Cuba for example, would not count against the pool. Neither would Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, should he be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters. But the money spent on Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who was 22 when he signed with the Reds almost two years ago, would have counted against the pool.
International players, especially those with limited scouting information behind the veil in Cuba, carry plenty of risk. In some cases, you can't even be sure of their actual name and age. Fausto Carmona (nêe Roberto Heredia) may be an outlier, but there's a mountain of uncertainty that can stem from the long-tail development of teenage players and the myriad cultural and baseball adjustments that must be made by importing talent.
Still, with the domestic free agent market largely wrung out and the Reds' newly-slotted draft order set, the international market has promise. While they have several million to spend on international free agents toward the 2012 budget and could move some money around to make a splash, it's highly unlikely that they have the financial backing or appetite to do it. With that in mind, we can ogle at a few pages of the proverbial Sears catalog below, before returning to our lower-back breaking work in the information mines.
The top Japanese free agents and posting candidates have all either signed in the AL West, with the Orioles or returned to the leagues they played in last season, so the remaining focus has coalesced mostly around two exciting, toolsy Cuban outfielders and somewhat less so on their younger and more pitching-inclined countryman.
Cespedes gets high marks for his "feats of strength," unleashing a barrage of highlight reels and waterfalls of scout drool at his 6.3 60-yard dash and 45-inch vertical. He'll be 26 this year and, in theory, just hitting his prime. FanGraphs used a random-number generator to ballpark his value this season, weighing his speed, defense and translation of his astronomical offensive numbers in Cuba, at 2.5-3.5 WAR.
He's the top international position player talent at the moment, so that information alone should price the Reds out; let alone the fact that the Marlins are aggressively courting him. But that's exactly the thinking that made acquiring Aroldis Chapman seem absurd in late-2009. Cespedes has been expected to get Chapman money in guaranteed dollars. He's going to get at least $20M in base salary, with the likelihood of eclipsing Chapman in total contract value. Something like $30M in guaranteed money, with a bonus that pushes the contract closer to $40M, is not out of the question.
Those are eye-popping figures, but his 2012 salary could be in the $3M-$5M range, which is within the Reds' means. I just don't think they want to make another Chapman-like outlay, especially with the deferrals and budget tricks that might be required. They've done more than enough of that recently, with Chapman's contract itself spreading out over ten years. But, hey, what about deficit spending against future World Series earnings?
Soler is a 19-year-old from Havanna who does not (yet) have the physical freakishness of Cespedes, but has room to grow and a full tool shed. There are plenty of teams who are springing at the chance to sign lock in a player who may have more eventual upside than Cespedes at a lower principal. Given an ETA around 2015-2016, Soler will be cheaper, at least in gauranteed salary, and would be a solution for the Reds prospect depletion, rather than their immediate lack of outfield depth.
Soler has been linked to the Rangers, Yankees and other big-spending clubs, so it would be the same bidding environment as Chapman and Cespedes, even if there would be less of an outlay. Soler would be a restricted free agent under the new CBA, but not until July 2. Jim Callis of BA expects Soler is expected to get a richer contract than the $15.6M given to Leonys Martin.
If the Reds could find a way to afford Soler, though they would likely overpay in money, contract complexity or both. It might be worth it if they judge Soler to be the best international prospect available to them for the foreseeable future and can spend on him before the clamp-down.
Like Chapman, Concepción is a Cuban lefty who defected while playing in a tournament in Europe. He's 18 years old and has logged just one season at Cuba's top level. He's rumored to be very close to signing with a big league team - quite possibly this weekend - but there's been no reports of Reds' personnel traveling to visit him in Mexico or the Dominican. However, the Reds have a history not only with Cuban lefties but with Concepciónes too. Also this article explicitly mentions "los Rojos de Cincinnati" and never mind that it was a just in the context of a passing Chapman mention.