The Cincinnati Reds do not often earn themselves a reputation as big spenders. Their biggest free agent handed out in the last offseason was a $5 million deal given to David Hernandez, and the biggest one issued the year before was $3 million given to Drew Storen. They’ve spent a lot on the draft in recent years, but that has more to do with the fact that they’ve lost a mountain of games tall enough to land them the most-hyped teenage prospect since Bryce Harper than anything else.
In the international signing period of 2016-17, though, the Reds were big spenders. After penalties, the team dropped a cool $28.5 million on three international prospects: 21-year-old right-handed pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez, 22-year-old Alfredo Rodriguez and 19-year-old Jose Garcia. And though we’ve just passed the one-year mark since the last of those deals was signed, all three have looked like major whiffs by the organization.
Garcia, now 20, is the newest to the organization, having played just 55 games in Dayton. But his first glimpse of pro ball has been incredibly disappointing: A .194/.244/.262 slash line in 202 plate appearances, with just one home run, eight walks and 44 strikeouts. In the field, he’s made 13 errors.
Rodriguez, 23, hasn’t fared much better. After posting a paltry .632 OPS as a 21-year-old in the Dominican Summer League two years ago, he’s only done worse with each level the Reds have promoted him to, and owns a career .245/.296/.288 line in just over 600 minor league at-bats. He was recently demoted back to Daytona, where he’s gone 2 for his first 15 at-bats.
Gutierrez, 22, has had easily the best professional career of the three, which is horrifying given that he currently owns a 6.23 ERA in 60.2 innings of work in Pensacola. His peripherals aren’t awful — he’s striking out nearly a batter an inning, racking up 56 K’s while walking only 16 — but he’s also given up 11 homers this year, and since joining the organization has been distressingly hittable given how good his stuff was supposed to be.
The sample size with all three is a caveat, but the fact remains that there’s been little to no promise shown by any of these three prospects since they joined the Reds’ organization. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that all three signings generated varying levels of confusion when they were announced.
It began with Rodriguez, who was handed the largest bonus of any international player in his class at the time of the signing. That bonus — $7 million, which after penalties cost the Reds close to $9 million — was almost $3 million more than the Braves paid out to No. 1 overall prospect Kevin Maitan, who graded out as a better shortstop than Rodriguez across the board. It also came despite the fact that Rodriguez hadn’t played in a full year, and showed little ability with the bat when he did play. At the time of the signing, the Reds viewed him as someone who could be fast-tracked to the majors thanks to his speed and defensive ability. But two years after his signing, he’s moving farther away from the majors instead of closer to it.
Gutierrez was the top right-handed pitching prospect in his signing class, but similar to Iglesias, the Reds seemed to be the one team who believed he could be a starter instead of a reliever. Like Rodriguez, he was well-regarded in Cuba, but hadn’t gotten in-game experience in more than a year at the time of the signing. He signed for $4.75 million.
Then there was Garcia, who came to the organization seemingly shrouded in mystery. He had no statistical track record to speak of, but was said to have strong defensive skills, with a much better offensive ceiling than Rodriguez. In his debut with Dayton, though, neither the offense nor the defense has showed up.
Getting high-caliber talent on the international market is vital to the health of an organization. When Fangraphs released their updated top 100 prospect list this week, each of the top five players on the list were signed internationally, and that’s after the graduation of Shohei Ohtani and Gleyber Torres from the list. Some of those players, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., were high-profile gets, signing for a few million dollars. Some, like Ronald Acuna, signed for as little as $100,000.
Obviously, a good bit of luck is involved in identifying which talented young players are going to blossom into future big leaguers. If everyone knew the monster that Acuna would one day become, he would have gotten a lot more than $100,000. But the fact remains that the Reds have struggled to bring in internationally-born players who can succeed in the professional baseball.
This isn’t just faulting the Reds for not stumbling into a Willy Adames or Fernando Tatis Jr., though. Those are premium guys that are rare to find, no matter who is searching. But consider the fact that, in MLB Pipeline’s current ranking of Reds prospects, the highest-ranked player that the Reds signed internationally is Jose Siri, who comes in at No. 7 and, with the addition of Jonathan India in the draft and the development of Tyler Stephenson, almost certainly belongs lower on the list. Of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, only the Orioles, the Pirates and the Brewers join the Reds in not having an international signee in their top six prospects. That’s one ranking, and a few organizations got their premium international players via trade, but it still speaks volumes about how much the Reds are missing on international signings in relation to other clubs.
So, what can be done? It’s tough to say. It’s hard to fault the Reds for chasing older prospects who ought to be closer to the big leagues, but if that is their philosophy, it would be great to see them nail down players who have a more proven record of performance. If that’s not happening, then why not go find a 16-year-old version of Garcia who has three to four more years left to develop?
The issue, then, has to be the way these guys are scouted. The Reds certainly employ smarter people than me to do this work for them, so the exact problem in what the team is doing overseas is for someone other than me to solve.
There does seem to be a problem, though. And it’s one reason behind the length of this rebuild that should probably be talked about more.