The draft is a crapshoot, and it’s worth getting that point across here first. The Cincinnati Reds have hit homers with several of their highest-profile draftees, of course, with Barry Larkin in the Hall of Fame alongside Johnny Bench and Joey Votto set to join them down the road. Even the non-HOF worthy picks can still turn into extremely valuable big leaguers, with All Stars like Todd Frazier and Yasmani Grandal having been identified by the scouts of the Reds at the time.
For each of those diamonds, though, there is ample rough, and the tough parts about missing on high draft picks is a two-part problem. For one, those misses come on isolated chances, with only so many 1st and 2nd round picks available each year. Missing on those forfeits a year worth of restocking the farm with elite-level prospects, and that’s devastating for trying to, y’know, build a quality team. The other part, though, is that high draft picks demand big signing bonuses, so you’re not just missing with the player evaluation when they don’t pan out, you’re doing so after cutting a big, big check to sign them in the first place.
The Reds spent over $6 million combined in 2020 and 2021 to sign 1st round picks Austin Hendrick and Mat Nelson, for instance, while they once gave Mike Siani $2 million as a 4th round pick to talk him out of his college commitment to UVA. Nicks Travieso and Howard each landed bonuses of roughly $2 million, respectively, back when they were 1st rounders, too. That’s a lot of coin for what - to date - sure appears to be a complete lack of production at the big league level (with apologies to Siani’s lone steal and run).
Just wanted to get that out there before delving into the title of this particular piece, since a particular transaction over the weekend once again put the spotlight on the other way teams acquire talent for their rosters - the international market. Whereas the draft is a pretty straightforward way for prep and collegiate level players in the United States to matriculate into the professional ranks, the international market is rife with nuance, mystery, and problems. That’s putting a blanket statement on a big, big world of baseball players, admittedly, and how players are brought in from different parts of the world include vastly different rules and regulations, something that is a topic for another day. That said, it’s still a place where MLB clubs can spend (and spend big) to sign the talent they identify, and that’s what we’re circling back on here today.
Back in the summer of 2016, the Cincinnati Reds began to emerge from what had been a pretty modest era of spending on players from Latin America since their additions of Juan Duran and Yorman Rodriguez out of the Dominican Republic and Venezeula, respectively, back in 2008. Despite a yearly allocation of a bit over $5.1 million to sign international free agents from that pool, the Reds blasted past that mark to sign a trio of players out of Cuba, bringing in shortstops Alfredo Rodriguez ($7 million bonus) and Jose Barrero (nee Jose Israel Garcia, $5 million bonus) alongside pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez ($4.75 million bonus), among other lower-bonus additions. Since they exceeded their alotment by such a high percentage, they ended up paying nearly a $12.5 million penalty on top of those bonuses, pushing their overall outlay that window to nearly $30 million in total.
After having been designated for assignment at the end of the 2023 season by the Reds, Gutierrez elected free agency over the weekend, as our friends at Redleg Nation detailed. Gutierrez pitched poorly in early 2022, likely due to the arm issues that would eventually lead to his need for Tommy John surgery that would shut him down for most of 2023, too. As a result, the guy who pitched promisingly enough in 2021 to earn some down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes will now be able to sign with anyone this winter.
Rodriguez can technically sign with anyone this winter, too - he spent the 2023 season out of affiliated ball altogether after a 2022 season in which he posted just a .498 OPS in 42 games between AA-AAA in the Washington Nationals system. The Reds let him go after a rough 2021 season with AAA Louisville. That leaves Barrero as the lone remaining hope for that trio, and we’ve seen his struggles on display over part of the last three seasons despite his rock solid numbers at the minor league level.
It’s not as much an indictment as it seems, however. Successes on big-money signing bonuses have been incredibly hit or miss for most every other team that’s ventured into those waters, with Oakland missing on Michael Ynoa back in the day on a $4.25 million deal, the San Francisco Giants whiffing on Lucius Fox for some $6 million, and the Rays missing on Adrian Rondon for nearly $3 million over the last decade (or so). Still, there have been clubs who have both spent big and found cornerstones, such as Boston finding Rafael Devers for $1.5 million back in 2013 before blasting past their budget to sign Yoan Moncada for $31 million (plus the penalty) a year later.
Boston dropped $4 million on Dalier Hinojosa the same year they signed Devers, I should add. This is far from a defined science.
(I mentioned before that the rules for signing international free agents vary wildly, much of that coming in the form of restrictions on signability based on age and the number of years a player has spent playing pro ball in their foreign league. That’s why these signees fall into a different category than, say, the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Raisel Iglesias, or Shogo Akiyama, as each had compiled enough time as pros to sign free agent contracts with MLB clubs rather than go through the international bonus pool process.)
The Reds have continued to sign players through the international bonus pool process since that window, though it’s not come with nearly the financial outlay they doled out that particular window. Perhaps that’s due to the benefit of hindsight, though it could very well be due to a myriad of other factors. As things stand now, though, it would very much appear that they aren’t going to look back on those dollars spent too fondly.