When it comes to teams in baseball spending money, the Tampa Bay Rays are not exactly the first team that comes to mind. But on the international free agent market in 2012, it was actually the Rays who did that more than anybody else. The Rays spent 3.7 million dollars on international free agents, the most of any team in baseball, and because they did that, they face a fine for exceeding the 2.9 million dollar limit and restrictions on bonuses in this coming year’s IFA class. However, in exchange for putting a little money in, the Rays found themselves a group of very talented prospects with the ability to make a major impact in the major leagues someday, as Baseball America detailed last week.
The big names of the class were the lefty-righty combo of Jose Castillo and Jose Mujica, both out of Venezuela, with Castillo receiving $1.55MM and Mujica getting a million dollars flat. The Rays have become an organization defined by its pitching, and Castillo and Mujica are poised to add to the tradition. Castillo, just 16, stands out as an athletic 6’4″, 200 right-hander with a smooth delivery that already touches 93 MPH and could peak in the mid-90′s as he continues to fill out. He also throws a curveball and a changeup, with the curveball flashing nice, sharp break. Castillo needs plenty of work repeating his delivery, getting consistent life on his fastball and action on his secondary pitches, and controlling everything, but he has plenty of time to resolve those issues as he’s just getting his career started. Mujica isn’t quite as projectable at 6’2″, 180, but he’s able to get impressive sink on his fastball in the 89-91 MPH, touching 93 MPH, and he wows evaluators with an outstanding changeup from the arm slot as his fastball with late bottoming-out action. Mujica doesn’t really have much of a breaking ball right now and of course has plenty of work with control and command in addition to bulking up and adding strength, but he’s another pitcher with upper-echelon upside if everything pans out. Among other pitchers the Rays signed on the international market were Venezuelan lefty Frehumar Rivas and Dominican right-hander Deivy Mendez.
While pitching is something that has become a major source of pride for the Rays, the players doing the catching have never developed nearly the same reputation, with the Rays never developing an All-Star catcher to this point in their franchise’s history (Dioner Navarro was acquired via trade). One player the Rays hope can help rectify that is Venezuelan catcher David Rodriguez, who is 16 years of age and signed for $600,000. Rodriguez, 5’11″ and 190 pounds, stands out thanks to a solid all-around game on both sides of the ball. At the plate, he shows a smooth, compact swing, making a lot of contact with flashes of solid power, although his plate discipline needs plenty of work. Defensively, Rodriguez especially shines, showing excellent athleticism and moves well behind the plate, and he makes an average arm play up thanks to a quick release. He’s also known as a good game-caller for his age. Rodriguez has plenty in which he’ll need to develop as he works his way up through the minor leagues, but the Rays think he could be an above-average catcher in the major leagues if everything goes right. 18 year old Dominican catcher Eric Maria is less developed at this point, but he shows nice athleticism at 6’2″, 195, good arm strength and some power, and the Rays will take every talented catching prospect they can get at this point as they hope one of them pans out and becomes that solid starting catcher that had eluded the Rays their entire history.
With players like Castillo, Mujica, and Rodriguez highlighting an impressive international free agent class, the Rays are excited to see exactly what these players amount to in coming years. Signing international free agents has never been something the Rays have excelled, developing most of their talent through the draft and through trades, but the Rays know that international signings are another avenue to player development and that putting in just a little more money can go in long way. Pitching prospects Alex Colome, Enny Romero, and Felipe Rivero are three of the surprisingly few impressive prospects the Rays have developed over the years through international free agency. The Rays hope that this past year’s class will be the start of a breakthrough on that front that will reverberate in the major leagues in the years to come.