Tampa Bay Rays Divide and Conquer on International Free Agent Market
The Tampa Bay Rays’ international free agent class of 2012 was something special. They signed a trio of highly-touted prospects in right-hander Jose Mujica, lefty Jose Castillo, and catcher David Rodriguez on their way to spending $4,032,500, well over their allotted amount of $2.9 million. Mujica, Castillo, and Rodriguez made strides towards establishing themselves as top prospects in their first professional seasons, and the Rays’ spending spree could very well have been worth every penny. However, spending so much over their assigned amount caused the Rays to incur significant penalties–a 100% tax on the overage and a prohibition from spending more than $250,000 on any player in their 2013 international free agent class. That caused the Rays to approach the process quite differently. They still had $1,976,500 to spend on the international free agent market, but instead of signing a few elite talents, they would be forced to divide it among several lesser talents. As it turns out, though, not signing a player for above $250,000 may have been as much of a new perspective as it was a restriction.
Overall, the Tampa Bay Rays signed 45 players in their 2013 international free agent class, the tied for the second-most in baseball with the New York Yankees. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers (48) had more. While they could not sign a single top-tier prospect, they divided their money among a multiplicity of talented players. Was it worth it? Baseball America’s review of their international free agent class sure makes it sound like it was.
The Rays signed right-hander Orlando Romero for $250,000, and he is already starting to look like a steal. His velocity has jumped from 88-92 MPH to 93-95 MPH in recent months, and he has touched as high as 97 MPH. The 6’2″, 200 right-hander also shows potential with his curveball to go along with a changeup in its infancy stages. Romero is so advanced that Ben Badler of Baseball America remarked that he could follow in the path of Mujica and Castillo and start his professional career with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays rather than in their Venezuelan academy. The Rays found a pitcher they liked, and were rewarded with an immediate breakout.
Other pitchers signed by the Rays included Estarly Cedeno, who signed for $125,000, and Luis Serrano, who came along for $150,000. Cedeno is 6’3″, 180 and is already doing starting to use his height to get a downward plane on his pitches. His fastball tops up around 90 MPH at this point, but the Rays can hope for more velocity as he fills out. He also shows promise with a curveball. Serrano is less projectable at 6’1″, 180 and has a fastball in the 88-91 MPH at this point. However, his combination of a relatively short stature and lack of an explosive fastball led him to develop his secondary pitches a little bit more and work on commanding his arsenal.
Matching Romero’s $250,00o bonus was Rafelin Lorenzo, a 6’1″, 195 catcher who stands out for his defense. When you have a 17 year old catcher, you never know the chances of him staying there, but Lorenzo already shows excellent arm strength and a quick release. Of course his ability to receive pitches remains a work-in-progress, but the Rays have to like the early returns. At the plate, Lorenzo shows flashes of power but his stance will need continued refinement as he hopes to harness his power in games. The Rays are finally starting to gather some catching prospects, and Lorenzo could be the next one to make a name for himself.
Lorenzo was the Rays’ most advanced catcher signing, but he was joined by Alexander Alvarez, who they inked for $150,000, and Rene Pinto, who got $100,000. Alvarez was recently moved over for third base and stands out for his arm strength. Pinto, meanwhile, does a nice job hitting the ball from gap-to-gap, and his defense is his biggest question moving forward.
Heading from catchers to speedsters, the Rays signed shortstop Carlos Guzman for $245,000 and centerfielder Randhi Balcazar for $150,000. Guzman impresses on both sides of the ball with his bat speed and solid actions at shortstop. 6’1″ but just 155 pounds, the Rays will see whether he can develop some power down the line. Balcazar, meanwhile, is a burner who is already starting to use his speed on the basepaths and in centerfield. 6’1″ and 160 pounds, Balcazar will also look to hit the ball with more authority at the plate.
One major thing to point out is that all eight players we have mentioned are all right-handed. The Rays knew that lefty pitchers and swingers would be more costly to sign, so they zoned in on the right-handed players to get the best value for their money. In all, there is no prospect who stands out as a future superstar–although Romero is doing his best to change that–but they found quite a few players that have their strengths and have a chance to be impact major leaguers down the line. Two of the Rays’ most successful international free agent signings have been Alex Colome and Enny Romero, and neither one was highly regarded right off the bat. The Rays may have spent less, but instead of putting all their hopes on the shoulders of a few players, they signed several players with the chance to be that next Colome or Romero. The Tampa Bay Rays’ 2012 international free agent class and 2013 equivalent featured entirely different strategies. But at the end of the day, the latter could be as successful as the former, and just maybe more.