Last international free agent signing period, the Tampa Bay Rays made quite a splash, signing No. 1 prospect Adrian Rondon and other notable prospects like lefty Francisco Sanchez and outfielder Jesus Sanchez. Their impressive group of signings came with a cost–they can’t sign any one prospect for more than $300,000 in either of the next two signing periods–but with that limitation comes an opportunity. The Rays were still given an allotment of money to sign international free agents, and they can trade portions of that money to other teams.
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The Rays have already made two trades involving bonus pool money since the international free agent signing period began yesterday. The first actually saw them acquire $500,000 in bonus pool money from the Miami Marlins in exchange for Enderson Franco. By itself, that move seems strange, but we will explain it in a minute. Franco, 22, went from a Minor League Rule 5 Draft pick to a prospect last year as his fastball reached 96 MPH to go along with a solid changeup. However, the Rays had some extra pitching depth at Low-A Bowling Green and decided that Franco was more valuable as a trade asset.
With Franco gone and Brent Honeywell at High-A, the Hot Rods can move into a conventional five-man rotation of Chris Pike, Greg Harris, Henry Centeno, Hunter Wood, and Hyrum Formo. Wood moved into the rotation after delivering tremendous results in extended relief stints this season. The Hot Rods can also go back to a six-man starting staff by calling up a pitcher like Travis Ott or Yonny Chirinos from Short Season-A Hudson Valley.
The Rays then dealt approximately $494,000 in bonus pool money to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for right-hander Garrett Fulenchek. Fulenchek was the Braves’ second round pick last year, and as noted by others, it is interesting that the Rays gave up $494,000 to get a guy who signed for a million dollars a year ago. Fulenchek has struggled mightily to start this year, walking 8 while striking out 4 in his first 4.2 innings at Advanced Rookie Danville, but he is high-upside pitcher who the Rays will have plenty of time to turn around.
At his best, Fulenchek reaches 95 MPH with heavy sink on his fastball and pairs it with a decent slider and a changeup that hasn’t progressed much so far. He needs major work with regards to repeating his delivery, but the Rays see a projectable 6’4″, 205 right-hander with the ability to be a frontline starter if it all comes together. In addition, while evaluators may look at Fulenchek’s poor changeup and see it is as a reason for concern, the Rays view it as an opportunity–they know they can make it better. If they can get his motion in sink and refine his secondary pitches, this trade will look brilliant down the line.
What is great about this deal from the Rays’ perspective is how little they are giving up. Fulenchek is a better than the two prospects they could have signed with $494,000 on the international free agent market, and though he comes with plenty of risk, there can’t be any less uncertainty with him than there would be with those two players. Fulenchek will be a project, but it is a coup for the Rays to get someone of his caliber using a bonus pool whose use is severely limited.
Now we need to get back to the first trade–why did the Rays acquire more bonus pool space if it really doesn’t have much value to them? Firstly, we can effectively view the two trades as a three-team, Franco for Fulenchek swap, and Fulenchek is a better prospect given that he is two and a half years younger, has just as good stuff, and has higher upside. That is nice by itself. Beyond that, though, the Rays are showing that they aren’t just going to punt this international signing period–they can’t sign the top guys, but they will come away with quite a few medium-tier talents.
Earlier today, we talked about a strong performance from Orlando Romero, a right-hander who the Rays signed in 2013, another year where they were facing penalties for spending too much on international free agents. They signed many players for $250,000 or less, and Romero quickly exceeded expectations, going from topping out at 92-93 MPH with his fastball before signing to touching 97 MPH afterwards. The Rays are going to sign as many players as possible knowing that the more solid guys they have, the higher the likelihood that at least one or two of them will surprise.
The Rays have already been active on the IFA market, signing shortstops Juan Garcia, Luis Arias, Luis Leon, and Jhosmer Vargas along with outfielders Raider Brito and Pedro Diaz. They have spent around $1.5 million of their total bonus pool allotment of around $2.6 million and received several players who provide reason for optimism. Two examples after glancing at Baseball America’s scouting reports are that Garcia has the defensive chops to stick at shortstop and promise at the plate while Brito could stick in center and has power potential.
Matt Silverman and the Tampa Bay Rays are going to be both using their bonus pool to sign as many interesting players as possible and trading pieces of it away to acquire higher-upside prospects like Garrett Fulenchek and maybe even a decent big player. While the Rays won’t sign anyone among the top 30 international prospects in this year’s class, they are giving themselves the best possible chance of looking at this signing period as a success nonetheless.