In the middle of a season of maximum struggle it can be hard for many fans to see any light at the end of the tunnel… especially if that light is four or five years away. But the Atlanta Braves are about to create a very bright light at the end of that tunnel, with an international signing bonanza the likes of which this team has never seen before.
The international signing rules can be hard to understand, so it may be better to phrase this in the context of a draft, which more fans can understand. I already wrote about how the Braves will be doing quite well in this year’s state-side June draft, where the team has two first round picks, and by virtue of how they might shift money around, could have three — three first round picks is huge in any sport.
While the July 2 international signing period is not a draft, we can draw some comparisons between the two systems for acquiring amateur talent by using the bonus money given to players. From the early reports at Baseball America and MLB Prospect Watch, the Braves are set to sign six players with the equivalent of a first-round bonus. Six players who can be expected to get $1 million-plus bonuses.
The worst kept secret of this year’s international signing period is the Braves handshake agreement to ink the top international prospect, switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan. That deal could be worth over $4 million, a sum comparable to what Atlanta might give to their first round draft pick, the third overall player taken in the draft.
The Braves are also linked to the top international catching prospect, another Venezuelan named Abrahan Gutierrez. His bonus could be upwards of $3 million, comparable to a top-10 draft pick.
Dominican shortstop Yunior Severino and right-handed pitcher Juan Contreras, considered by many the top non-Cuban pitcher in this year’s class, could each get bonuses nearing $2 million, similar to what a player taken at the end of the first round of the draft might receive.
The million dollar bonuses will continue for two more players linked to the Braves, Venezuelan shortstop Livan Soto and Dominican third baseman Yency Pena.
With the way the Braves have tried in vain to attract the top Cuban talent in recent years we can be pretty certain that this time around the organization will once again make strong attempts to sign some of the top players available from the island nation. Among the top international talent in this year’s pool of players there are at least three major Cuban prospects who are not currently linked to any team — RHP Vladimir Gutierrez, OF Lazaro Armenteros (aka Lazarito) and 2B Randy Arozarena. And there could be more who have yet to defect or be made eligible by MLB to sign with a major league team.
Let’s take a quick look at the money the Braves might be putting out there (according to reports) to see how much they could spend internationally. Atlanta’s allotted international bonus pool is $4,766,000. The team could exceed that by just signing Maitan. Here’s what the bonus pool scuttlebutt says so far:
Maitan, $4 million
A. Gutierrez, $3.5 million
Severino, $2 million
Contreras, $1.5 million
Soto, $1 million
Pena, $1 million
Total: $13 million
By the rules of the international signing period, the Braves will be taxed 100% on any amount they go over their allotted pool. So if the bonus numbers listed above are close to correct, then that $13 million in salary will turn into a $22 million expense.
Atlanta has a draft bonus pool of just over $13 million, closely matching the money they will be giving their international prospects, but less than their actual outlay once penalties are assessed.
The other major penalty of a team going over their international bonus pool is that the team cannot sign any international player for more than $300,000 during the next two signing periods. That equals a lot of savings over the next two years, which means all the team’s eggs need to be in this year’s basket. The rules also indicate that a team can distribute any bonus payments that surpass $1 million over three years. Meaning some of that new stadium money can be used to sign prospects this year.
It’s been quite obvious that the organization has not spent as much money as they probably could have on the major league team this year. The conventional wisdom has been that the Braves were going to shift some budgets around so they would spend less on the major league roster and more on the draft and international signings. From the math above it looks as though the Braves have already provisionally spent $35 million between the draft and international market.
The team has already released over $25 million in player salaries from their major league roster in Swisher, Bourn, Matusz, Stubbs and Bonifacio. Surely if they’re willing to continue taking on salaries for prospects, then they’re willing to truly spend big for actual prospects.
If the Atlanta payroll this year is somewhere in the $85 to $95 million range — the range where most guesses put it — and if Atlanta payrolls the past couple of years have been in the $105 to $115 million range, then it looks like the Braves are shifting anywhere from $10 to $30 million from MLB payroll to other areas. We are not privy to the details of the team’s payroll, so there’s no guarantee this reasoning is sound.
Assuming that my reasoning is (at least somewhat) sound, then I bet the team has more than $22 million to spend on the international market. That guess is based on the team’s statements that there will be more money available for payroll as the team moves into their new stadium, and that burning desire by the front office to hoard prospects.
This reasoning also takes into account that there will be savings that occur over the next two years as the team is constrained to their pool limit, and the fact that the bonuses given out this year can be paid out over the next three years. Add to that the team’s desire to make some positive headlines by signing big names, and the team’s obsession about signing a big named Cuban prospect or star, and the odds look good that the team will spend even more internationally than has been reported.
My guess is that those additional signings are Cuban players. Most Cuban players are considered closer to major league ready than the typical 16-year-old international singing, so that light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel gets a little closer.