MLB international signing period: Top players, including the ‘Cuban Ohtani’ and everything else to know
Saturday, Jan. 15, is an important date on MLB’s offseason calendar. It is the open of the 2022 international signing period, one of two ways MLB teams can acquire amateur talent each year. The draft covers players born in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. All others fall into international free agency.
Roughly 30 percent of current MLB players were originally signed as international free agents, including superstars like Ronald Acuña Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Juan Soto. Perennial contenders like the Dodgers and Yankees, teams that usually pick late in the draft, use international free agency to add elite prospects to their farm system.
All-Stars will be signed when international free agency opens Saturday. Maybe even a Cy Young winner or an MVP. Possibly even a Hall of Famer. Here’s everything you need to know going into the open of the 2022 international signing period.
The international signing period usually runs from July 2 to June 15, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to push back the start of the last two signing periods to Jan. 15. This is technically the 2021-22 signing period, and the players who sign Saturday would have signed last July 2 in a normal year. The signing period closes Dec. 15.
It is possible this will be the last international free agency class ever. MLB has pushed for an international draft for decades and could get one as part of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. The MLBPA has resisted an international draft to this point, but with few other bargaining chips, the union could agree to an international draft to get concessions for big league players.
MLB does nothing by accident and moving the last two signing periods into a single calendar year would allow the league to easily shift to an offseason international draft. That way players sign contracts for the coming season — when they signed on July 2, they often signed contracts that started the following year — and budgets don’t span multiple years. It makes everything nice and tidy.
International bonus pools, the money teams can spend on players, are set according to market size, with small market teams getting the most and large market teams getting the least. There are bonus pool penalties for signing a qualified free agent, and teams that receive a competitive balance lottery draft pick (i.e. small market teams) get a little bonus pool boost.
Here are the bonus pools for the 2022 international signing period, according to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez:
$6,262,600: Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Guardians, Orioles, Padres, Pirates, Rockies, Royals$5,721,200: Brewers, Marlins, Rays, Reds, Tigers, Twins$5,179,700: Angels, Athletics, Astros, Braves, Cubs, Giants, Mariners, Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Rangers, Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees$4,644,000: Blue Jays, Dodgers
The Blue Jays (George Springer) and Dodgers (Trevor Bauer) each forfeited $500,000 in international bonus pool money to sign a qualified free agent last offseason. Also, the Braves are finally out of the penalty box. Among other things, they were docked 50 percent of their bonus pool the last few years as part of the penalties for their 2017 signing scandal. Those penalties are over.
In the past, teams could trade for an additional 50 percent of their bonus pool, though bonus pool trades have been prohibited since MLB and the MLBPA agreed to changes in response to the pandemic. The bonus pools are final and they are a hard cap. Unlike the draft, a team can’t exceed its international bonus pool and pay a tax. What you have it what you can spend. No more.
International players under 25 can sign minor league contracts only. That’s why Shohei Ohtani had to sign a minor league deal with the Angels a few years ago. He was only 23 at the time, and thus ineligible for a major league deal. That’s also why international free agency will take place during the lockout. The 40-man roster (i.e. union players) is not involved with players this young.
The consensus No. 1 prospect in this year’s international class is Dominican shortstop Roderick Arias. As is often the case with top international prospects, Arias has been on the scouting radar for years even though he is only 17. He is expected to sign with the Yankees for a bonus in the $4 million range. Here is a snippet of MLB.com’s free scouting report:
There’s a lot to like about the teenager. Starting on the defensive side of the ball, Arias has plus arm potential. His throws are accurate and effortless, and he’s always in a position to make the throws. His arm is strong from any angle. He also shows good footwork with soft hands and above-average range.
At the plate, he exhibits above-average bat-to-ball skills and strike zone awareness. He shows good plate discipline and doesn’t swing and miss often. He shows power from both sides of the plate, especially by the right side. There’s good opposite-field power from the left side, and the overall package that could develop into a plus-plus hitter.
The most famous prospect available is 23-year-old Cuban outfielder Oscar Colás, who was once dubbed the “Cuban Ohtani” for his two-way ability. Colás is exclusively an outfielder now, and he hit .269/.319/.481 in part-time duty with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Japan from 2017-19. MLB.com’s free scouting report says Colás can “play all three outfield positions and projects to hit in the middle of the order.” He is expected to sign with the White Sox, who always pursue Cuban players aggressively.
Accurate information on international players can be hard to find, but bonus size is generally a good proxy for prospect status. The larger the bonus, the more teams believe in the player. That said, bonuses of $10,000 or less do not count against the bonus pool, and inevitably some of those players become big leaguers. Framber Valdez originally signed for $10,000 in 2015, for example.
Here are a few of the other top prospects for the 2022 international signing period:
SS William Bergolla, Venezuela: Bergolla’s father, William Sr., appeared in 17 games with the Reds in 2005. William Jr. is a well-rounded player who MLB.com says has been “praised for his baseball IQ ” and has “solid bat-to-ball skills and an advanced approach and understanding of the strike zone.” The Phillies are expected to sign Bergolla.
SS Ricardo Cabrera, Venezuela: Arguably the best hitter available this year, Cabrera is also a sound defender with “soft hands, good footwork and the type of range that will make him at least an average shortstop,” according to MLB.com. There is a chance he could move to third base as he matures. Cabrera is expected to sign with the Reds.
SS Dylan Jorge, Cuba: At 18, Jorge is one of the oldest players available this signing period, but he’s an exciting prospect thanks to a good righty bat and strong defensive chops. MLB.com adds the “upside and high baseball IQ combined to make him one of the most interesting prospects” available. The Rockies are expected to sign Jorge.
RHP Jarlin Susana, Dominican Republic: Susana is the consensus No. 1 pitcher available this signing period. He already touched 97 mph with his fastball, then “there’s his slider, which runs 84-87 mph, and a power changeup with late sink that sits in the 86-mph range,” according to MLB.com. Susana is expected to sign with the Padres.
OF Cristian Vaquero, Cuba: MLB.com’s describes Vaquero as a “potential five-tool player with lots of potential,” adding he “plays hard with lots of energy and shows tons of natural instinct in practice and in games.” Vaquero is expected to sign with the Nationals and would be a considered a potential top five pick if he were eligible for the amateur draft.