For a baseball organization, there are many ways to acquire talent. Trades, free agency, the draft, the list goes on. One way that is usually an afterthought to the casual fan is international free agency. Foreign players who are eligible to be signed by any team during a given international free agency period. The system might not stand out, but some of the best players in history were international free agents. Legends like Mariano Rivera, Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal were all international free agents. Or current young starts like Xander Bogaerts, Salvador Perez and Jose Altuve were also international free agents.
An international free agency period stands out for a couple reasons. First off, teams only have a certain amount of money to sign players with, or a bonus pool. Much like the draft, teams have a certain amount of money to spend in the pool before risking penalties, with the penalties usually being a heavily reduced pool in the next period. However, teams are much more willing to exceed these penalties because, unlike the draft, any team has the right to sign any player and IFA pool money is tradeable. But, that also plays into the second big factor of an IFA period.
A player is only eligible to sign with a team when they turn 16 years old. But teams will court players they like for a long time, and have verbal agreements in place with players before they turn 16. Essentially, once a player is expected to sign with a team, it’s very rare that they don’t. It does happen sometimes though. A recent example would be Yankees farmhand Alexander Vargas. Vargas was expected to sign with the Reds in the 2018 IFA class, but the Yankees made some last minute trades for bonus pool money and swooped him up at the last second. With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the headliners of the upcoming class.
Shortstop Roderick Arias leads the way for the class, and there’s a lot to like about him. Offensively, Arias is a switch-hitter with above-average power on both sides of the plate. He pulls the ball well on the right side, and delivers good opposite field power on the left side. Defensively, the Dominican Republic product can pick it at short. His arm is strong and his throws are clean. His above-average speed allows him to make plays other shortstops can’t. His speed also allows him to wreak havoc on the basepaths. He’s fast but not over aggressive, and makes smart decisions on when to steal. Arias is expected to sign with the Yankees. He’s also expected to sign for a big bonus, as he’s New York’s only expected sign within the top 50 IFA prospects.
Outfielder Cristian Vaquero slots in at number two overall in the class. Originally a left-handed bat, Vaquero has learned to switch-hit, and the results are paying off. The Cuban product hits the ball with ease, and sees the ball much easier than he did as a left-handed swinger. He blends power and contact together well, and has real 30-30 potential, even for a 16 year old. Defensively, Vaquero looks like a natural in center field. He covers the outfield well and has a strong arm, making deep throws to home plate look easy. Vaquero is a gifted athlete and has the makings of a perennial all-star. He is expected to sign with the Nationals, who have coveted international outfielders in the past. Think stars like Juan Soto and Victor Robles, or upcoming prospects like Jeremy De La Rosa.
Shortstop Ricardo Cabrera lines up as the number three overall prospect in the class. Offensively, Cabrera profiles as a gap-to-gap hitter with good power potential. He sees the ball well and drives it to all fields. The Venezuelan product doesn’t sacrifice for power, that comes naturally in his bat. Cabrera is on track for more doubles than homers right now, but he should have plenty of both. Defensively, Cabrera has the makings of an average shortstop. His range and speed at the position stands out, but he might end up as a corner infielder before everything is said and done. The Reds are expected to sign him. Cincinnati does have a feel for developing international shortstops. Think Didi Gregorius, or current prospects like Jose Barrero or Elly De La Cruz.
Shortstop William Bergolla finds himself as the fourth overall prospect in the class. Offensively, Bergolla has similar characteristics as Cabrera. The Venezuelan product is a natural gap-to-gap hitter, with power expected to develop. He controls the strike zone well, and is satisfied with working walks. Defensively, Bergolla has more of a chance to stick at shortstop than Cabrera does. He makes smart decisions on the field, which pair well with his good arm strength and solid footwork. He’s also the son of William Bergolla Sr., who spent eleven years in the minors, including a 17-game cup of coffee with the Reds in 2005. The younger Bergolla is expected to sign with the Phillies. Philadelphia looks to the international market frequently, but has yet to rope in a premier talent like Bergolla.
Outfielder Oscar Colas is an enigma in this class. Once called the “Cuban Shohei Ohtani“, Colas headed to Japan to play professional ball early. He no longer pitches, but is a more than capable outfielder. Splitting his 2019 season between the Japanese minors and majors, Colas hit .302 with 11 homers in the minors, along with .278 with one homer in seven games in the majors. He also hit .289 in 54 ABs during a Cuban stop in his 2019 season too. His offensive track record is already set in stone, and he can play all three outfield spots well. The only thing setting him back is his age. Colas is a 22-year-old in a class full of 16 and 17-year-olds. That still shouldn’t stop him from commanding a big bonus from the White Sox, who are expected to sign him. Chicago favors Cuban outfielders, look at their most recent international signing Yoelqui Cespedes, the younger brother of Yoenis Cespedes, for proof.
This class is very deep on hitters, as evidenced by the top pitcher coming in as the 31st best prospect in the class. Dominican right-hander Jarlin Susana leads the way for pitchers, and is just one of two in the top 50. On the mound, Susana oozes potential. His fastball already clocks in around 94-97 mph, which is astounding for a 17-year-old. His slides has above-average potential, his changeup has impressive sinking characteristics, and his curveball has decent potential as well. Susana still needs to refine his strike-throwing capabilities, but he has the makings of a front-line ace is everything goes his well. The Padres are expected to sign him. San Diego is also very active in the international market, and much of their deep prospect depth used in recent trades have been from the international market.
An international free agent is far from a sure thing. Stars like Mariano and Ohtani are generally exceptions to the rule. But the prospects who do pan out are the reasons teams throw millions upon millions of dollars at teenagers, just for the potential. Maybe nobody from this class pans out, or maybe we’ll be able to sit back a decade from now and look at all the great stars who emerged.