The Orioles’ new focus on the international market is bound to pay dividends … one way or another.
They have signed nearly 30 prospects since the 2021-22 international amateur signing period opened in January, including two of the top prospects in this year’s class — outfielder Braylin Tavera and shortstop Leandro Arias. The Orioles also signed 22-year-old Cuban infielder César Prieto, who was considered one of the top young hitters in the Cuban National Series.
The Orioles’ investment in Latin America in recent years was a must, according to Baseball America senior writer Ben Badler, who covers the international market. Badler cited the stars other American League East teams have signed out of Latin America, including Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Wander Franco and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
“Even if it’s not star talent, teams with strong international scouting departments can give their club future big leaguers or prospects who have trade value,” Badler said. “To mostly ignore Latin American signings like the Orioles did until recently continued to have an impact on their farm system, which shows in the lack of international prospects in the upper levels of their system.
“The changes they have made in recent years to invest money in signing international players and remaking their department mean the Orioles now actually have a chance to get a Devers or a Franco for themselves, or to at least populate their farm system with players from a source of talent that they had previously closed themselves off from.”
Overall, the Orioles have added players mostly from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but also one player each from Cuba and Panama. The Orioles signed Tavera for a reported $1.7 million, a club record for an international amateur. The 16-year-old was ranked as the No. 18 international prospect by Baseball America and No. 22 by MLB Pipeline. Tavera is expected to evolve into a five-tool player who will primarily patrol center field.
“He’s got a chance at five tools. He does everything easily and effortlessly,” Orioles senior director of international scouting Koby Perez said. “He was a player who was highly coveted by most of the teams in the league. A lot of it had to do with us offering opportunities. Not having given out these types of bonuses in our history, it makes the player feel special to be the highest-paid international player. I think that really helped us land Braylin, because there was a lot of competition for his services.”
Prieto reportedly signed for $650,000 and was named Cuban National Series Rookie of the Year in 2018-19. He slashed .403/.463/.579 and won the league’s batting title in Cuba in 2020-21. At 22, Prieto’s journey to the big leagues should be shorter than the rest of the players in the class.
“We’re super excited about adding César,” Perez said. “He is a high-profile Cuban who has a very good track record of hitting. He’s been the most productive hitter in Cuba for the last couple of years. We were in a good situation. We scouted him heavily since he was cleared by MLB to be eligible to sign in November. We had the likes of Mike Elias go see him personally, and myself. We spent a lot of time scouting this player, getting to know him, and we just felt he was very good for us.”
The Orioles signed Arias for a reported $600,000. He has the potential to be a mainstay in the middle of the infield and was ranked as the No. 46 international prospect by MLB Pipeline. Arias is a switch hitter who has shown power from both sides of the plate.
Every major-league team takes different approaches and strategies toward signing amateur players from the international market, and a team’s approach can change year to year. The Orioles have been one of the more aggressive teams the past two years in working the international market.
The most successful teams generally have talented scouts who are constantly out at the fields seeing players, according to Badler. The Orioles have also been more aggressive with that approach.
“With the very top-level, famous players, usually everyone will see them,” Badler said. “A lot of international scouting comes down to creating your own luck, where they’re out on the field and happen to be in the right place and the right time to see a hidden gem you can identify before other clubs.”
The bigger-money players are going to get the most attention in the short term for the Orioles, but the club is also creating opportunities for lower-bonus players to emerge later on as they move up the ladder, something that didn’t happen much in the organization previously.
“Once the Orioles came in a few years ago, made it known they were going to be spending money and brought in Koby Perez to lead their department, things changed pretty quickly for them in Latin America,” Badler said. “The reality is that international players often commit to a club years in advance of their official signing dates, so the Orioles were limited in what they could do in 2019 and even the following year.
“But as soon as the Orioles brought in Perez and made it known they were going to spend, that old reputation pretty quickly went away. Now the agents and trainers in Latin America view the Orioles just like any other team that’s going to be active and competitive for the top players in the region.”
Perez is thrilled with the strides the club has taken in Latin America in a short period of time. General manager Mike Elias took over the club’s baseball operations in November 2018 and hired Perez not long after.
“These signings [in January], we’ve been working with them and their agents for three years,” Perez said “That is the reason we’ve been able to go a little bit toward the top of the signing classes. In future years, we’ll continue to do that. It takes time to get these players to commit to us, and we’ve been working on these players for two or three years.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles