The Nationals, traditionally conservative spenders on the unpredictable international market, made a huge financial commitment Saturday, signing more than 19 teenagers to deals totaling more than $5 million. Their allotted international signing pool was $2,335,000.
“We’ve been focusing on it now for a few years. Confidence from ownership in our group has given us the ability to do it with their say-so on giving us the money to go over the tax,” Nationals Vice President, International Operations Johnny DiPuglia said. “We’ve also had extensive evaluations on each player, even to the point that Mike Rizzo was able to see some of the guys.”
The Nationals made their greatest commitment to an international teenager yet to Dominican shortstop Yasel Antuna, a switch-hitter rated as the 14th-best prospect in this year’s class by MLB.com. Antuna will earn $3.9 million in signing bonus money; the Nats have never spent more than $1.5 million on a player before, and that went to Dominican outfielder Juan Soto last year. Before that, the most the Nationals had ever spent was in 2006, when they spent $1.4 million on eventually infamous Smiley Gonzalez.
This year’s class includes another Dominican shortstop, Luis Garcia — the seventh-best international prospect according to MLB.com — to a deal worth $1.3 million. They signed Venezuelan shortstop Jose Sanchez, ranked No. 20, to a $950,000 bonus. Other headliners include Venezuelan outfielder Ricardo Mendez ($600,000) and catcher Israel Pineda ($450,000).
“We’re happy with the group,” DiPuglia said. “We’re staying with our philosophy: Middle-of-the-field players with upside, plus-running tools. Preferably switch-hitters that can stay in the middle of the field and help you win in a lot of different ways. But they’re 16-year-old kids, freshmen in high school. They still have a long way, but we’re happy with the crop we got.”
Dipuglia said Rizzo, Director of Player Procurement Kasey McKeon, and Special Assistants to the General Manager Dan Jennings and Terry Wetzel all got the chance to see the players in person, which helped establish confidence in the unusually large financial commitment.
“It’s crazy,” DiPuglia said. “But if you’re going to go after premium talent, just like the Cuban market, you have to pay. Clubs spend more money than us. Not as many this year. But we’ve known these kids a long time. We’ve followed them a long time. We’ve done backgrounds on their make-up, histories on their education. We’re happy.”
According to the terms of the most recent collective bargaining agreement — which of course, expires this offseason — teams that exceed their alotted pool by 0 to 5 percent have to pay a 100 percent tax on their overage. The Nationals went far beyond that range. Teams that exceed their pool by 5 to 10 percent cannot sign a player for more than $500,000 the next year. The Nationals went beyond that range, too. Teams that exceed their pool by 10 to 15 percent must pay an 100 percent tax and cannot sign a player for more than $300,000 the next season.
The timing of their spending spree made sense for the Nationals for several reasons. The rules for signing international players could change by next season under a new CBA. Many of the bigger international spenders — the Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, etc. — exceeded their pools last season. (The Yankees, for example, spent $17 million in bonuses last year.) With those deep pockets limited to $300,000 offers, teams such as the Nationals had less competition for the top talent.
Before this summer, the Nationals had established a reputation for finding overlooked international talent at low prices. Dominican-born players Wilmer Difo, Reynaldo Lopez, Anderson Franco and rising prospect star Victor Robles all rank in the Nationals’ top 10 prospects, as rated before this season in Baseball America. Pedro Severino, seemingly the most major-league ready of any catcher in the Nationals system, is also from the Dominican Republic.
The complete list of Nationals signees is below:
Johan Adon (Dominican Republic)
Thony Amoroso (Venezuela)
Carlos Cuello (Dominican Republic)
Niomar Gomez (Venezuela)
Rafael Melendez (Dominican Republic)
Eric Pena (Dominican Republic)
Wilson Severino (Dominican Republic)
Oliver Suero (Dominican Republic)
Yasel Antuna (Dominican Republic)
Luis Garcia (Dominican Republic)
Cesar Porte (Dominican Republic)
David Escobar (Panama)
Ricardo Mendez (Venezuela)
Landerson Pena (Dominican Republic)
Kelvin Pacheco (Dominican Republic)
Wilmer Perez (Venezuela)
Israel Pineda (Venezuela)
Luis Santana (Dominican Republic)
Ronaldy Sosa (Dominican Republic)