Tampa Bay Rays
International Signing Spell A Key For Team's Growth
PITTSBURGH - PITTSBURGH - The baseball calendar is littered with key dates and deadlines, the framework for the various personnel moves that shape rosters from the majors to the lowest level of the minors. Some dates, such as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, are well-known. Others don't garner much notice despite their importance to big-league organizations, and one of those is coming up this week. Beginning Wednesday, and on every July 2, major-league teams can sign international players who are at least 16 years old for a window that runs through the end of August. If they turn 16 between July 2 and Aug. 31, they are eligible to sign on their birthday. With the Rays finally committed to making a serious push into Latin American scouting and player development, July 2 has become a more important date than it had been in the past. So now is the time to lock up the talent their scouts in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic have been eyeing.It has become common for some pretty serious money to be thrown around in the international signing period. There have been reports lately that the consensus top prospect eligible to sign this year, 6-foot-7 Dominican RHP Michael Inoa, could command a bonus of at least $4 million from his most persistent suitor, the Athletics. That would shatter the record for an international player, excluding Cuban defectors, established in 1999 when Wily Mo Pena got $2.44 million from the Yankees, and it won't be the only million-dollar signing this year. Venezuelan OF Yorman Rodriguez, Dominican OF Rafael Rodriguez and Venezuelan RHP Adis Portillo, among others, reportedly are seeking bonuses so hefty that the Rays probably won't be willing to pay. "Generally speaking, we don't get involved that much in those," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said of the mega-deals. "But we've got a number of players that we like a lot that we feel like we have a pretty good chance to sign." No specifics were forthcoming, naturally, but expect the Rays to be more active in Venezuela. While every big-league franchise is entrenched in the D.R., the Rays have established a strong presence in Venezuela as others have pulled out of the country. The combination of a new academy and the reputation of Rays special assistant Andres Reiner, a baseball legend in Venezuela for his work in getting that country's players to the big leagues, has given the Rays "instant credibility," as Friedman put it. "We like to think that we're as competitive in Venezuela as anyone," Friedman said. "Everyone still has a presence there ... but we feel like with our academy and the attention to detail and what we do there, it helps separate us a little bit." It also helps that the Rays have their feet more firmly on the ground in both countries, allowing them to narrow their wish lists. "Now we're at a point where we're self-sustaining," Friedman said, "so now we can cherry-pick more and find players we really like and focus all of our energies on that instead of the start-up process."