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Pirates' international signings: Part one

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This is a followup to the series on the Pirates' drafts.  It's a bit harder to do, since the international signing process isn't exactly compressed nicely into one isolated event.  I'm not going to try to cover all the team's international signings.  Many of these players never get out of the Latin American summer leagues or, if they do, are clearly slated to be organizational players by the time they reach the Gulf Coast League or the New York-Penn League.  I'm just going to include the players who appeared to be good prospects at the time they were signed (typically judged by the signing bonus) or who ultimately became prospects.  I'll group them according to the year in which they signed.

I'll start with 2008.  Of course, as we all know, Rene Gayo was the Pirates' international scouting director over the last few years of Dave Littlefield's disastrous tenure as GM.  Whether it was Littlefield's doing or Kevin McClatchy's -- and I'm convinced it was largely Littlefield's -- Gayo had very little money to work with, too little to give out even six figure bonuses.  Neal Huntington retained Gayo when he became GM.  Huntington took over well after the 2007 signing period had gotten underway, so he probably had little or nothing to do with the 2007 signings.  After that, things changed; it should be obvious from the 2008 signings below that the purse strings got loosened dramatically.

I'm not going to try to track the year-by-year evolution of the Pirates' international scouting philosophy the way I tried to do with the draft, mainly because I can't see any trends developing and changing over time.  It's hard to have much of a philosophy when you're operating in a Wild West atmosphere like, say, the Dominican baseball scene.

There have been some consistent features of Gayo's work throughout his tenure, though.  For one thing, he's always been much stronger with hitters than pitchers.  The one high-profile pitcher he's signed was Luis Heredia, which didn't exactly go well.  Among hitters, he seems to like players who project to hit for power, and he seems to like outfielders.  He hasn't gone heavily for slick-fielding shortstops, at least not until he signed Adrian Valerio in 2013.

Another practice that Gayo clearly follows, one that he's been very up front about, is spreading the money around among a number of prospects, rather than focusing on a smaller number of expensive, high-profile prospects.  In practice what this amounts to is that the Pirates seldom sign international players for seven figures.  If you don't count older players, specifically Jung-Ho Kang and the Littlefield era publicity stunt with Yoslan Herrera, the only two seven-figure signings have been Heredia and Harold Ramirez.  Instead, the Pirates' more noteworthy international signings have tended to be in the $100,000 to $500,000 range.  More on this topic in Part Two.

Below are the more prominent signings from each year.  I'll give bonus figures where I have them and I'll also indicate the player's home country.

2008 -- Grade:  B

Yhonathan Barrios, IF (Colombia) ($250,000):  Signed as a shortstop with a good bat, Barrios didn't hit much but moved to the mound due to an upper-90s fastball.  The Pirates traded him for Aramis Ramirez and he reached the majors with Milwaukee.

Jorge Bishop, IF (Panama) ($35,000):  Bishop looked like a decent prospect when he put up good hitting numbers, including some power, in rookie level ball, but he didn't hit at all above that level and was released.

Ramon Cabrera, C (Venezuela):  Cabrera became enough of a prospect to win a spot on the Pirates' 40-man roster.  They traded him to Detroit for Andy Oliver, then claimed him back on waivers two years later.  He signed with Cincinnati after the Pirates eventually released him and reached the majors in 2015.

Jodaneli Carvajal, IF (Dominican Republic) ($350,000):  Considered a good prospect with a chance to stay at short, Carvajal just didn't develop.  He was released in 2013.

Exicardo Cayones, OF (Venezuela) ($400,000):  Cayones' bonus was the largest the Pirates had ever given to a real international prospect prospect -- i.e., not Yoslan Herrera -- until Luis Heredia.  He didn't develop as hoped and went to the Yankees with Diego Moreno for A.J. Burnett.  The Yankees then sent him to the Angels with another random minor leaguer in a similar, salary-dumping deal for Vernon Wells.  The Angels released him in May 2015.  The highest level he reached was high A.

Elias Diaz, C (Venezuela):  Diaz developed slowly, especially his bat, but he stands a good chance of being the Pirates' regular catcher in 2017.  Reportedly the subject of a number of trade inquiries, Baseball America recently named Diaz the best defensive catcher in the minors.

Roberto Espinoza, RHP (Mexico):  Espinoza was one of the better-regarded of the pitchers signed by Gayo in the early years under the current front office.  He developed slowly, then went to Toronto in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.  The Jays sold his contract to a Mexican League team and that's where he pitched in 2015.

Elevys Gonzalez, IF (Venezuela):  Not a high-profile signee, Gonzalez showed a good line-drive bat and got some attention by posting an .841 OPS in the Florida State League in 2011.  Then he simply stopped hitting the next year.  The Dodgers selected him in the minor league Rule 5 draft and he's been out of organized baseball since 2013.

Diego Goris, IF (Dominican Republic):  Goris spent four years in the Dominican Summer League and finally had a big season in the last one.  The Pirates then sent him to Kansas City with Brooks Pounders for Yamaico Navarro.  A year later the Padres took him in the minor league Rule 5 draft.  He reached AAA with them in 2015.

Gift Ngoepe, IF (South Africa) ($15,000):  Ngoepe hasn't been able to adjust to off-speed pitches, but his defensive skills were enough to get him on the Pirates' 40-man roster.  He'll probably just be infield depth, but his major league debut will be quite a story.

Rinku Singh, LHP (India):  Another big story . . . a movie even . . . Singh has missed the last three seasons with arm injuries.  He was eligible for free agency, but the Pirates signed him for 2016.  Hopefully, he'll make it to Bradenton.

Junior Sosa, OF (Venezuela):  Very similar to Juan Pierre in physique and skills, Sosa made it to AA as a backup and then became a free agent.  He signed with the Marlins this winter.

Jesus Vasquez, OF (Dominican Republic):  Vasquez showed good power in the DSL, which isn't common, but the Pirates promoted him slowly.  He showed pretty good power in the New York-Penn League as well, but the Pirates released him after less than a season there.

In his first year free of Dave Littlefield, Gayo signed three players for bonuses well beyond anything he'd previously been able to pay.  Two flopped and the third flopped at his original position, but reached the majors anyway.  Meanwhile, an unheralded signee could be in the Pirates' starting lineup next year, or even this year if injuries happen.  Cabrera also reached the majors and Ngoepe probably will, as well.

2009 -- Grade:  A

Orlandro Castro, LHP (Honduras):  A small, finesse lefty, Castro pitched very well in class A, but ran into shoulder problems almost the moment he got to AA.  The Pirates released him last fall.

Samuel Gonzalez, C (Dominican Republic):  Gonzalez looked like a good prospect for a while, as he was good defensively and hit over .300 both in the GCL and NYPL.  He had shoulder problems, though, and never seemed to recover from them.  The last I knew he was coaching for the Pirates.

Alen Hanson, IF (Dominican Republic) ($90,000):  Hanson's hitting has tailed off since his breakout season in low A, but he's still a good prospect.  A move to second seems to have stopped the error problems he was having at short.  If Jung-Ho Kang misses the start of the season, Hanson should get a shot at playing second early in the year.  In any event, he should make his major league debut in 2016.

Joan Montero, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($70,000):  Montero is one of many examples of a type of pitcher the Pirates have frequently signed out of Latin America:  a short, stocky righty who throws around 93-94 and typically ends up pitching in relief.  Montero made it to AA, but struggled there and was released prior to the 2015 season.

Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP (Lithuania) ($60,000):  I'm not sure whether Neverauskas is the only professional ballplayer born in Lithuania, but I'm sure there aren't many.  His fastball has sat around 94-95 at times, but he's been inconsistent with his velocity, command and secondary stuff.  He also hasn't always been healthy.  A move to the bullpen last year seemed to help.  Neverauskas will be eligible for free agency after 2016.

Jose Osuna, OF (Venezuela) ($250,000):  Osuna has hit well most of the time, but he's limited to first and hasn't shown the kind of power teams want at the position.  He's also been passed over twice in the Rule 5 draft.  He could reach AAA this year and will be a free agent after the season.

Clario Perez, RHP (Dominican Republic):  Another short righty with a low-90s fastball and a good curve, Perez moved to relief in 2012 and has been erratic since then.  He spent half of last year in AA, then became a free agent and re-signed with the Pirates for 2016.  Shortly after that, he got hit with an 80-game, banned-substance suspension.

Gregory Polanco, OF (Dominican Republic) ($150,000):  Now the Pirates' starting right fielder, he seems poised for a breakout season in 2016.

Maximo Rivera, IF (Dominican Republic) ($165,000):  Rivera had good speed and power potential when the Pirates signed him, but he struggled to hit for two years in the DSL before having a big season in his third year.  He quickly morphed into an organizational utility player once he came stateside.  The Pirates released him last fall.

Joely Rodriguez, LHP (Dominican Republic) ($55,000):  Rodriguez has always had good stuff for a small lefty, hitting 95 mph in short stretches.  He reached AA, earning a spot on the 40-man roster.  The Pirates traded him before the 2015 season for Antonio Bastardo.  Rodriguez split 2015 between AA and AAA, and had a bad season, leading the Phillies to outright him to AAA.

Luis Urena, OF (Dominican Republic):  Urena is impressive physically, and had significant power potential and a strong arm, but he also had massive contact issues.  The Pirates moved him to the mound in 2014, then lost him to the Rays in the minor league Rule 5 draft a year ago.

This group could produce a quarter of the Pirates' starting lineup if Hanson adjusts well to the majors.  They also used Rodriguez to get Bastardo, and Perez and Osuna could still reach the majors somehow or other.

2010 -- Grade:  B

Adrian De Aza, OF (Dominican Republic):  De Aza signed for a six-figure amount, but apparently had attitude issues.  He showed some ability in two years in the DSL, but at some point he left the team of his own volition.  The Pirates released him in 2012.

Mervin Del Rosario, LHP (Colombia) ($55,000):  Del Rosario had good size for a lefty and reportedly reached 93 mph before signing.  Afterwards, his velocity dropped to the mid- to upper-80s, sometimes lower.  He reached Bristol and struggled through two seasons there before being released last fall.

Raul Fortunato, OF (Dominican Republic):  Fortunato looked like a borderline prospect at one point.  He had a big season in his third year in the DSL, but missed the next season with an injury.  The Pirates moved him up to low A and he held his own there, but he didn't adjust to high A the following year and was released.

Willy Garcia, OF (Dominican Republic) ($280,000):  Apart from Stetson Allie, Garcia has probably the most power in the farm system and definitely the best outfield arm anywhere in the organization, but he may be the least patient hitter anywhere in the system.  He's on the 40-man roster and could reach the majors in 2016.

Luis Heredia, RHP (Mexico) ($2,600,000):  By far the Pirates' largest international signing of a real prospect, Heredia just hasn't worked out.  He's suffered from disappointing velocity, conditioning and other health problems, and control issues.  He'll probably return for a second season at Bradenton after going unselected in the Rule 5 draft.

Jonathan Herrand, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($185,000):  Herrand was a big guy who could hit 100 mph, but he also hit just about everything else.  The Pirates released him in 2013.

Dilson Herrera, IF (Colombia) ($220,000):  Herrera established himself as a legitimate prospect with the Pirates, then really broke out after they traded him to the Mets for Marlon Byrd.  Ironically, he'll probably be stuck behind Neil Walker for a year, but he still figures to be the Mets' second baseman of the future.

Cesar Lopez, RHP (Cuba) ($600,000):  Lopez was the most significant player the Pirates have signed out of Cuba, which isn't saying much.  He never showed the kind of stuff they were expecting and they released him prior to the 2014 season.  He went to independent ball and then signed with the Braves, but they released him after a month.  He pitched only two games above the low A level.

Isaac Sanchez, RHP (Dominican Republic):  Another short righty with good stuff, Sanchez struggled with injuries for several years, then moved to the bullpen.  The Pirates lost him to Seattle in the minor league Rule 5 draft last fall.

Heredia's been a massive disappointment, but Herrera could still be a regular on a contending team.  Garcia also figures to reach the majors, although he may not last long there if he doesn't stop swinging at everything.