On to 2013-15. I'm not going to give grades for these years. Partly that's because none of these guys have played much yet, or at all in the case of most of the 2015 signees. Another reason is that the 2013 and 2014 groups have been hit heavily by injuries.
As I've gone through year by year, I've gotten a sense of diminishing returns. This may be unfair, as some of these guys could still break out. It also may reflect in part the realities of MLB's failed bonus system, implemented in 2012. The Pirates, of course, get less money to spend because they've been winning. If they signed Harold Ramirez now, it'd use up half their pool. Even the $700,000 bonuses they gave Michael and Julio De La Cruz would be difficult now. (The Pirates were coming off a 90-loss season then, so they had a much larger pool.) If they want to continue spreading the money over a number of players, they may not be able to give out bonuses above the low six figures.
The impact of MLB's foolish international system may be even worse than it appears at first glance. In case you're not familiar with how it works, teams get a spending pool that varies depending on the previous year's won-loss record: the worst teams get more money. If a team exceeds its pool, it pays a percentage tax on the overage. If it exceeds its pool by certain percentages, it can't sign any player for more than a set amount in the subsequent signing period or periods. For instance, the rule for the 2014-15 period was that if a team exceeded its pool by:
- 5-10%, it couldn't sign any player for more than $500,000 in the following period.
- 10-15%, it couldn't sign any player for more than $300,000 in the following period.
- More than 15%, it couldn't sign any player for more than $300,000 in the following two periods.
This system created an incentive for teams to blow well past their signing limits, which a handful of teams have done. In the draft, a team can't sign, say, five of the top ten prospects simply by spending a pile of money, because it can't draft them. In the international arena, it's entirely possible to do this, so the rewards for going over the limit can far exceed the costs. What's more, the system encourages teams to overpay to stock up on numerous top prospects, which would drive up prices overall. It also would artificially limit the talent pool available to the large majority of teams that stayed within their limits, driving up prices on the second tier of prospects. With bonus spending capped, higher prices necessarily mean fewer signings.
Assuming things don't change, or change much, the question remains whether the Pirates' current approach will work in the long-term. The pool of talent is very limited, so each time a team decides to forego one segment of it, that team is reducing its chances of success. I've always understood the Pirates' practice of ignoring the bulk of the major league free agent market, due not only to the high cost but the high risk. It's an incredibly inefficient market. But they've also chosen not to compete for Japanese or Cuban players, or for the top Latin American prospects. With all teams desperately searching for talent sources, the chances of finding hidden gems are diminishing constantly. Korea is an example; after the Pirates' success with Jung-Ho Kang, the rest of MLB isn't likely to get caught napping in that market again.
You can also legitimately ask why the Pirates haven't been one of the teams blowing past their spending limit. Because they already choose to sign few, if any, players above the low six figures, they'd suffer little impact, talent-wise, from the penalties in future years. Of course, they'd have to pay the tax, which is steep.
Anyway, below are the more prominent signees from 2013-15. It should go without saying that it's too early to draw any definitive conclusions about these players.
Jose Batista, LHP (Dominican Republic) ($120,000): A lefty with pretty good velocity, Batista missed almost no bats until 2015, his third season, which he spent repeating the GCL. He's been pitching mainly in relief.
Luis Escobar, RHP (Colombia) ($150,000): So far, Escobar is one of the more promising pitchers Gayo has signed. He throws four solid pitches, including a fastball that sits 92-94. A good sign to look for is whether the Pirates move him up to full season ball this year after he spent most of 2015 in the GCL.
Hector Garcia, LHP (Dominican Republic) ($190,000): After a year in the DSL, the Pirates sent Garcia to Bristol in 2014 at age 18, skipping the GCL. He was impressive at the higher level, but pitched only briefly in 2015 before having Tommy John surgery. He's out until 2017.
Yeudy Garcia, RHP (Dominican Republic): Signed at the relatively late age of 20, Garcia was the Pirates' biggest breakout story of 2015 and will probably be their best pitching prospect below the AAA level this year.
Mikell Granberry, C (Mexico): Granberry missed some time with back problems in 2014, but he's hit very well in two years in the DSL. He hasn't been able to catch a great deal yet.
Edison Lantigua, OF (Dominican Republic) ($275,000): After a good debut in the DSL, Lantigua missed a month with an unknown injury, then struggled in the GCL.
Yunior Montero, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($185,000): Montero has fallen victim to the difficulties of proving the identification and age of Dominican prospects, although there's been no indication that he's falsified either. The Pirates originally signed him for $45,000, but the contract was voided when his ID and age couldn't be proven. He added velocity afterward and the Pirates had to outbid other teams for him, but the ID issues kept him out for two more years. He finally, officially became a pro for the 2014 season and has spent two years pitching in relief in the GCL, striking out over ten batters per nine innings in 2015.
Cristian Mota, LHP (Dominican Republic): A very small lefty who hits 95 mph, Mota was very effective in the GCL in 2015.
Nestor Oronel, LHP (Venezuela): Oronel struggled in the DSL in 2014, but improved a lot in the GCL in 2015 and is still only 19.
Jeremias Portorreal, OF (Dominican Republic) ($375,000): The second most expensive signee in this group, Portorreal has had problems making contact in two DSL seasons. He does draw a lot of walks.
Eliezer Ramirez, OF (Venezuela) ($120,000): Ramirez didn't hit a lot in his debut season in 2014, but showed good plate discipline. The Pirates sent him back to the DSL, but he missed nearly all of 2015 due to a broken hand.
Edgar Santana, RHP (Dominican Republic): Santana was nearly 22 when he signed, but his fastball gets into the mid-90s and he struck out a lot of hitters pitching in relief in the NYPL and in low A in 2015. He could move up quickly unless the Pirates decide to try him as a starter.
Raul Siri, IF (Dominican Republic): Siri had a big season at the plate in the DSL in 2014, including surprising power for a small guy. He stopped hitting after about a week in the GCL in 2015, but he got a late promotion to Bristol anyway. He's probably limited to second base.
Adrian Valerio, IF (Dominican Republic) ($400,000): Valerio has legitimate shortstop skills. His bat is behind his glove, but he's held his own so far. If the Pirates think he's for real, they may move him up from the GCL to low A in 2016.
Many of the players in this group still have good potential, especially if Hector Garcia and Lantigua bounce back from their injuries. Yeudy Garcia and Valerio are real prospects, and Escobar, Mota and Santana have interesting arms.
All of the players below saw action in the DSL in 2015.
Gabriel Brito, C (Dominican Republic) ($200,000): A catcher with good all-around potential, Brito missed time in 2015 with injuries to his shoulder and left hand. He got into 32 DSL games, though, and posted an .843 OPS at age 17.
Yondry Contreras, OF (Dominican Republic) ($400,000): The Pirates' top signing, Contreras played very well defensively in center, but struggled severely with swings and misses.
Yerry De Los Santos, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($100,000): De Los Santos had gotten his velocity up to 90 when he signed. He got hit hard in his first season in the DSL, but will play the 2016 season at age 18.
Raul Hernandez, C (Venezuela): Hernandez was 18 when he signed and wasn't the high-profile player that Brito was, but he batted .304, seldom struck out and threw out 46% of base stealers.
Melvin Jimenez, IF (Dominican Republic): Another lower-profile signee, Jimenez hit .301, drew a lot of walks, seldom struck out, and played second, third and short. He was 19, so he was old for the level.
Christopher Perez, IF (Dominican Republic) ($150,000): Injured at the start of the season, Perez struggled at the plate and even more in the field, committing 24 errors in just 39 games at short. He did, however, improve after a very rough start.
Adonis Pichardo, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($105,000): Originally an outfielder, Pichardo signed at age 18. By the time the season started, he was throwing in the low- to mid-90s. He missed some time with a lat strain and arm fatigue, and struggled when he pitched, but he has only limited experience on the mound.
Domingo Robles, LHP (Dominican Republic) ($175,000): Robles' velocity went from the upper-80s to the low-90s after he signed. He managed to stay in the rotation throughout the season. He put up decent numbers overall, but improved significantly after a rough first month. He'll open 2016 at age 18.
Roger Santana, LHP (Dominican Republic) ($100,000): A crafty lefty who throws in the upper-80s, Santana struggled while pitching in relief in 2015. He'll play 2016 at age 18.
Brian Sousa, RHP (Panama) ($160,000): Like Pichardo and Robles, Sousa saw a velocity increase after signing, in his case into the low-90s. He missed most of the 2015 season with a lat strain and shoulder problems. He won't turn 19 until late in the 2016 season.
With several pitchers gaining velocity going into the season, this group looked like it might shift the Pirates' international program more toward pitching. Injuries and inexperience took a toll, though, and the DSL Pirates were one of the worst-pitching teams in their league. Still, these guys are very young and Pichardo has little pitching experience as yet, while Robles finished his season with two strong months. Among the hitters, Brito had a good season when he was able to play, while Perez and especially Contreras had some significant issues.
Excluding Kang, of the players listed below, only Simmons and Contreras saw action in 2015, and they only got into a few games.
Larry Alcime, Jr., OF (Bahamas) ($350,000): Alcime is a corner outfielder with good size, a strong arm and power potential.
Sherton Apostel, IF (Curacao) ($200,000): Apostel is another big guy, a third baseman with a good arm and a chance to hit for power.
Wilmer Contreras, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($80,000).
Luis Diaz, LHP (Venezuela) ($50,000): Diaz is a small lefty whose fastball gets into the low-90s.
Samuel Inoa, C (Dominican Republic) ($240,000): Inoa has a strong arm and some power from the right side.
Randy Jimenez, LHP (Dominican Republic) ($100,000).
Jung-Ho Kang, IF (South Korea): You've probably heard of him. I like to think that, in his first game against the Cubs when he returns, Kang will hit a walk-off HR and circle the bases gangnam style.
Kleiner Machado, RHP (Venezuela) ($90,000).
Leander Pina, RHP (Dominican Republic) ($115,000).
Kevin Sanchez, OF (Dominican Republic) ($450,000): The Pirates' top 2015 signing, Sanchez is very fast and plays center.
Kyle Simmons, IF (Bahamas): Simmons is a shortstop, at least for now, with good speed and a strong arm.