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Can the Pirates afford not to compete for top international players?

League Championship Series - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game One Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As I’ve mentioned a time or two before, since they shelled out $700K bonuses to Michael De La Cruz and Julio De La Cruz in 2012, the most the Pirates have spent on the amateur international market is the $550K they gave Jean Eusebio about half a year ago. Eusebio struggled in his DSL debut this year. The second most was $450K, which went to Lolo Sanchez, whom Baseball America recently rated the second-best prospect in the GCL. They haven’t paid more than $200K to any pitcher since they gave Luis Heredia $2.6M in 2010.

If you want to get an idea of the talent it takes to win in MLB, and where it might come from, one way to do it is to check out the four remaining playoff teams. In doing this, it’s worth bearing in mind that teams have more freedom to operate in the international arena than in any other talent market. In the draft, they’re limited by their available draft slots. With veteran talent, they’re limited by their payrolls and other factors, such as the very small number of free agents on the market each year and the fact that a team has to give up talent to get talent in trades.

The Cubs may provide the best indication of the kind of talent that can be obtained on the international market:

Willson Contreras: signed for $850K
Eloy Jimenez: $2.8M (traded for Jose Quintana)
Jorge Soler: $30M contract with $6M bonus (traded for Wade Davis)
Gleyber Torres: $1.7M (traded last year for Aroldis Chapman)
Jeimer Candelario: $500K (traded for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson)
Isaac Paredes: $800K (also traded for Avila and Wilson)
Jeferson Mejia: $800K (traded for Miguel Montero)

All but one of those deals are beyond what the Pirates are willing to pay, and that one is on the fringe. If you include just Soler’s bonus, though, the grand total is almost exactly what the Pirates will pay Sean Rodriguez and Daniel Hudson next year.

The other three teams haven’t mined the international market the way the Cubs have, but they’ve still benefited from talent the Pirates have shut themselves off from.

The Yankees signed Gary Sanchez for $3M. Luis Severino got $225K, which is more than the Pirates have paid any pitcher in seven years. Chapman got $30.25M when the Reds signed him out of Cuba. Masahiro Tanaka, for what it’s worth, signed for $155M.

The Astros signed Yuli Gurriel for $47.5M. Michael Feliz, who struck out over 13 per nine innings for them this year, originally signed for $800K with Oakland. That contract was voided due to a drug test, then the Astros paid him $400K. Franklin Perez, who helped bring in Justin Verlander, signed for $1M. David Paulino, who’s one of their top prospects, got $875K to sign with Detroit.

The Dodgers have tended to look toward Asia more than Latin America. They signed Kenta Maeda out of Japan for $24M. Yu Darvish, of course, originally signed with Texas for $60M plus a $51.7M posting fee. Hyun-Jin Ryu was the first Korean player signed through the posting system and, unlike Jung-Ho Kang, he didn’t slip under the radar. He signed for $36M, plus a $25.7M posting fee. The Dodgers also have gone big in Cuba. They signed Yasiel Puig for $42M. They also signed Hector Olivera for $62.5M and traded him and a bunch of other players, in a complicated deal, for Alex Wood and Luis Avilan. As for the rest of Latin America, Julio Urias, who’s been hurt most of this year, signed for $450K. Reliever Pedro Baez got $200K.

If you take away all these players, plus all the expensive free agents and other expensive veterans who were acquired in trade, how many of these teams would be where they are now? That’s what the Pirates are facing by closing themselves off from this talent source.

Of course, the equation has changed somewhat. Starting this year, the system changed from restrictive signing pools and meaningless penalties to much more generous pools (especially for small market teams like the Pirates) and much more significant penalties. But the indications are that the Pirates still aren’t pursuing the more expensive free agents, which of course would require competition with other teams. When you’re wondering why the Pirates haven’t had more success in developing major league talent, in my opinion their unwillingness to compete in this market is the single biggest reason. And that doesn’t appear about to change.