Henning: Tigers playing it cool on international market

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
As then-scouting director of the Marlins in 1999, Tigers GM Al Avila was instrumental in signing Miguel Cabrera when Cabrera was a 16-year-old out of Venezuela for a $1.8 million signing bonus.

They signed a 16-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic, Wenceel Perez, who was No. 23 on Baseball America’s list of Top 50 international targets. And on Monday morning, they signed a top Venezuelan target, outfielder Jhon Sandoval, who has right-handed power and speed, and who in tandem with Perez appears to have cost the Tigers a bit more than $1 million, total.

They signed other players for lesser amounts. And they’ll sign international players until their $3.15 million allotment for 2016 has been wiped out.

So, there was nothing particularly new about the Tigers’ foray into Latin America — and beyond — when Saturday arrived and the first batch of big league baseball’s international prospects were signed and revealed.

The question asked by some was: Why wouldn’t the Tigers soar past their $3.15 million, commissioner-stamped budget and pay penalties that seemed, to some, like smart strategy? The Red Sox, who annually break the cash register’s sound barrier when they slurp up glitzy global talent, were barred from the sweepstakes and some past picks’ contracts were voided because of accounting misdeeds the commissioner’s office didn’t appreciate.

The Rays, Angels, and Diamondbacks were semi-handcuffed and forbade for the next two years from spending more than $300,000 for any one player on the international auction block, all because they were naughty last year and zoomed past their commissioner-allocated allowance.

Tigers put Jordan Zimmermann on DL

So, some analysts argued, here were three more reasons for a Tigers team to take advantage of fewer hunters and splurge lavishly on potential trophies.

But the Tigers say they’ll stick to rules. No over-pays. No 100 percent tax on dollars that exceed their $3.15 million ration. And no worries about next year, or the year after, being held to a $300,000 limit, part of a restrictive ceiling with heavier penalties for higher overruns, that won’t change unless new rules are written into the players-owners contract that expires this year.

“If people say we’re being cheap, I’d instead say we’re being prudent,” said Al Avila, the Tigers general manager who busted the Marlins’ bank in 1999 when he signed Miguel Cabrera to a record-smashing deal.

“The people in charge are the same people (scouts) who were with me when we signed Miguel. The same people, with years and years of experience. And the fact is: We don’t go after Top 50 talent and spend millions over the cap. It doesn’t mean we don’t like a Top 50 player. It means the player we end up signing for $100,000 is, in our opinion, better than the guy some clubs are signing for $1 million.

“Basically, all you have to do is look at the history of the game and signing bonuses and look at the percentage of big-money contracts that lead to exceptional big league careers. The number is very, very small.

“We’d rather sign a bunch of guys for $200,000 than spend millions on one player.”

Value over splash

Why the Tigers, with a $200 million-plus payroll, would turn penny-wise with the Latin American (and beyond) market strikes some as pound-foolish when a couple of free-agent examples from the past winter are mulled. Justin Upton was handed $132 million and Jordan Zimmermann got $110 million.

The logic, while compelling, isn’t that simple.

You can attack the international shopping mall with, say, $10 million and scoop up quantity as well as quality (star talent), at least on paper. But it doesn’t mean anything unless a team’s scouts (Detroit’s, in this case) decide it’s actually worth it.

The Tigers say it’s not — at least this year. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t empty checkbooks and tap another line of credit, particularly if owner Mike Ilitch decided in tandem with the front office that spending beyond the chalk lines was sage strategy for one or more players.

But if the talent doesn’t measure up to what you believe teams are paying, or if it restricts you to fewer signings when you see more value in spending lesser amounts on a greater collection of players, there’s nothing smart or strategic about overriding the allotment.

Tigers GM Al Avila

That’s particularly true if it keeps you from spending more than $300,000 on a select talent in subsequent drafts as part of the commissioner’s penalties. Look at this year’s top Tigers picks, each of whom figures to get $500,000 or a bit more, and the consequences of blowing past that 2016 limit are clearer if players at that price point are impossible to approach the next two summers.

Tom Moore, director of international scouting for the Tigers, was talking Monday about why writing big checks for presumed tall talent isn’t always wise.

“I just think it’s a situation where we would have to feel really comfortable with the players pursued,” Moore said. “If it’s a situation where you’re sold, and you say: ‘Yeah, let’s go after this guy or these players,’ then you make that push.

“But at this time we’re dealing with the Latin American amateur market, and who knows? At some point in six months a Cuban star might defect, and then we say: ‘Hey, this is a guy we’ve got to go all in for.’ Then we’d be in position to maybe exceed that bonus pool, and that would be a decision we’d have to make.”

But today? The Tigers didn’t see that simply spending scads of cash would be sensible. Not when upper-tier talent was perhaps down a tick from some years and when, on average, only about 20 percent or a bit less of those top-shelf players — top 50 or a bit more — even make it to the big leagues as a part-time player.

Scouting network still works

It makes sense to be discreet, also, if you have a scouting presence in a country where few teams in 2016 any longer work. The Tigers had been alongside a handful of teams that until this year blitzed Venezuela from coast to coast and maintained a developmental league for teenagers signed.

The situation in Venezuela has become so troubled, politically and economically, the Tigers along with their colleagues (Cubs, Rays, Phillies) this year pulled out of the Venezuelan Summer League a year after the Mariners left.

The Tigers compensated by adding a second team in the rookie Gulf Coast League at Lakeland, Fla. More critically, they’re hanging onto a Venezuelan scouting network, deep and expansive, in a country so logistically difficult beyond the current social carnage, few teams choose to stay there, at least intricately.

Justin Upton thrilled to see older brother in spotlight

This, they insist, is smarter than laying huge cash on international players who simply don’t look like smart investments. Two years ago, it was Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo who looked like a great buy. To some teams, anyway, headed by the Red Sox, who got him for $72.5 million.

Last month, the Red Sox designated Castillo for assignment. The Tigers had done their homework and failed to see the payoff on handing him millions.

On the flip side, they know a Venezuelan star like Salvador Perez, whom the Tigers are sorry plays for Kansas City and not Detroit, signed for $65,000. Jose Altuve, Starlin Castro, Starling Marte — all signed for relatively small money.

The preferences for the Tigers guarantee zip. It’s still a low-percentage game, signing players who eventually crash the big leagues. But the odds are better, the Tigers insist, by keeping that scouting network alive in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, signing players who make sense, whether it’s Miguel Cabrera or a kid they got for $100,000, and getting a payoff that down the road helps their roster or leads to a helpful trade.