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MLB Rebuilding in 2021: Totally luck out, and just find

Fernando Tatis Jr. was the key to the Padres’ turnaround.

Fernando Tatis Jr. was the key to the Padres’ turnaround.Image: Getty Images

Where would the Braves be without Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr.? Where would the Padres be without Fernando Tatís Jr.? What about the Astros with Carlos Correa, José Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and Yordan Álvarez?

Obviously, the Braves and Astros are competing in the World Series this year, and while the Padres did not even reach a .500 record in 2021, Tatís’ bat was one of the lone bright spots in San Diego. All three of these teams were in rebuilding phases before grabbing these cornerstone players, but are set to compete for years down the line (the Padres may not have done well this season, but they’re in a win-now situation).

The Braves had suffered four straight losing seasons before adding Acuña to the Major League club and before Albies became an everyday player. The Padres hadn’t had a winning season since 2010 before Tatís was listed on his team’s opening day roster, and the Astros were one of the laughingstocks of baseball for about a half-decade before Correa, Gurriel, and Marwin González turned the franchise around.

These teams’ rebuilds all hinged on acquiring franchise-defining players from overseas. I haven’t even gotten into players like Juan Soto, Vladimir Guererro Jr., or Shohei Ohtani yet, but already you can see the impact that a handful of international players have had on their respective franchises. Every year, it seems more and more like the best way to dig a team out of a rut is to hit the lottery on an international young superstar.

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I’m not saying that every team will automatically become World Series contenders when they sign a great international player. Look no further than the Angels. They signed this year’s (probable) American League MVP and still weren’t contenders. However, the addition of Ohtani has undoubtedly had an enormous impact on the Angels’ franchise as a whole and, at the very least, Sho’s presence in Orange County has led to more marketability for the Halos and, in turn, more money.

Money helps when you’re attempting to rebuild a franchise.

So: Why don’t more teams just pour more money into the international signing pool? For one, they can’t. The 2017-21 MLB collective bargaining agreement gave each team a spending limit on international free agents of around $4.75 million with room to grow to over $10 million via certain trades and competitive balance draft picks. To be fair, the limit could be increased or absolved entirely as the new CBA has yet to be agreed upon, but international spending doesn’t seem to be one of the focal points for either side, so it’s unlikely the limit changes.

Secondly, the array of available talent overseas is wildly variable. While some international players’ success is more predictable — like that of Ohtani and Seiya Suzuki, 2022’s biggest international free agent, who both had professional experience in a well-respected league — most of the young talent attempting to bust their way into Major League Baseball from overseas have not seen enough high-level action to warrant confidence in their ability to transition to professional players in the MLB system.

Take the 2015 MLB draft class compared to the international players signed that year. The notable international players consist of Soto, Guerrero, and Tatís. Those are three franchise-defining players among many others who either never made the Majors, have not yet made the Majors, or have failed to make any serious impact on their teams. Compare that with the 2015 MLB draft class, which is much more consistent in that regard — producing players like Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Mike Soroka, Austin Riley, Walker Buehler, and Andrew Benintendi — and it’s clear the impact of the international draft class has been felt more over the last seven years despite producing less talented players overall. I mean, Soto, Guerrero, and Tatís are about to finish top-three in their leagues’ MVP races. Yes, I know the Padres were not the team that originally signed Tatís, but the point remains. He was a generational talent acquired before his MLB debut and would’ve been a generational talent had he remained with the White Sox.

Obviously, acquiring franchise-altering international talent is difficult, and it only happens once or twice, if at all, during a GM’s tenure — but not only is the upside there in terms of talent, the cost is incredible. Look at the signing costs for the international players compared to the 2015 draft. Of the drafted players, you’d have to go all the way down to pick number 57 to find a player whose signing bonus was less than $1 million (Jeff Degano, LHP, NYY). The top 11 picks were all given bonuses of over $3 million. Of the top 30 international players signed that same year, four were signed for less than $1 million, and only five were signed for greater than $3 million. Soto and Tatís were signed for a combined $2.2 million, less than each of the first 18 picks’ bonus values of the 2015 MLB draft. That’s value.

While the level of talent may be harder to determine for international players, the talent available is undeniable. For a team that has nothing to lose and not much money to spend, like the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, or Pittsburgh Pirates, it might make more sense to invest heavily into acquiring international players rather than dumping money into their draft picks and free agents.

But those teams need to draft and sign some playerswith their draft picks, no? They do, but if those lower-market teams can manage to sign their picks with lower slot value bonuses, which a lot of teams already do (17 of the first 30 picks of the 2021 MLB Draft signed with bonuses under slot value) but the poorer teams would have to go further, or perhaps trade the rights to some of their mid-round draft picks and other players already in their minor league systems in exchange for more international money. The more slot money is taken away from high-market teams, the more likely it will be that a low-market team finds one of those uber-talented overseas players. Essentially, just reallocating some of the team funds specifically toward signing more international players gives that team a better chance at finding someone who can change a franchise. After all, the more scratch-off lottery tickets you have, the better your chances of winning, and it’s not like those teams were winning the lottery with what they already had.

Soto and Tatís were signed for a combined $2.2 million, less than each of the first 18 picks’ bonus values of the 2015 MLB draft.

Yes, you won’t hit the jackpot every year, and some of the international talent you acquire won’t end up working out, but we’ve seen what young international stars can do and the prices they can do it for. Whether or not the prices they play for is exploitative is an entirely different conversation we can have another time.

The best position players on both teams participating in this World Series were signed internationally (even if Acuña isn’t participating in the World Series himself). Neither team was a powerhouse or a big market when they signed those players. Now, one team (Houston) has been near the top of the baseball world for a few years, while the other (Atlanta) has young superstars across the board who are capable of carrying the team for years to come. 



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