by John Viril—
Baseball personnel evaluators generally recognize Travis d’Arnaud as the top catching prospect in baseball. He’s a former first round draft pick. He has been named to four consecutive top 100 prospect lists by Baseball America. He was also the centerpiece for this winter’s trade that moved 2012 National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets to Toronto. Yet, it is these accolades, and the amateur draft system, that makes him less valuable than an international talent who signed for peanuts.
D’Arnaud is 15 months older than current Royals catcher Salvador Perez.
While d’Arnaud has posted outstanding minor league numbers, he has yet to face major league competition. Rany Jazayeri (among others) has written extensively about the importance of prospect age. Players who achieve at precocious ages tend to have significantly brighter major league futures. At age 21, D’Arnaud hit .259/.311/.411 at high A Dunedin (Florida League). When Salvador Perez was 21, he smashed through AA, AAA and hit .331/.363/.473 in 158 PA in MLB. Overall, Perez has compiled nearly a full major league season between 2011 and 2012, after suffering a torn meniscus in training camp last year. Perez’s career triple slash numbers are a spectacular (for a catcher) .311/.339/.471 with 14 home runs in 463 plate appearances.
Perez will not turn 23 until May 10 of this season.
Not only that, Sal Perez is locked up under team control for seven more years (4 more contract years plus 3 consecutive club options) for a total of $26 million. Even better, the money in the contract is backloaded into the option years. The four remaining contract years total $6.25 million while the remaining $19.75 million come in the three club options. Bottom line: if Perez busts in the next seven years, the Royals can decline the options and only be on the hook for no more than $6.25 million.
The Mets can also control d’Arnaud for seven more years. If d’Arnaud does not open the season on the Mets roster and they call him up with less than 172 days remaining in the season (the minimum requirement to log a full league year), they will control him through 2019. However, d’Arnaud will be eligible for arbitration after three years of major league service time. He might even qualify for “super two” status if the team calls him up before mid June, which would allow him arbitration after two full seasons. Given the rising national contracts and the trend toward large local rights deals (see the Dodgers 25 year, $6 billion local rights agreement), I very much prefer Perez’s quantified future costs rather than d’Arnaud’s open end profile. The security provided by d’Arnaud’s signing bonus gives him more leeway to risk injury in his early years in the hopes of bigger free agent paydays in the future.
These cost differences highlight the value of International signings for small market teams. Not only is Perez’s future cost profile better than d’Arnaud’s, he’s also been significantly less expensive to develop. D’Arnaud was a 1st round supplemental pick (37th overall) in 2007, and signed for $832,000. Perez signed in 2006 from Venezuela for a bonus so small that an amount wasn’t even listed on MLB Prospect Guide’s International Signing Archive.
Perez is, at the very least, as good a prospect as d’Arnaud, yet has been considerably cheaper to develop and will cost less in the next seven years. He’s also likely to deliver better performance. I would much prefer to have a young player with a positive MLB track record (even if only equal to approximately one full season) than the best prospect. Matt Wieters is a perfect example of how much-hyped prospects can fail to meet expectations even if they succeed. Wieters has developed into a good catcher with a career triple slash of .260/.328/.421—but still falls well short of his prospect hype coming out of college.
Thr value difference between d’Arnaud and Perez demonstrates the risks of instituting an International draft for MLB. While the current system is something of a “Wild West”, it does afford efficient small-market clubs the opportunity to develop low-cost prospects. Proponents claim an International draft will prevent big-market clubs like the Yankees and Dodgers from wiping out the competition with large signing bonuses. This fear fails to recognize that big and small market clubs operate under different pressures.
Developing international prospects takes even more patience than the U.S.-based amateur draft, since international prospects can sign at age 16 and have to adjust to a new culture before they can function in MLB. Patience is a very rare commodity for a big market club who has sold broadcast rights for a 10-figure contract and built a billion dollar stadium. Big-market and small-market management teams face fan bases with significantly different expectations. Hence, even when big market teams develop international prospects, they are more likely to trade them for veteran help than small market teams (see, Montero, Jesus).
Thus, an international draft is more likely to distribute international talent to big-market clubs, who have less incentive to collect international prospects, than to protect competitive balance. Yet, baseball seems to be headed in that direction. The current CBA seems designed to institute an International draft. It even established conditions required before such a draft can take place. Commissioner Bud Selig stated in February of 2012 that an international draft was “inevitable”. There are also current reports that the MLB players association is close to agreeing to such a draft which could take place June 1, 2014.
Baseball needs to think long and hard before radically changing an International system that seems to be working.