Phillies exercise fiscal restraint in signing international prospects

Sebastian Valle , 20, a nativeof Mexico, is considered the Phils' best catching prospect.
Sebastian Valle , 20, a nativeof Mexico, is considered the Phils' best catching prospect. (DAVID SCHOFIELD / BlueClaws)
Posted: July 10, 2011

The international signing period is a week old now and the Phillies have stuck to their modus operandi.

While teams like the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals have forked over seven-figure bonuses for 16-year-old players from Latin America, the Phillies have remained quiet.

Sal Agostinelli, the team's international scouting supervisor, has his eye on one international prospect in particular, but he did not want to reveal the name for fear another team would enter the bidding.

In recent years, the Phillies have ranked among the bottom third when it comes to signing bonuses for international players. According to Baseball America, they spent $1.49 million on international players a year ago, which ranked 21st among 30 teams.

"Our philosophy is the same whether it's international or domestic," Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever said. "We're looking for guys with a lot of tools and a high ceiling. We certainly have a budget we have to stay within, but all in all I think we've done a pretty good job."

The Phillies' fiscal restraint in the international market has not stopped Agostinelli and his scouting team from finding some real gems. The team has two homegrown international players on its roster and both of them have been vital to this season's success.

Panamanian catcher Carlos Ruiz, of course, has been the Phillies' starting catcher during most of the team's run to four straight division titles, two National League pennants, and a World Series title. He signed for $8,000 in 1998.

The other Latin American player to emerge at the big-league level this season is lefthander Antonio Bastardo of the Dominican Republic, whose 0.87 ERA is the lowest among any big-league reliever with at least 30 innings pitched. He signed for $10,000 in 2005.

Those two were obviously bargains. For the players perceived to have the highest ceilings, the Phillies typically spend $300,000 to $400,000.

The team was set to invest six-figure bonuses in two Venezuelan shortstops - Francisco Silva and Anderson Gonzalez - last year around this time. Later, however, the Phillies learned that both players were older than the team initially thought. That's one of the risks of doing business in Latin America.

"They wound up being three years older," Agostinelli said.

Silva and Gonzalez ended up signing with the Phillies for $10,000 and $20,000, respectively, and Agostinelli used his leftover budget to sign Franklyn Vargas, a 16-year-old lefthanded pitcher from Venezuela.

Agostinelli said Major League Baseball is trying to eliminate the age-altering practices that occur in Latin America by doing background checks on the top players before the July 2 signing period begins. He said the player he is pursuing most ardently this summer has already been subjected to such a check.

Despite having an international budget below that of many other organizations, Agostinelli believes he has enough money to make an impact every year as long as the Phillies stick to their scouting philosophy.

"You really have to do your homework," he said. "If I have learned anything during my 14 years of doing this, it's that you need to sit down and watch these players play. You can't watch a guy one time.

"Sebastian Valle is a perfect example. He doesn't have a great arm and his swing is a little long, but when you sit and watch him play for five or six days, you realize he's the best hitter on his team."

Valle, a 20-year-old Mexican playing at single-A Clearwater, is considered the best catching prospect in the organization. He is hitting .324 with 19 extra-base hits and 28 RBIs. He signed for $30,000 in 2006.

"I think what you try to get every year is one solid guy who can be a prospect and one guy you can use in trades," Agostinelli said.

The Phillies have 13 homegrown international players playing at short-season Williamsport or above who can be considered legitimate big-league prospects. They spent a little more than $1.1 million in signing bonuses for those players.

By contrast, the Rangers have spent $8.5 million on two players - Dominican outfielders Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman - since the start of this year's signing period.

The Phillies have used Latin prospects such as pitcher Carlos Carrasco, shortstop Jonathan Villar, and others to bring aboard major-league talents such as Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline.

It's possible that the next collective bargaining agreement, which, barring a work stoppage, will be in place after this season, could alter the landscape of international scouting by instituting an international draft.

"There has been talk for years about that, but there is more of a push now than ever," Wolever said. "We won't change how we approach it. We always identify who the best players are and then decide whether we want to bid for them or not. It's important to be prepared."


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com

or @brookob on Twitter.

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