| Special to The Detroit News
College football teams are invariably bubbly about their recruiting hauls on Signing Day, a festiveness the Tigers could appreciate as they joined what appeared to be 29 other MLB teams in cheering their initial haul of international baseball talent.
The Tigers’ biggest celebrity teen secured Friday, the first date international players could sign for the 2020-21 period, was 17-year-old Cristian Santana, a right-handed hitting shortstop from the Dominican Republic, who reportedly got $2.95 million — $100,000 more than the Tigers paid their previous highest-priced international teen, Roberto Campos, in 2019.
“We’ve been scouting Santana for well over 2½ years,” said Tom Moore, who heads the Tigers’ international scouting. “He’s always shown an ability to hit. He has an advanced approach at the plate for his age. We’re really excited about him.”
Santana is 6-foot, 175 pounds, with the defense that Moore believes will match Santana’s bat in making him a long-term plus at shortstop.
The Tigers added two more teen shortstops Friday, including Venezuelan prodigy Abel Bastidas, who is believed to have gotten $1 million-plus. Any teenage player getting seven figures in the Latin American market is considered to be a trophy prospect. Seven-figure status is all the more prestigious when teams are limited by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office in what they can spend each year on international prospects.
The Tigers also signed two outfielders, and two right-handed pitchers, as they assembled the first-day stash of talent that might or might not beat the always-long odds baseball prospects face.
The Tigers were at least carrying a full wad of cash Friday. They had an allotment of $6,431,000, the most money MLB was allocating to a select group of five teams that qualify for maximum budgets, due to market size and restraints, revenues, and win-loss percentages.
Santana and Bastidas chewed up some $4 million of that $6.4 million Tigers allowance.
But their international status, even as teenagers, put them at a high-dollar elevation.
According to salary figures computed by MLB Pipeline, Santana got the sixth-heaviest payout of any 2020-21 international signee. He is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the 14th-best talent among this year’s crop.
Bastidas got the 27th-best payday for 2020-21, while he is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the 32nd-best player.
Bastidas, who like Santana turned 17 in November, is a switch-hitter, who measures 6-2 and 165 pounds.
“He’s been on our radar for a while,” Moore said of a Venezuelan native who in Moore’s view has a plus arm. “He’s a lanky-built kid who’s grown a lot in the last year and a half.
“He has a real easy swing — the ball jumps off his bat. And we’ve seen the power come along. He has a great arm, and know when to use his arm. And when he does, he’s an advanced defensive player.”
Among other players signed Friday:
►Rainer Castillo, 16, 6-3, 180, right-handed starter: “A tall, strong-built kid, and his arm really works good,” Moore said of another Dominican Republic prodigy. “We project him having a real good fastball in the future. He has a feel for the breaking ball. In the Perfect Game showcase, we saw him strike out some really good hitters with that curveball. He has three weapons, with pitchability. He has a chance to be a strong starting pitcher.”
►Carlos Pelegrin, 20, 6-2, 180, outfielder: “He’s a Cuban player who defected a year-and-a-half ago,” Moore said. “He’s a little more advanced than the rest of the kids. Real athletic body, quick (right-handed) bat. Power hasn’t been much of his game (to date), but he has raw power. He can really launch a ball. He has an above-average arm, with the ability to play center field. And enough arm to play right field, as well.”
►Jensy De Leon, 16, 6-foot, 175, shortstop: “Sleeper ability,” Moore said of another Dominican teen signed Friday. “He might have a chance to open some eyes. Really good bat speed. Some crudeness, but the bat’s there. He launches balls all over the place. Good balance at the plate. We feel like he has a chance to hit.”
►Joel Baez, 18, 6-4, 185, right-handed pitcher: “Tall frame, real good arm,” Moore said. “Fastball. Slider. Real good mix. Some high-end value as a bullpen guy.” Baez, likewise, is from the Dominican Republic and is related to former big-league pitcher Luis Marte, who now is a Tigers pitching coach in the Dominican Summer League.
►Elian Riera, 16, 5-10, 150, outfielder: “Real good defense, with arm strength,” Moore said. “Line-drive contact type of bat. We project him to have gap power.”
The Tigers, along with their MLB colleagues, will be signing players throughout 2021, even until the Dec. 15 deadline, all because of a significant calendar change imposed by COVID-19. International signings normally begin an official signing period on July 2. But the pandemic pushed back the customary timeline six months, which made Friday, rather than last July, the first day international talent could formally be added.
The Tigers have been on the shy side in moving international talent to the big leagues, in part because of trades that cost them two prime-time infielders: Willy Adames of the Rays, and Eugenio Suarez of the Reds.
Bigger budgets, which are a consolation prize for teams that have been spending more time on the rocks than in the playoffs, might have helped turn around a trend that contributed to the Tigers’ long-term slide.
“The last three or four classes have really been strong compared with what the rest of the league has been signing,” Moore said. “This group (the Tigers crop that began arriving Friday) is deep.
“We’re really excited. And we’re going to continue to add to it.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter