Henning: Tigers get international help, but aren’t beating a bad system

Detroit News

Not until an international draft arrives does anything dramatic figure to change for the Tigers and their forays into Latin America and beyond.

It looks as if they’ve done OK, maybe better, as Sunday’s first day of international signings for 2023 arrived. They have three players among Baseball America’s top 40 list of international talent who are viewed as Tigers pledges as soon as contract ink is dry (some below are final). They have three of MLB.com’s top 50.

All will have reached this year the legal age (16) to sign MLB deals. Three are from Venezuela:

▶ Enrique Jimenez, a catcher, turned 17 in November and is No. 32 on both BA’s and MLB.com’s list. He is a switch-hitter, 5-10, 160. Baseball America’s international expert, Ben Badler, raves about Jimenez, as does MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez. Both agree Jimenez’s overall catching skills and a both-sides bat, which as expected should gain muscle down the road, makes him potentially the Tigers’ top prize.

▶ Anibal Salas, a 5-10, 190-pound center fielder, is No. 39 in BA’s top 40 but did not make the MLB.com top-50 cut. He bats right-handed, and in Badler’s estimation projects to have speed and power.

▶ Maikol Orozco, a 5-10, 170-pound shortstop, bats right-handed and is 44th in MLB’s view (BA said no to a top-40 spot). Sanchez says Orozco’s has one overriding plus that will play at either shortstop or second base: Orozco can hit.

The non-Venezuelan is Cristian Perez, a 5-11, 190 center-fielder from the Dominican Republic. He also bats right-handed and finished 38th in BA’s talent parade and 48th in the opinion of Sanchez and MLB.com.

The top international talent, in both publications’ view, is Ethan Salas, a catcher and left-handed slugger, 6-2, 190. He is a Venezuelan who has every athletic blessing that can be measured at age 16 and that more than hints at future superstardom.

The big winners in both outlets’ evaluation — for what it’s worth at this early stage, even as the writers would agree — are teams that snare those top 10 talents.

This year it’s the usual crowd at the top: Padres, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Mariners, Blue Jays, Rays, Rangers, Phillies, Rays, and Braves, with even the Reds (Alfredo Duno, Venezuelan catcher) getting a No. 7 prize, at least in BA’s assessment.

The Tigers again are down the list with those likely signees in the 30s and 40s.

Does it mean the Tigers are stuck with inferior talent?

Of course not. Not when you’re sizing up teens. Not when the top 40 and 50 lineups are assessed years from now and will have their usual number of flame-outs as well as players who were ranked deep who rose to higher status, and vice versa.

But it’s a bit of a constant, even as the Tigers this year had allocated bonus money ($6,366,900) equal to eight teams which together had the juiciest international budgets dispensed by MLB.

Why do the Tigers not fare as well as some of those clubs listed above? Not only at signing time, but at the process’ end — on big-league fields? Why, when this year’s top names include players from Cuba, the Bahamas, and South Korea, are the Tigers almost always selecting at the top from two countries: Venezuela and the D.R.?

This was explored in a four-part Detroit News series last May. It’s not that Detroit comes up empty in its international forays. There have been breakthroughs there in recent years:

Avisail Garcia, a solid hitter and outfielder who later was dealt. Willy Adames, a fine shortstop who became primary trade bait in a deal that brought David Price to the Tigers, was a Tigers product, as was homer-hitting Eugenio Suarez, who was at the heart of Dave Dombrowski’s most regrettable Detroit deal when he sent Suarez to the Reds for a weary pitcher named Alfredo Simon.

The Tigers also have some potentially handy international talent incubating in the minors: Wenceel Perez, Cristian Santana, Roberto Campos, Abel Bastidas, Reylin Perez, Javier Osorio, and others.

But, again: Check those MLB rosters. Notice the international horsepower on those above clubs’ rosters — the Astros are in that higher stratosphere, also — and compare it with the Tigers’ history, from any era.

The Tigers are bottom-tier in bringing to the United States significant help beyond the U.S. border, just as they’ve been challenged on the domestic side.

This is what new Tigers front-office boss Scott Harris needs to figure out.

Then, again, it might get figured out for him.

MLB and the MLB Players Association were at least within shouting distance last year of finally bringing a game to its sense with an international draft. It would avoid these independent feedings on fuzzy-cheeked talent, which invite all sorts of mischief and sliminess.

The international draft got shot down because the MLBA, probably rightly, figures it will weaken some of its youngsters’ heavier bonuses. The bidding in an international program will be slotted and controlled, as it is with the domestic draft.

But it’s coming, the international shopping center, because sanity soon will prevail and probably with the next owners-players contract in 2027.

The Tigers would have loved an international draft during these long and endless rebuilding years.

With these 90- and 100-loss seasons, they’d have been in line for the best in teen talent from around the world.

Instead, the rich — those above MLB clubs — have tended to get fatter while the folks in steerage have been left to scrounge for whatever deals they could arrange.

The problem? The real problem with the current system? The reason the international draft must happen?

It’s a virtually lawless, sordid world, the underground that doubles as a baseball environment while it plays out with these teens. Consider the fact these youngsters must be all of 16 to sign.

That means MLB teams scout these kids as they hit adolescence. They typically have deals in place years before they reach 16, which speaks to the repugnancy of a sphere that supposedly is governed but in fact is baseball’s equivalent of the Wild West.

Harris knows how it works. That, no doubt, is why he has left in place his current group. He knows a good deal of recruiting already has gone on and continues. He must be sensitive to relationships until an international draft makes dealings infinitely more wholesome, and thoroughly more equitable, for all MLB teams, including the Tigers.

It’s not good. It will remain something you want to close your eyes to, through the entire remainder of this decade, considering that the international sweepstakes will take a couple of years to deploy even after it’s bound within a new CBA.

The Tigers are trying to cope with it. How successfully they withstand these next years will always be intriguing for the simple fact you can’t, with great accuracy, ever confidently project big-league players, especially when they’re too young to shave.

For now, for today, they likely have added a nice roster piece or two.

That is, if you can wait six or so years to better appreciate that estimating whether a kid’s got the stuff to play big-league ball is one merciless endeavor.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sport reporter.

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