Henning: Tigers hoping to hit paydirt again with international signings

Detroit News

What the Tigers are hoping for is that another Willy Adames evolves from the past week’s 2023 international cast of teenagers signed almost exclusively from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

As was noted Thursday by Tom Moore, the Tigers’ longtime man in charge of international operations, Adames, the Brewers shortstop, has a higher WAR (wins above replacement) than any international player plucked from the 2012 crop.

One problem: Adames and his WAR (15.5) have benefited only the Brewers and Rays, thanks to a 2014 trade that sent a splendid shortstop to Tampa Bay in a trade for David Price.

The Tigers are dreaming that at least one, and preferably more, from this week’s harvest will someday aid a team that, typical of playoff-grade clubs, needs a heavy presence from the international baseball side.

The Tigers were allotted the highest possible bonus by MLB ($6,366,900) to win 2023 signatures from teen players who, in Detroit’s case, were with a rare exception from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Their top prizes were four players whose bonuses ranged from catcher Enrique Jimenez’s $1.25 million to shortstop Maikol Orozco’s $900,000.

The bonuses are in proportion to the Tigers’ place on most independent media outlets’ appraisal of Detroit’s haul: The Tigers had three players in the 30s among Baseball America’s top 40 prospects; they had three in MLB Pipeline’s top 50.

Compare that to the international talent pool’s universally top prospect: Ethan Salas, the Venezuelan catcher who got $5.6 million from the Padres.

It has long been known in baseball that signing adolescents is a casino game. But it also is true that plenty of those high-priced signees become, not coincidentally, real MLB stars.

“It definitely is a fair question,” Moore said Thursday when asked about the credibility of Baseball America’s and MLB Pipeline’s appraisals. “Absolutely, you’ve got to have (for media and fans’ benefit) some sort of benchmark.

“And, generally, the higher-profile players are the ones that are going to sign for higher bonuses. Certainly, we have our own order where we like players. I would say, the top 30 picks and the top 30 signing bonuses — usually, a higher percentage of players get to the big leagues. However, they may not be the best.”

This is where Moore likes to cite Adames, who 11 years ago was in the 45-50 range on the analysts’ side.

What he does know is that the Tigers very much are sold on their top four, at least as determined by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline — and the heavy bonuses conferred by Detroit:

▶ Jimenez, 17, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound catcher and switch-hitter.

▶ Cristian Perez, 16, also a center fielder and right-handed batter, who got $1.1 million.

▶ Anibal Salas, 16, a 5-10, 180-pound centerfielder and switch-hitter — and another member of the $1-million club.

▶ Orozco, 17, a shortstop who is 5-11, 175, and bats right-handed.

Moore’s take on Detroit’s most expensive signees:

▶ Jimenez: “Really good athlete. Kid’s a plus runner and a switch-hitter, and while I wouldn’t say he’s a true power hitter, that power has been coming on. We’ve seen him in a big-league-caliber stadium go yard several times.”

▶ Perez: “Physically advanced for his age. He actually grew up on a farm, so if you want to use the term ‘country-strong,’ it’s probably appropriate. Very good bat speed. Good raw power. Very athletic. Plus-runner. Premium position player.”

▶ Salas: “Plus runner, really good tool set. Miguel Garcia (Tigers director, Latin American operations) made a reference that (coming down the first-base line) he puts a little fear in you. It sounds like a runaway train coming down the track. He’ll probably end up playing a corner (right field), but he’s got a plus-arm — 100 on our radar gun — and easy, raw power. The ball jumps off his bat.”

▶ Orozco: “What we liked about him is he’s a gamer. His approach at the plate is that he likes to stick in the middle of the field. Bat speed, with power down the line.”

Another player signed this week has distinction due to size: Adrian Hoyt, from Venezuela, an outfielder who measures 5-7 and 145 pounds.

“Interesting kid,” Moore said of Hoyt. “You watch him, and if you see the body, he’s not going to make anything of himself. But teams maybe didn’t pay enough attention to Jose Altuve (Astros star who is 5-6, 166) when he signed. He’s a high-energy player (Hoyt) who’s got some surprising pop from the plate. He plays above his tool set.”

Pitchers also factored into the Tigers’ first week. Among them, a couple of intriguing right-handers (Andy Mateo and Leonardo Leon, each 6-4, 180), as well as a massive (6-6, 200) Dominican left-hander, Erickson De Los Santos.

“Leon’s been up to 95 as a 16-year-old,” Moore said. “We do have an intriguing set of arms. It’s a stronger group, I would say, than in the last year or two.”

Now, the Tigers will wait — no doubt, for years — to see if this past week’s investments and guesses pay off. They’ll be joined by 29 other MLB clubs who know the international market’s roulette wheel is in the house’s favor, always.

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

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