Much like last month’s draft, MLB has limited the amount of money that teams can spend on players. While the details are a bit different, the amount of bonus-pool money allocated to teams uses the same system of reverse order of the previous season's regular-season winning percentages that the draft uses.
That leaves the Braves with a total of $1,897,900 to spend on international free agents, per Ben Badler of Baseball America, while a team like the Marlins, who finished with the worst record in the NL East and the second-worst record in all of baseball, has $4,622,400 to spend.
The Braves have traditionally done very well in regards to signing and developing international prospects. On their current big league squad, Julio Teheran (Colombia) and Luis Avilan (Venezuela) were international signings. Four of their top-10 prospects are from the international ranks as well: catcher Christian Bethancourt (Panama), second baseman Jose Peraza (Venezuela), RHP Mauricio Cabrera (Dominican Republic), and outfielder Victor Reyes (Venezuela).
Even with limited bonus-pool money the last few years, the Braves have done a good job of signing players who could have an impact. In 2011, they signed LHP Luis Merejo for just $65,000, and the very next year Baseball America listed Merejo as one of their Ten Breakout International Prospects To Watch.
The last time the Braves signed an international player for more than a million dollars was in 2010, when they gave then-shortstop Edward Salcedo a $1.6 million bonus—the highest bonus for an international player in club history.
While Salcedo has slowly worked his way to Triple-A Gwinnett in the Braves minor league system, he is not considered a top prospect. His defense forced a move to third base, and it may eventually force another move to the outfield. At the plate, he’s a free-swinger who doesn’t make a lot of contact, and he has never put up the eye-popping numbers that the Braves were hoping for.
It has been rumored by Badler that this year the Braves will once again give a seven-figure bonus to an international player: Venezuelan third baseman Juan Yepez. Atlanta is thought to have the inside track on Yepez since his trainer’s brother is the Braves assistant director of Latin American operations.
The scouting reports on Yepez are mixed, which can often be the case with young international talent. There are concerns that his skills at the plate haven’t translated into performance in games. There are also questions about whether he has the range to stick at third base.
Those uncertainties about Yepez sound a lot like the imperfect prospect that the Braves ended up getting in Edward Salcedo. Keep in mind, though, that international prospects are always more of an unknown commodity to both organizations and scouts.
With the Braves having such a close affiliation with the trainer of Juan Yepez, perhaps they know something that other teams do not.
Beyond Yepez, the Braves international signings will most likely include players from lesser known baseball countries. While most teams stick to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to find their talent, the Braves also mine lesser-known baseball countries like Panama, Colombia and even Nicaragua.
Atlanta also scouts the Caribbean Islands for talent, and it signed three players last year from Curacao. The Braves best-known international success—Andruw Jones—came from that small Caribbean island.
The Long Shot
The Braves last-minute spring-training signing of Ervin Santana apparently put the screws on an already tight payroll. In an interview with Mike Ferrin and former GM Jim Duquette on XM Radio’s MLB Network Channel 89 (h/t Alan Carpenter of TomahawkTake.com), Braves GM Frank Wren admitted that the Atlanta front office had to ask ownership to increase payroll in order to complete the signing.
This cash-strapped position of the big league ballclub could have the Braves pursuing a different strategy than signing a high-dollar international free agent. Instead of going big into the international market this year, they may instead seek to accomplish another item on their overall organizational wish list: trading Dan Uggla.
Teams are able to trade international signing slots, and over the past few years we’ve seen a few of these slots get included in trades. (Click here for an explanation of how these trades work from Baseball America.)
This could be a perfect opportunity for the Braves to rid themselves of the burdensome contract of Dan Uggla. The no-hitting second baseman is signed through next season, leaving approximately $20 million remaining on his deal.
Atlanta could attempt to trade a high-dollar international slot (or two) to a team that wants extra slot money to sign a prospect. In return, that team could take Dan Uggla and most of his contract off the Braves' hands, sending a minor prospect back in return.
With Major League Baseball limiting the money available for teams to use to sign international players, that money now carries additional value. Essentially, the Braves would be trading “potential players” in exchange for salary relief.
The team acquiring Dan Uggla’s contract (and also Dan Uggla) would be taking on salary that they would have spent on international talent in previous years but which is now constrained by MLB rules.
That scenario is a long shot, but with Uggla sitting on the bench taking up 10 percent of the Braves' payroll this season as well as next season, extraordinary steps may need to be taken in order to get him off the team’s books.
While the Braves may not want to sacrifice a large chunk of their limited international bonus-pool money—or the future prospects who could be signed with that money—if there is an opportunity to unburden their payroll from the Dan Uggla mistake, then they should take it.
But again, that’s a long shot, and it's pure speculation on my part. Atlanta will most likely sign a dozen or so good international players this year, several of whom we’ll probably be listing on top-prospect lists in a few years.