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Missing out on a rising star changed Yankees’ international free agency strategy

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Since Wander Franco passed by, the Yankees have changed their strategy for signing international free agents.

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

With much of the news surrounding Major League Baseball on hold due to the lockout, fans can still look forward to the opening of the international free agency period on January 15, 2022. The Yankees are expected to spend most of their bonus pool on one player in Roderick Arias, who MLB.com ranks as the top overall prospect in this year’s class. In recent years, the Yankees have shifted from a strategy that involved casting a wide net during the international signing period to targeting their top prospect with an overwhelming amount of their bonus space. The change in tactics may be traced directly back to the Yankees missing out on a rising star in the sport who the team will now have to face for years to come.

Heading into the 2017 international free agency period, teams around baseball faced a level of uncertainty. In previous years, clubs could use unlimited resources to sign their desired players on the international market — if they were willing to accept a tax and two years of restrictions once they passed a certain level. After the Yankees sought to boost their farm system in 2014 by signing seven of the top players available, several other teams caught on and followed suit in the coming years. During the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations in 2016, the system was changed, creating a bonus pool system with a set amount, and a maximum amount that a team could subsequently add to via trade.

In the background of these negotiations, teams were identifying talented players and starting the offer process for the players who would be eligible to sign for the first time on July 2, 2017. It was the Yankees’ first year out of the “penalty box” following their 2014 spending spree and early on, they targeted the top player in the class: Wander Franco.

The team’s director of international scouting, Donny Rowand, had previously signed Franco’s uncle, Erick Aybar, when he worked for the Angels organization. He maintained a good relationship and reputation with the family, giving the Yankees an open door to negotiate a deal. Numerous sources confirmed to the authors of Future Value: The Battle for Baseball’s Soul and How Teams Will Find the Next Superstar that the Yankees were willing to push his bonus to at least $6 million under the rules that existed at that stage in the negotiations.

The new CBA put the Yankees in a tough spot, where they had to make a choice. They were bidding against the Tampa Bay Rays for Franco’s services and Tampa had started with $1 million more in bonus pool space. The Yankees also had tentative agreements with five other players listed among MLB.com’s top 30 international free agents for that year. In the first year of the new system, executives around the sport did not have a good feel for how the trade market for more bonus pool space would shape up. The Yankees chose to pull out of the bidding on Franco and cast a wide net on the prospect field.

In the end, the Yankees landed Everson Pereira, Raimfer Salinas, Antonio Cabello, Ronny Rojas, and Roberto Chirinos, who all ranked among the top 15 of MLB.com’s international free agent rankings heading into July 2, 2017. Another well regarded player, Anthony Garcia, signed for around $500,000 as well, rounding out an impressive signing class based on the evaluations available at the time.

The nature of the international market is that the Yankees were already lining up their next year’s signing class as the 2017 class put pen to paper to finalize their deals. The Yankees again chose to structure their deals to bring in as many talented prospects as possibly, including Alexander Vargas, Kevin Alcantara, and Antonio Gomez.

As the Yankees were preparing to officially sign the 2018 class though, Wander Franco was being pushed to the Rookie-advanced Appalachian League and thriving in a way that 17-year-olds are not supposed to do. He promptly posted a 1.004 OPS with only 19 strikeouts in 273 plate appearances, in what started his rapid ascent through the minor leagues and to the major leagues. He was so impressive in his first 70 games of big league action that the Rays reset the market for early-career extensions.

Four of the prospects signed in these classes are ranked inside of the Yankees system and Alcantara was a valuable trade chip over the summer. Pereira is coming off a strong season where he showed tremendous all-around improvement while rising to the High-A level.

The Yankees can still find tremendous benefits from their 2017 and 2018 signing classes, but those players will have to take a major step forward to match the projections of Franco, who the Yankees will see frequently in the AL East over the next decade. In addition to Franco’s success, the top international signees from the 2018 class, Diego Cartaya and Marco Luciano, are now the top-rated prospects in the Dodgers and Giants minor league systems respectively. The players signing at the top of the international signing classes have proved to be extremely valuable.

Heading into 2019, the Yankees altered their strategy from one of casting a wide net to instead targeting the top prospects available — even if it takes most of their bonus pool. It seemed logical that the Yankees would go all-in for Jasson Dominguez, as he was far and away considered the top prospect in his class, if not the last half-decade. The Yankees paid almost their entire starting bonus pool to Dominguez and are now preparing to do it again when the next international free agency period opens up.

On January 15th, the Yankees are expected to spend over $4 million to sign MLB.com’s top rated international prospect, shortstop Roderick Arias. The now-17-year-old has the potential to hit for both contact and power from both sides of the plate while retaining the athleticism to play a high-level shortstop for years to come. He will likely be one of the Yankees’ top 10 prospects from the moment he signs with the team. They are not linked to any other players in the top 30 and with the ability to trade for more international money suspended since the start of the COVID pandemic, they will be very limited on the types of players that they can pursue beyond Arias.

News has already started to leak about the 2023 international signing period and the Yankees appear to be going all-in once again, if the rules do not change with the on-going CBA negotiations. The Yankees are already linked to Cuban center fielder Brandon Mayea for the 2023 international signing period, with predictions that he will command a nearly $5 million bonus. The 16-year-old is a mix of contact and impact on the ball that stands out above his peers, and the Yankees are willing to sacrifice depth for his immense potential.

The Yankees’ international free agent philosophy has changed in recent years from one that emphasized depth to a strategy that now appears destined to have the team go all-in three times in four years. This strategy seems to have directly changed from the time that Wander Franco first stepped into a professional batter’s box and began to thrive. The Yankees now look to add the type of impact prospects who can become the cornerstones of a franchise for years to come.