It's July 2nd, an important day in baseball as it marks the opening of the international free agent signing period. While the Rays have been active in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, they've generally stuck to five-figure and low-six-figure bonuses, but Ben Badler of BaseballAmerica believes they're taking a different approach this year:
The Rays, Tigers, Mariners and Phillies are the only organizations left with academies in Venezuela. Tampa Bay's presence in Venezuela is obvious, as their top six international signings last year were Venezuelan players. The difference is that this year, the Rays look like they're going to be all-in on the premium prospects instead of the lower-level guys and there's a chance they may even exceed their $2.9 million bonus pool.
Check the jump for snippets on three players they're considered the favorite for...Jose Mujica, RHP, Venezuela - (Rated #3 by Badler)
Mujica, who turned 16 on June 29, has a projectable body, free-and-easy mechanics and clean arm action. He can get upright in his delivery, but he throws strikes to both sides of the plate with a fastball that has peaked at 93 mph. His fastball has late, heavy life, and he could reach the mid-90s within a few years. Mujica's best secondary pitch is his changeup, which shows good sink and could be an above-average pitch. He sells the pitch well with his arm speed and throws it to both lefties and righties. Mujica doesn't have great fluidity in his wrists, which hampers his slurvy breaking ball.
Jose Castillo, LHP, Venezuela - (Rated #6 by Badler)
Scouts liked his mechanics and loose arm, though his velocity was mostly in the mid-80s. Since then, Castillo has taken off, as scouts have noted the remarkable improvement in his conditioning and fastball as July 2 approaches. At recent workouts, Castillo sat in the low 90s with his fastball, touching 93-94 mph. He flashed a good changeup for his age, and while he's shown occasional ability to spin a breaking ball, the curveball is his third pitch for now. Reports on his control vary, though with his mechanics he should be solid in that regard.
David Rodriguez, C, Venezuela - (Rated #14 by Badler)
He makes a lot of contact, uses the whole field and drives the ball from gap to gap. There are questions about his bat speed, but his proponents think he can get his hands started early enough to have success. He probably won't be a big power hitter. His defense draws a range of opinions, but he should be able to stay at catcher.
The Rays haven't yet reaped the rewards at the major league level of their recent involvement in the international market, though Alex Colome, Wilking Rodriguez, and Albert Suarez are on the 40-man roster, and Enny Romero will likely be added in the off-season. Further down the system, Oscar Hernandez is going to generate some major hype if he continues his hot hitting at Princeton. He's off to a .342/.409/.605 start.
It's worth noting that the Rays bigger investments have mainly disappointed. Cesar Perez got $1 million and has produced a .430 GCL OPS in 95 games. They signed Yoel Araujo for $800,000 and while he showed promise in the Dominican Summer League, he hit just .221 with 76 strikeouts in 57 games last year. Cuban signees Leslie Anderson and J.J. Ruiz have fizzled. It's been the less-heralded guys who have wound up developing, so we'll see if the Rays new approach works out.
As of this post, the only move the Rays have made so far today is to re-sign catcher Erick Maria for $300,000. He originally signed for the same amount last year as Eric Otanez, but the deal was nixed after it turned out his birthdate and identity were wrong (he actually turned 18 yesterday). This bonus does not count against the Rays' $2.9 million.