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July 4, 2008

Future Shock

Michel Inoa 101

by Kevin Goldstein

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What Is His Name? Michel Inoa. The first name has a French pronunciation: mee-SHELL.

Who Is He? A 16-year-old right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He's six-foot-seven and somewhere just over 200 pounds.

What's So Good About Him That Someone Would Pay $4.25 million? Based on numerous discussions with scouts, the answer is... pretty much everything. "I only got a two-inning look, but those two innings will not be erased from my memory any time soon," said one scouting official. "Right now he's in the low 90s, with the potential for a plus breaking ball, the ability to throw strikes, and a clean arm action." At some showcase events, Inoa also threw a split-fingered fastball described as "downright dirty." Another pro scout also noted his outstanding mechanics: "He's six-foot-seven and so young, you'd think he'd have a lot of moving parts, but that's just not the case. It sounds weird, but if you can say a kid that big has a compact delivery, I would. He has a medium leg kick and a quick arm. It suddenly comes out of his hand and it's friggin' 94." Another veteran scouting director called Inoa "the model of what you are looking for if you are evaluating young arms. It's a very nice combination of project and 'now' stuff, which you just don't find down there."

So There Has To Be At Least Some Negatives Here, Right? Not really. Most of the questions come with the risk involved because of his age. Obviously, there is a long distance between Michel Inoa the Dominican wunderkind and Michel Inoa the big league pitcher. Specific criticisms of him from the experts border on nitpicking. "He needs to work on the little things, like holding runners on base," noted one scout. "But that's because nobody has reached base against him." Another international scout had some concerns about his body and arm speed. "He has a thin-boned frame, and he's not going to put on a bunch of weight," said the evaluator. "So I guess there is some question about the body type holding up. His arm is so quick, and for that body type you do wonder a bit about it being too fast for his body and putting strain on the joints." A third scout had no real concerns, which is amazing for a 16-year-old, adding, "Look, if he doesn't make it, it's because he got hurt or something else out of Oakland's control-it's certainly not going to be because he sucks."

An additional question involves his lack of experience, since Inoa has so far only pitched at highly controlled events that were arranged for scouts. "When you think of even these 18-year-old kids we draft," said one front office official, "We've seen them for years in real games, and we've seen them in showcases against the top talent in the country. With Inoa, we just haven't seen him in a true competitive environment."

How Historic Is His Talent? In numerous discussions with scouts and front office officials, Inoa is almost universally seen as the best pitching prospect to come out of the Dominican. If you spread the argument out to include all of Latin America, some say that Felix Hernandez was better at the same age. One official with decades of experience said, "I've been doing this a very long time-[Josh] Beckett was better at 16 because he threw harder and had that monster curve; [Rick] Porcello was better at 16 for the same reasons; as was Felix. Every other 16-year-old I've seen-this guy (Inoa) is better than them." Another echoed similar sentiments. "I've been going to high school showcases like the Area Code games for years," he said. "And I've never seen anything like this."

But $4.25 Million? That's Kind Of Crazy, Right? Yes and no. Welcome to the new economy when it comes to international talent. "I mean, it's crazy for down there, but we knew the money would be crazy this year," said one scout. "Clubs are throwing around lots of money down there now-and paying three-to-five hundred thousand for frankly some pretty mediocre talent." With the big inflation taking place, record-breaking money for Inoa seemed almost inevitable. "I knew the second I saw him that he'd get a shit-ton of money," continued the scout.

In the bigger scheme of things, is $4.25 million really that much, even with market inflation and the money nearly doubling the previous record bonus for a non-Cuban Latin American signee? One scout put it into better perspective. "That's what? A top-three pick in the draft? I'd have no problem giving him that kind of money. After seeing him, he's worth what Oakland is paying in my mind." A second scouting official agreed. "It might be insane to give anyone that kind of money, but I certainly understand it, and in some ways it makes sense," he said. "Because if you hit on him, he's going to be worth tens of millions for the six years you have him under control. It's a lot of money, and it might whiff, because we all know how pitching prospects are, but $4.25 million is not going to put any organization under, and $4.25 million for this guy shouldn't cost anyone their job."

That said, not all see the signing as a sound decision. "It's just too crazy for me," said another front office official. "I think there is a difference between a kid at 16 who we've barely seen, and a kid at 18 who we've seen a lot of. There's so much that can go wrong-he certainly has the talent-but the rest is a huge crapshoot."

Another factor leading to more money being spent in Latin America of late is that there is no slotting system in place, nor does Major League Baseball seem to have any real interest in the bonuses being doled out. "Don't underrate that at all," said one team official. "You can call this all a market correction or adjustment or whatever you want, but at the same time, you don't have to deal with all the BS from MLB with these kids. You don't get a call saying you can't sign him, you don't have them calling your owner and telling him that what you are doing is breaking the system-you just write the check and sign the kid."

So How Fast Can He Get To The Big Leagues? With the unavoidable comparisons to Felix Hernandez, the "king" of Latin American pitching prospects, the question comes up often. Could he be the kind of player who reaches the big leagues as a teenager? Here, the opinions vary wildly. "I'm not sure, but he's certainly not going to waste a lot of time in the Dominican Leagues," said one scout. "He could get Low-A hitters out right now. One thing that really stood out for me is that he has a plan to attack hitters. Down there all he needs is 92-94, but he has a plan, and that factors into it and shows surprising maturity." Another scout was even more optimistic. "In the big leagues by 19? I'd say yes, it could happen, but that adjustment period is hard to predict," said a scouting official. "Inoa's a different animal, but look at a guy like Jeremy Bonderman. One year he's at Pasco High School in southeast Washington, the next year he's doing well in the California League and then he's in the majors." Not everyone agree that he'd move that quickly, nor should he necessarily. "Someone said he could get Low-A hitters out?" asked a team official. "I agree with that-he's going to chew up the Midwest League. He's going to throw strike one and he'll demolish kids with just that fastball. But at Hi-A and Double-A there will need to be some adjustment. The secondary stuff, the feel, the pitchability, those all have to come and it might take a bit."

Where Does He Rank As A Prospect In The Oakland System? This could be an article in itself, where one talks about ranking philosophy, but for me, he's their No. 1. The two strongest competitors for the title would be Double-A pitchers Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, and while both are very good prospects, neither comes close to Inoa's ceiling. It's too early to think about Top 100 rankings, but it's easy to see him in the upper third come January.

Coming Soon: More on Inoa, including the A's take on what to do with him now that he's in the fold.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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