keyboard_arrow_uptop

As a franchise, the Athletics have had their share of high-profile pitching prospects. Lew Krausse Jr. signed for $125,000 two days after graduating from high school in 1961. Charlie Finley paid Catfish Hunter and Blue Moon Odom $75,000 each to sign in 1964. Texas high school star Todd Van Poppel received a record $1.2 million bonus and a major-league contract after being a first-round draft pick in 1990. More recently, left-hander Mark Mulder signed for a franchise draft record $3.2 million bonus in 1998.

The latest in the Athletics’ line of young guns is Dominican right-hander Michael Ynoa, who made his professional debut this month after signing as a 16-year-old in 2008 for $4.25 million, the largest bonus in franchise history and the largest amount ever paid to a Latin-American amateur player.

Ynoa, now 18, allowed one hit and struck out four in three innings for Oakland’s Arizona Rookie League club. For the A’s, Ynoa’s brief appearance was a welcome development, despite the fact that it was nearly two years in the making. Elbow tendinitis had kept Ynoa sidelined for the entire 2009 season. And, like most international signees, Ynoa did not make his professional debut the same year he signed his first pro contract.

The International Signing Period

Canadian players and non-residents who attend high school or college in the United States are eligible for the First-Year Player Draft. But foreign-born players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and other countries are free agents. They may sign with any of the 30 major-league clubs during the international signing period, which begins each year on July 2. To be eligible to sign a contract, a player must be 16 years old at the time of signing and turn 17 years old by either Sept. 1 or the end of his first professional season, whichever is later.

If a player signs at age 18 or younger, his club has five years to evaluate him before he must be protected on the 40-man roster. A team has four years to evaluate a player who signs at age 19 or older. That generally gives a club five years to monitor high school players and four years for college players. But, thanks to a change in baseball’s latest labor contract, there’s a catch: The clock starts once the player signs his first professional contract, not the season when he makes his pro debut. Because a player must turn 17 by season’s end to play for an affiliated minor-league club, most international players who sign at 16 cannot play until the next minor-league season. So the rule effectively reduces a club’s evaluation time for most international players from five years to four.

For Ynoa, the clock began running when he signed on July 2, 2008, the first day of the international signing period. That makes 2010 year three for Ynoa. The A’s will have his age-19 and 20 seasons (2011 and 2012) for evaluation before the club must add him to the 40-man roster or expose him to the Rule 5 draft. For a high-ceiling prospect like Ynoa, who represents a significant investment for his club, it’s not a difficult decision. Adding Ynoa to the 40-man roster will buy Oakland three additional years of evaluation—his three option years—if necessary. That would give the A’s a total of eight years to develop and evaluate Ynoa.

Off-season Exceptions

The math is different for the few international players who sign after the minor-league season has ended, however. A prominent example is highly-touted Dominican infielder Miguel Sano, considered the prize of the 2009 international class. Sano had been expected to land a lucrative contract July 2, the first day of the signing period. But several scouts questioned Sano’s age, particularly after a standard investigation by Major League Baseball concluded his age was “undetermined.” Sano’s family offered myriad evidence—including bone scans and DNA tests—to support their claim that he was, indeed, 16 years old. In late September, the Twins signed him for $3.15 million, a bonus second only to Ynoa’s and the highest amount paid to a Latin-American position player outside of Cuba.

Because the 2009 minor-league season had ended by the time Sano signed, his clock started in 2010, the same season as his pro debut. Minnesota will have five years to evaluate Sano, from 2010-14, his age-20 season. Add his three option years, and the Twins will have the chance to see Sano play eight full seasons. In December, Sano was granted a U.S. work visa, and he blasted a home run on the first pitch he saw this season as a member of the Twins' Dominican Summer League team.

 Similarly, the Braves garnered an additional year of evaluation time for shortstop Edward Salcedo. Originally signed by Cleveland in July 2007, Salcedo’s $2.3 million bonus was voided when a MLB investigation determined he had not yet turned 16. The Braves subsequently paid MLB to investigate and verify Salcedo’s birth date, signing him as an 18-year-old for $1.6 million this past February. The timing enabled Salcedo to become another rare international signee to debut the same year he signed, giving Atlanta five full seasons of evaluation time. Through 21 games with the Braves’ Dominican Summer League club, Salcedo had posted a slash line of .265/.419/.382.