Top players, bonus pools, what else to know as Padres land No. 1 prospect

Sunday marks the open of the 2023 international signing period, one of two ways MLB teams can acquire amateur talent each year. The draft you see every summer covers players born in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. All others fall into international free agency.

Roughly 30 percent of current MLB players were originally signed as international free agents, including stars like Ronald Acuña Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, and Julio Urías. Perennial contenders like the Dodgers and Yankees, teams that usually pick late in the draft, use international free agency to add high-end prospects to their farm system.

Future All-Stars will be signed when international free agency opens Sunday. Maybe even a future Cy Young winner or MVP. Heck, someone who signs Sunday could one day find himself in Coopertown. Here’s everything you need to know going into the open of the 2023 international signing period.

Current format

International free agency remains free agency because MLB and the MLB Players Association were unable to agreed to an international draft last year. MLB has pushed for an international draft for years (decades, really), but the union has resisted because it would strip players of the freedom to pick their team, not to mention limit their earning potential. The league offered to eliminate the qualifying offer system in exchange for an international draft, but the MLBPA said no. International free agency remains through at least 2026, when the collective bargaining agreement expires.

The international signing period used to run from July 2 to June 25 each year, but the start of the 2020-21 signing period was pushed back to Jan. 15 because of the pandemic, and that change is now permanent under the current agreement. The signing period is now neatly confined to a single calendar year and runs from Jan. 15 to Dec. 15. To be eligible to sign, players must be at least 16 years old and turn 17 by Sept. 1 of the following year. This year’s newly eligible players were born between Sept. 1, 2005, and Aug. 31, 2006.

Bonus pools

International bonus pools, the money teams can spend on players, are tied to revenue and market size, with small-market teams getting the biggest bonus pools and large market teams getting the smallest. There are bonus pool penalties for signing major-league free agents who have a qualifying offer attached, and teams can once again trade for an additional 60 percent of their original bonus pool this year. Bonus pool trades were put on hold the last few years, during the pandemic.

Here are the bonus pools for the 2023 international signing period, according to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez:

Because they paid competitive balance tax in 2021, the Dodgers forfeited $1 million in bonus pool money to sign Freddie Freeman. The Angels (Noah Syndergaard), Phillies (Nick Castellanos), Red Sox (Trevor Story), and Rangers (Corey Seager, Marcus Semien) each forfeited $500,000 to sign free agents with qualifying offers as non-CBT payers (Texas forfeited $500,000 each for Seager and Semien).

International players under 25 can sign minor-league contracts only. Teams can not entice players by offering to put them on the 40-man roster. When he first came over to MLB, Shohei Ohtani had to sign a minor-league deal with the Angels because he was only 23. Munetaka Murakami, the record-setting slugger of the Yakult Swallows in Japan, won’t be posted until after 2025, when he will be 25 and no longer subject to the international bonus pools. He’ll be able to sign a contract of any size at that time.

Top prospects

The consensus top prospect in this year’s international class is Venezuelan catcher Ethan Salas. As is often the case with top international prospects, Salas has been on the scouting radar for quite some time even though he is only 16. He has signed with the Padres for $5.6 million, per MLB.com. Here is a snippet of Salas’ MLB.com scouting report:

The athletic Salas has a good feel for the strike zone and shows the ability to hit the ball to all fields. He shows good raw power, and it is expected to increase as he develops. He has a nice loose swing and shows the ability to hit home runs in batting practice and games. On defense, he shows plus potential because of his soft hands, blocking ability and receiving skills. He shows good throwing mechanics and a strong arm. He is already exhibiting leadership skills and runs well for a catcher.

Salas has baseball bloodlines. His older brother, Jose Salas, is a highly regarded infield prospect with the Marlins. Baseball America recently ranked the elder Salas the No. 4 prospect in Miami’s system and said his “offensive skills will make him a valuable player.” The younger Salas has all the tools to be an impact player at the game’s most demanding position.

Accurate information on international players can be hard to find, but bonus size is generally a good proxy for prospect status. The larger the bonus, the more teams believe in the player. That said, bonuses of $10,000 or less do not count against the bonus pool, but that doesn’t mean the players getting those checks shouldn’t get some attention too. The Astros originally signed Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez to $10,000 bonuses in 2015.

Here are a few of the other top prospects for the 2023 international signing period, listed alphabetically:

Dominican SS Felnin Celesten: Celesten, 17, has arguably the best tools seen in international free agency since Wander Franco. He’s a switch-hitter with contact ability, power, and strong defensive chops. MLB.com adds he “plays with flair and is dedicated to improving.” The Mariners are expected to sign Celesten.

Cuban OF Brandon Mayea: According to MLB.com, one evaluator dubbed 17-year-old Mayea “mini Gary Sheffield” for his explosive bat speed. Mayea also has a good approach at the plate and mans center field now, though he is likely to settle into a corner down the road. He is rumored to have a deal in place with the Yankees.

Cuban RHP Luis Morales: “(One) of the most interesting and dynamic prospects in the class,” according to MLB.com, Morales already sits in the mid-90s and shows promising secondary pitches, including both a curveball and slider. The 20-year-old is regarded as a future front-of-the-rotation starter. Morales has been most closely connected to the Athletics.

Korean RHP Jun-Seok Shim: Shim, 18, was expected to be the No. 1 pick in the Korea Baseball Organization’s amateur draft a few weeks back, but he withdraw his name to pursue opportunities with MLB teams. He has touched 100 mph, has a wide array of secondary pitches, and has been praised for his poise and makeup, per MLB.com. Korean baseball reporter Daniel Kim says Shim is on the verge of signing with the Pirates.

Dominican SS Joendry Vargas: One of the better pure hitters in the international class, 17-year-old Vargas has advanced strike zone knowledge and a rare sweet right-handed swing. “Overall, there is lots of offensive upside, which is particularly valuable at such a premium position,” writes MLB.com. Vargas is expected to sign with the Dodgers.

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