Baseball evolved Wednesday. The little guys, the teams that for so many years cried poor, won by spending money. And the recipients of that largess, 16-year-old boys from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, ones who grew up in the third world, are the forbearers for a striking change in the sport.
In recent years, the best players in Latin America have gravitated toward the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, the teams that could afford to flash Costanza wallets loaded with cash. Baseball's continued economic boom, amazing amid the country's downturn, has infused so much money into the game that no longer is pricey amateur talent simply the domain of the big boys.
The Oakland A's – low-revenue Oakland, immortalized in the book "Moneyball," about winning with a scrimp-and-save payroll – signed a 16-year-old named Michel Inoa on Wednesday. Along with his $4.25 million bonus, Inoa got an Anglicized name, Michael, and a ticket to the Dominican Summer League, where he can add weight to his lithe 6-foot-7 frame, throw his 94-mph fastball, unleash his polished breaking ball and work on his changeup.
"Most 16-year-olds are in 10th grade," said Chris Buckley, the Cincinnati Reds' scouting director. "This guy compares very favorably to the top high school pitchers in this year's draft. No. He's probably more impressive."
Disappointment tinged Buckley's voice. He had visited the Dominican three times to watch Inoa pitch. Cincinnati – low-revenue Cincinnati, immortalized by former owner Marge Schott's penny pinching, and only recently willing to loosen the purse strings under owner Bob Castellini – reportedly offered Inoa about $5 million. Inoa preferred Oakland's track record of developing pitchers, and it didn't hurt that A's owner Lew Wolff and general manager Billy Beane commissioned a private plane to the Dominican for a meet and greet several weeks before the July 2 signing date.
The meeting convinced Oakland to shatter signing-bonus records for a Latino amateur not from Cuba. It's been nearly a decade since the Yankees gave outfielder Wily Mo Peña a $2.44 million bonus and seven years since the Dodgers gave infielder Joel Guzman $2.25 million. The top bonuses each year since have vacillated between $1 million and $2 million.
So to see Inoa's bonus, and the $2 million Cincinnati gave Dominican prospect Juan Duran in March, and the $5 million the San Diego Padres – low-revenue San Diego, consistently in the bottom third of major-league payroll – spent Wednesday to sign four Latin players and one Australian – well, it's not just unprecedented. It turns on its head the way baseball has operated, and while there's trepidation about bonuses spinning out of control, there's more celebration that the Little Sisters of the Poor are throwing around money like Pacman Jones at the club.
"Large shifts always cause us some concern," said Rob Manfred, baseball's head labor lawyer. "But these are individual club decisions at the end of the day. The best we can do is educate people as to the relative risks and rewards and the various talent-acquisition modes. You have to get your talent somewhere."
Today, Latin America is that place. It's a continuous gold rush, because players are renewable resources. All 30 teams have a presence there for a good reason: nearly 30 percent of major-league players are Latino, and that number only figures to rise, so long as bargains can be had.
And, yes, Inoa at $4.25 million is a relative deal. Suppose he were born Michael Inoa, raised in California, scouted throughout his high school career, coveted ravenously and picked at the top of the MLB draft. Inoa would command a bonus far greater than the one he received from Oakland.
"Look how far this is from your 'Moneyball' theories a couple years ago," Buckley said. "They were drafting all college pitchers. And now who's the team that got the 16-year-old? Oakland."
Buckley understands that it's not so much a philosophy change by the A's but a continuation of the lesson "Moneyball" taught: Oakland always tries to capitalize in efficient markets, and high-end Latino talent qualifies. One of Beane's former lieutenants, San Diego assistant GM Paul DePodesta, called Wednesday "a monumental day for the Padres" on his blog. Buckley, months later, continues to celebrate the signing for the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Duran.
"We recognize how difficult it is to compete on major-league free agents dollar for dollar," Buckley said. "We're trying to level the playing field."
Which, too, is the intent of MLB. The words competitive balance bring a twinkle to Commissioner Bud Selig's eyes, and with it extending beyond the big-league clubhouses and into farm systems, baseball is pleased that so many teams are trying to build from the bottom up.
"We believe focusing on entry-level talent is the most efficient way to make yourself competitive," Manfred said. "It's the best competitive strategy, particularly for smaller-revenue clubs. We think that's a very good thing."
It shouldn't stop, either. Even though San Diego ranks 18th in revenue, Cincinnati 21st and Oakland 24th, according to Forbes, each will continue perusing Latin America in hopes that the Yankees and Red Sox and Mets and Dodgers don't start emptying their bank accounts.
"Tomorrow," Buckley said, "we'll start looking for some new (players)."
August should be a good test. A 15-year-old named Yorman Rodriguez, from Venezuela, celebrates his birthday that month. He's supposed to be the next Miguel Cabrera. And two executives said they believe he has already agreed to a deal with Cincinnati. The Yankees keep pushing, though, sweetening their offer, doing anything to change the trend that could so affect them.
Evolution, ever slow, came on faster than they realized.
- Chris Buckley
- Latin America