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Royals shift approach in international free agent market with largest class in club history

The Royals are looking more for hit-tools rather than raw skills.

Raimel Medina signs with the Kansas City Royals
Instagram, @jdbbaseballrd

The January 15 international free agent signing period began with the Royals adding the largest class in club history, signing 28 players while allocating the money slightly differently from previous years.

One of the key features of this year’s class is the signing of who Albert Gonzalez, Royals Assistant GM of International Operations, feels is the top catcher in the international class - Juan Olmos, Jr. Additionally, the team had to change things up by adding more pitchers earlier. The one thing that didn’t change is them leaning on the relationships established with the players and the families as a tool to add players to the organization.

Each year, the Royals commit to adding multiple international catchers, having experienced success with Salvador Perez while cultivating additional talents like Sebastian Rivero and others that have been successful organizationally. Despite the success of Perez, his signing and many of the others were somewhat affordable signings in their teen years. The $800k signing of Olmos represents the most the Royals have ever committed to an international catcher during the Dayton Moore era that I can remember.

They felt this comfort with Olmos because one of their own has helped groom him to the point where he is today after his uncle and Royals scout Rafael Miranda helped train him since he was younger. A gifted athlete, Miranda helped groom his skills behind the dish and at the plate. Wanting him to be an all-around player, Olmos was trained as a switch-hitter, taking extra reps from his weaker left side. Seeing the reps he was putting in, the Royals asked if he could concentrate more on that right-side, and from there, they saw his stock take off.

Already 6’2 175 lbs, his training has helped guide him behind the dish while his size and athleticism blessed him with a big arm that is a double plus and enough to be a pitcher if things forced him that direction. There is enough athleticism in that body to play right field should the bat takeoff to the point that they don’t want to slow down his progression. The entire package makes Olmos feel like he was raised Royal considering his love of the game, his feel for it, work ethic, and ability.

The Royals changed what they were looking for in international players in the previous year, with less of an emphasis on “athletes” in favor of actual skill and feel for the hit tool. The Royals tried to find players who already exhibit a good hit tool and feel for the bat over leaning on defensive skills and hoping they can develop into a hitter later in their years. Gonzalez said this class’s goal remained the same, but they also wanted to find some high-contact guys, adding a few extremely skilled contact players. That goal is easier in today’s international class than in years past because the scouting staff can more often create and see the players in actual game situations. Scouts can put players in live game action and create simulated games to test these players. The trainers do a better job of figuring out that teams want to see these kids in games. They often play games in training camps and against other trainers’ teams. It’s no longer adding workout warrior types crushing balls off a pitching machine or soft-tossing BP. The teams get to see more reps than ever before in the international game, which helps them track and make their decisions.

One of the kids the scouts got to see in plenty of action was Erick Torres, an outfield signee to this year’s class. Gonzalez spoke highly of Torres, saying that he was one of the prospects they felt most comfortable with, thanks in part to all the game action they saw him in. One of those opportunities came at a younger age, with Torres playing third base on the 12-and-under Dominican national team. He compares favorably to Raul Mondesi, Sr. as a shorter, contact-oriented, toolsy outfielder with a compact swing thanks to shorter limbs that help produce a feel for hit and a body that should create future power. His trainer, Sandy Nin, was a scout with the Marlins when they signed Marcell Ozuna and has had plenty of success signing and developing players in the past. Nin also trained Henry Ramos, who the Royals gave $800k this year as one of their top prospects.

That feeling of comfort with a kid and his trainers was likely why the Royals signed Manuel German, the cousin of Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. That family has already produced plenty of major league talent and will likely produce many more as there are a lot of Guerrero families involved in the Dominican with plenty of siblings and cousins developing players. The relationship with the family, the talent that German flashed at times in game action, and a similar high-waisted body to Vlad, Jr. provided enough intrigue that it made sense to sign him. He will be limited to first base, but the Guerrero family teaches the same approach to all their players at the plate, and the Royals are betting on the bat. Manuel’s nickname is “The Buffalo,” so hopefully, we will be seeing him stampede through the minor leagues in a similar way to his cousin.

Some of the players that fit into that “high contact” bucket are Dominican outfielders Ramier Medina and Luis Tejada. The Royals recently have added a pair of centerfielders in the international system that is athletically gifted and flashed some tools with the bat recently in Diego Hernandez, a long gliding centerfielder who has shown plus-plus speed. Nicaraguan Roger Leyton from the ‘19 class has high upside with his defensive and hitting skills while showing he can compete favorably with older competition in his country’s winter league. Medina and Tejada could match those talents with their athleticism and the feel for contact they exhibited. Additionally, shortstops Charles Nova, Alexander Orasma, and Venezuelan catcher Jose Medina fit the mold as high contact players with the bat.

One of the key strategies to this year’s signing period was to add a large group of pitchers because they will be graduating a similarly large number to the states. Pitcher Jose Catano, a lean left-hander, coming off a big DSL season thanks to his improved fastball (94 mph) and big curveball, is ready to head to Arizona and should be one to watch for. Catano will turn 21 this year, but his lean nature gives the image of a pitcher that could continue to add strength and velocity to pair with a curveball that looks like a plus pitch and some feel for his changeup.

Along with him graduating to Arizona will likely be Osiris Santana, an impressive shorter pitcher with a quick-loose arm that attacks hitters despite his 5’10 frame. Left-hander Francy Breton has a similar fastball to Catano but is more physical than his countryman and already listed at 6’3. He doesn’t have Catano’s curveball, but his physicality could help him develop. El Salvador hasn’t produced many baseball talents, but Juan Martinez appears to have a possible future after a solid stint this past season in the DSL and a fastball that is up to 96 mph. Mauricio Veliz is a Venezuelan arm that compares to current Royals prospect Luinder Avila, a Columbian pitcher that popped up this year at 19 years old with Low-A Columbia. In talking about Avila, Gonzalez was highly impressed by him, saying his stuff flashes top of the rotation at times in short bursts. There will be more than that with a handful of other hard throwers that will begin to make their way stateside.

That feeling of family and comfort didn’t only produce signings on the hitting side as Shawndrick Oduber was a pitcher the Royals signed from Aruba, the second player they’ve signed from that country in the past three years. Oduber’s background is similar to the Collins brothers they signed from Curaçao a couple of years ago. Raised in a baseball family, Shawndrick’s uncle pitched for the Orioles, and his father played professionally in Aruba. He was raised to be a pitcher and coached well with bloodlines in the game. There aren’t many teams with scouts on the ground in Aruba, but the Royals scout there played with Shawn’s father and once again made it comfortable to sign him with his feeling and training for the game.

Junior Sanchez has a chance to be a starter and is more than just a thrower. Mexican lefty Jesus Franco earned rave reviews from their scouts with his pitchability. Typically Mexican pitchers don’t have the raw arm strength that other countries offer, but their ability to work multiple offspeed pitches usually stands out, and Franco brings that much like current countryman Marcelo Martinez has in the Royals upper levels of the minor leagues. Andy Basora, a 6’3 -6’4 from the Dominican, has a strong arm and plenty of projection. Dominican lefty Juan Ozuna has a good curveball and some pitchability, drawing comparisons to former Royals lefty Odalis Perez.

The changes in international philosophy won’t be seen overnight at the major league level. Still, I think we’ve already seen in the Dominican some hints with Junior Martin’s big season that this new philosophy could produce significant future results. Perhaps one of these kids signed in January or already in the system can be the next Salvador Perez.