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The international pipeline for the Royals has dried up

Overseas talent in the system is lacking

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Journey to the launch point of Royals’ rocket arm
Victor Baez, field coordinator with the Kansas City Royals Dominican Baseball Academy in Guerra, outside Santo Domingo, adjusts the tape on dummies that are used during pitching training.
David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In discussions of who is the current or future face of baseball, several names are usually brought up: Soto, Vladdy, Acuña, Ohtani, Tatis, Wander, Julio. A common thread emerges from these names. Each of these players entered affiliated baseball as international signings. Players like Ohtani coming from Japan often enter affiliated baseball having already played professional ball in their home country. The same can be said of Cuban stars like José Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes. But the rest of the guys mentioned above all signed as teenagers before working their way up through the minors and blossoming into stars.

Good organizations build their major league roster through every avenue available, which includes the international market. Players that signed from overseas have played key roles on the last several World Series champions:

2021 Atlanta Braves: Starting second baseman and fixture of the top of the order Ozzie Albies signed in 2013 out of Curaçao. World Series MVP Jorge Soler was also an international signing (2012 out of Cuba), but he was signed and developed by the Cubs. Franchise cornerstone Ronald Acuña Jr. signed in 2014 out of Venezuela but did not play in the postseason due to a torn ACL.

2020 Los Angeles Dodgers: Julio Urías, signed out of Mexico in 2012, was a key rotation piece throughout the postseason and recorded the save in the clinching game. Several key bullpen pieces were also international signings, including Pedro Báez (2007 out of the Dominican Republic), Victor González (2012 out of Mexico), and Kenley Jansen (2004 out of Curaçao). The Dodgers also originally signed Yordan Alvarez out of Cuba in 2016, but traded him to Houston in a deal that Andrew Friedman wishes he could have back.

2019 Washington Nationals: Young superstar Juan Soto signed with the organization out of the Dominican in 2015, while starting center fielder Victor Robles had signed out of the same country two years prior.

2018 Boston Red Sox: Their left side of the infield was international between Rafael Devers, signed in 2013 out of the Dominican, and Xander Bogaerts, signed in 2009 out of Aruba.

2017 Houston Astros: The heart and soul of this team, Jose Altuve, was originally signed by the Astros in 2007 out of Venezuela. Starting first baseman Yuli Gurriel was signed out of Cuba in 2016.

The Royals should know all about the importance of international talent. When Dayton Moore took over operations in 2006, the Royals were one of the worst teams in baseball in terms of finding and developing international talent. But the team began investing more resources in the international scene and results soon followed. The last championship Royals team can also have an entry like those above:

2015 Kansas City Royals: Starting catcher and World Series MVP Salvador Perez was one of the first international players signed under the Moore regime in 2006, while reliever Kelvin Herrera (signed later that year out of the Dominican) and starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (signed in 2008 out of the Dominican, rest in peace Yordano) played crucial roles on the pitching staff.

In the years wandering the wilderness since, much has been written about the struggles of the Royals to draft and develop big league talent. But another issue with the organization has flown much more under the radar: the team has been unable to find and develop international talent. This can be very clearly seen by looking at the current roster. Here are the players currently on the 40-man roster or the 60-day IL that were international signings:

The first thing that jumps out is where their international signings are coming from. Good lord the Royals love their Venezuelan ballplayers. The second thing that jumps out is that there are only eight players on this list. About 30% of current players entered affiliated baseball as international free agents, but for the Royals, it’s only 18%. Finally, only one of these players has established themselves as a solid big league regular, and he hit 48 homers last year. But that was far from a recent signing; there are kids driving now that weren’t yet born when Salvy signed with the organization. The rest of these guys either haven’t had an extended look in the majors yet, have had a chance and disappointed (looking at you, Carlos) or have been too injured to get a good grasp on (looking at you, Adalberto). Regardless, none of these guys project as impact players. Fangraphs graded Garcia as a 40+ FV prospect and Zerpa and Castillo as 40s in May. Hernandez was a 40 when he was last on the list in 2021. If you want to know what those numbers mean, you can read a primer here, but the short answer is a 40 FV is projected to be a bench player or backend starter.

The high draft picks of the Royals that have busted - Ashe Russell, Bubba Starling, Christian Colón, etc. - are frequently lamented upon, and for good reason. But how about all the highly regarded international prospects that have flamed out? Ventura was signed 14 years ago, what good international signings have been made since?

  • Noel Argüelles: Signed out of Cuba in 2009 for an unprecedented $6.9 million, 11th ranked prospect in Royals system in 2012. Never reached the majors.
  • Jorge Bonifacio: Signed out of the Dominican in 2009, ranked as high as 4th in the system in 2014. Totaled 0.4 fWAR over three seasons for the Royals.
  • Cheslor Cuthbert: Signed out of Nicaragua in 2009, ranked as high as 5th in the system in 2012. Totaled -0.8 fWAR for the Royals across five seasons.
  • Humberto Arteaga: Signed out of Venezuela in 2010, ranked as high as 14th in the system in 2013. -0.8 fWAR in 41 games for the Royals.
  • Orlando Calixte: Signed out of the Dominican in 2010, ranked as high as 4th in the system in 2013. Took only three plate appearances in the majors for Kansas City and went 0-fer.
  • Miguel Almonte: Signed out of the Dominican in 2010, ranked among the top 6 Royals prospects every year from 2014-2016. Totaled 10.2 innings pitched and -0.4 fWAR for the Royals.
  • Elier Hernandez: Signed out of the Dominican in 2011, ranked as high as 11th in the system in 2014. Never reached the majors for Kansas City, released after 2019.
  • Marten Gasparini: Signed out of Italy in 2013, ranked as high as 8th in the system in 2016. Never got past High-A.
  • Seuly Matias: Signed out of the Dominican in 2015, ranked as high as 3rd in the system in 2018. Currently in AA and, while he’s still only 23, is unlikely to ever make enough contact to stick in the majors.
  • Erick Peña: Signed out of the Dominican in 2019, ranked 5th in the system in 2020 and 6th in 2021. Currently has a .546 OPS in Low-A with a strikeout rate just shy of 40% and has tumbled in prospect rankings.

That’s ten prospects, aside from those currently on the 40-man, that have ranked in the system’s top ten at some point or were highly rated at the time of signing. Only two of them ever got even semi-regular playing time for the Royals, and they were both around replacement level. Three of them never reached the majors for Kansas City and two of them are trending in that direction.

Forget star players, the Royals haven’t even been able to get average big leaguers out of their international signings. Since the 2015 title, the only players signed internationally by the Royals that produced multiple seasons of at least 2 fWAR are Perez and Mondesi, who both signed over a decade ago. That’s a full decade of signings that have collectively failed to yield even a single starting-caliber major league player.

It doesn’t appear this will change soon. Garcia and Zerpa still have a chance. But beyond them, I believe that Hernández’s future is in the bullpen and Rivero is probably replacement level. Castillo and Olivares have promise, but neither was originally signed by the Royals and even if Olivares is healthy, I doubt this org will ever give him an extended look. Down on the farm, there’s a notable lack of international signings. In the Royals top 30 prospects according to Royals Farm Report, there are only three international players that were originally signed by the Royals. Garcia and Zerpa are the top two. After them is Diego Hernandez, whom RFR ranked 15th in the organization. Hernandez is only 21 and posted good numbers in High-A this season, but he’s at least a couple years away. Beyond him, none of the Royals international signings have impressed.

Perhaps the lack of international talent is yet another symptom of poor player development throughout the system. But if you believe the issue is with talent assessment and acquisition, here are some names to call for firing know in the organization:

  • Rene Francisco: Sr. Vice President - Major League and International Operations/Assistant GM
  • Albert Gonzalez: Assistant GM - International Operations
  • Danny Ontiveros: Director - Scouting
  • Orlando Estevez: Coordinator - Latin American Scouting
  • Phil Dale: Coordinator - Pacific Rim
  • Fabio Herrera: Manager - International Operations

It’s worth noting that the international game is challenging. To quote Francisco: “This process is so difficult.” If the first-year player draft is a crapshoot, signing international players is trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse. For every Framber Valdez, there’s 100 Yadier Álvarez’s. Regardless, for a team like the Royals that aren’t big players on the free agent market, success in these cheaper markets is paramount for building a sustainable winner.

Perhaps better days are on the horizon. Maybe the hitting gurus in the minors can rebuild Matias and Peña’s prospect status. In last year’s signing period, the Royals signed Daniel Vasquez, a toolsy shortstop that was the 11th-ranked prospect of the international period. In the most recent signing period, the Royals inked 28 players, the largest international class in franchise history. Only time will tell how these signings will work out, but if the Royals are to become a consistently respectable team, the international pipeline needs to flow once again.