Sometimes in life it’s important we do things that are out of character. Oftentimes we retreat to our comfort zones, where we feel safe and protected. However, when we do that, we become uninteresting people and we cease to grow as human beings.
The Phillies have had a comfort zone too. In their case, their comfort zone has been avoiding the international free agent market like Oprah avoids a salad. But now there are reports the Phils have a varying degree of interest in 19-year-old Cuban prospect Jorge Soler.
So, the big question is, will the Phillies change their stripes and actually make a splash in the international amateur market?
There are many reasons the Phillies are hot on the trail of Soler. And while their apparent aggression is out of character for a franchise that usually does not dabble in these types of signings, there probably has never been a better time for the Phils to take a risk such as this.
Probably the biggest reason to go after Soler now is the dearth of blue-chip positional talent in the Phillies’ minor league system. Only Trevor May, a right-handed pitcher most likely to start the season at AA Reading, and Jesse Biddle, a young lefty who will probably start in A+ Clearwater, are seen as Top 100 prospects. Their top positional talent, Domonic Brown, is no longer considered an actual “prospect” because of his extensive time in the Majors, and the guy closest to reaching the big leagues, Freddy Galvis, doesn’t have a very high ceiling.
Simply put, the Phillies desperately need some more non-pitching talent in their organization.
Soler, while just 19 years old, would be a huge boost to the farm system. He would automatically become their highest-ranked prospect, with Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein saying he’d be the 39th best prospect in baseball if he were to sign with a team today. He’s been called a five-tool talent, not as far along as his older Cuban counterpart Yoenis Cespedes, but with as high a ceiling and more time to develop.
The Phillies have not had an international player in their system with the pedigree of Soler since perhaps George Bell in 1978 or Juan Samuel in 1980. And as Bob Brookover noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2010, the Phils have not been terribly interested in pouring big money into the international market. In his article, Brookover said…
"“…a baseball source indicated that the organization has not pumped as much money into its international program in recent years. The source said that could eventually hurt the Phillies at the big-league level. They’re probably in the bottom third,” the source said. “I think things started to change when they put more money into the big-league payroll. I think that took some of the money away from the international program. I believe they’ve been working with less the last three years.”"
Clearly, signing a player of Soler’s pedigree would be very much out of character, and CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury said today that the team is still a long shot to sign him. But clearly, Amaro and the gang are aware of how little positional talent there is in the Phils’ system, and see an opportunity for a very quick, and real, upgrade.
The other driving force behind their aggression could be the way the rules for international signings will change once the new collective bargaining agreement goes into effect next year.
Starting next season, teams will no longer be able to pay whatever they want for amateur players. The Wild West of amateur free agency will be regulated. According to the International Baseball Federation, teams will be given an international signing allowance, with teams losing draft picks from the MLB Draft if they go over the money allotted. An international draft is likely not too far behind, although there are a million obstacles and hoops to jump through before anything like that is green-lit.
Gone will be the bidding wars over international stars like Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes. So this is likely the last time the Phillies will be able to use their substantial financial assets to grab a player with no strings attached.
In the Phillies’ case, opportunity is meeting need, creating the perfect storm for them to acquire a player like Soler. They clearly like him, having watched him work out numerous times in the Dominican Republic. But there are risks.
It’s not known how much money it would take to get Soler. Cespedes, who is a more polished prospect but is also seven years older, signed for four years at $36 million, after which he will become a free agent. Soler has a longer future ahead of him, but is still raw in many areas. The uncertainty of a player that young coming over and adjusting to a new culture as a teenager (if his birth certificate is legitimate, by the way) is a real concern.
Given all those things, would a four-year deal at around $25-30 million be out of line? That is a lot of money to throw at a young kid from another country without a whole lot of information to go on. And it would be completely out of character for the Phillies to do something like that.
Also worth considering, how would signing Soler affect Cole Hamels’ contract negotiations? If the Phils were forced to give Soler a major league contract (even though he would likely start his career in A ball), wouldn’t that make it even harder to sign Cole to a long-term deal? And isn’t that the most pressing issue for this franchise moving forward?
Still, here they are, apparently “in hard” on these Soler negotiations. It is exciting to see the Phils so aggressive in pursuing a player that could pay off in a huge way. The upsides outweigh the downsides at this point, especially given how much money the Phillies are currently raking in. And, if all this talk about a new deal with Comcast comes to fruition sooner rather than later, this kind of expenditure would be chump change for Middleton and Company.
Currently, Soler is not a free agent. But Phils fans should be hoping that when he does become one, their franchise can pull this off, and then hope against hope Soler turns into a Mike Stanton-type talent.
If it doesn’t work out, the only thing lost is money.
Of course, that’s easy to say when it isn’t your money.