Why Blue Jays’ international market success pivotal to sustain competitive window

International signee Manuel Beltre, left, poses for a photo after agreeing to terms with the Blue Jays. Photo via @manuel_beltre09 (Twitter).

TORONTO – The look of the Toronto Blue Jays’ jerseys had long caught nine-year-old Manuel Beltre’s eye when on April 27, 2014, the club captured his attention for an entirely different reason.

That day, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Moises Sierra and Juan Francisco were all in the batting order – the first time six players from the Dominican Republic were in the same big-league starting lineup – during a 7-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.

A seventh, reliever Esmil Rogers, entered the game later while Jonathan Diaz, born in Miami to a Dominican dad, was also on the roster. They all signed the lineup card with plans to send it to the baseball museum back home.

The memorable moment stuck with an impressionable kid.

“That really impressed me,” says Beltre. “I started following them a lot because of Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista. It was like a Dominican team in the major leagues.”

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Seven years later, the shortstop prospect landed a Blue Jays jersey of his own when he signed for $2.35 million, the club’s biggest commitment of the 2020-21 international free agency signing period. The 17-year-old made a solid debut in the Dominican Summer League last year and Baseball America recently ranked him No. 8 on the club’s pre-season prospects list, another sign he’s someone to keep an eye on.

Bigger picture, Beltre is also the latest talent to come from a pipeline that’s increasingly vital to the Blue Jays in the coming years, as the strength of their big-league club means that for the foreseeable future they’re likely to pick at the bottom of the draft.

Barring dramatic changes in the sport’s next collective bargaining agreement (owners have long sought an international draft, players have resisted), the international market represents a talent pool in which the Blue Jays can consistently compete for the best impact talent year-in, year-out, regardless of where they finished the previous season.

In the draft, the high school and collegiate players that have most separated themselves within their cohort are usually taken in the top third of the draft. While they don’t come with any guarantees, they usually represent surer bets than players available in the bottom third of each round, where the Blue Jays expect to be picking for the next several years.

Internationally, though, if scouts on the ground do the legwork and the team is willing to ante up, any team can get the eligible top-five, top-three talents. Think of 2015, for example, when the Blue Jays, en route to winning the American League East, signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and the Washington Nationals, defending NL East champions and on the way to a second-place finish, picked up Juan Soto.

No way that happens if those players are in the draft.

Now, it isn’t that easy to just pluck a superstar from the pool of eligible players 16 and up, of course, and such elite talent isn’t always within a given class. But done right, the international market at least offers a pathway to impact-calibre prospects when the big-league club is winning regularly.

“Absolutely,” says Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays’ vice-president of international scouting and baseball operations. “It’s really exciting because you do have the chance to get that impact player. At the same time, it’s also very challenging because in a lot of cases we’re making decisions on these players when they’re ultra-young. They’re much further away from their prime than a high-school player in the draft and especially a college player in the draft. There are just so many more variables which can go in either direction.”

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The Blue Jays began signing their latest crop of players when the 2021-22 signing period opened Saturday, reaching terms with their prime target, Venezuelan catcher Luis Meza, at slightly over $2 million. He’s described as someone with the chance to be a good two-way player, already showing good ability to catch and throw while consistently doing damage at the plate thanks to a loose swing and good feel for the strike zone.

On Monday, they’re expected to finalize deals for players in the Dominican Republic, power-hitting Railin Tejada (about $600,000) and potential centre-fielder Jean Carlo Joseph (about $450,000) prime among them.

The top-heavy approach to spending their bonus pool of $4.644 million (a pre-determined hard cap that is allocated to teams based on market size, this year cut by $500,000 for the Blue Jays as part of the penalty for signing George Springer as a free agent) is similar to the strategy Tinnish has employed in recent years.

Most prominent in that regard was the 2018 signing of shortstop Orelvis Martinez for $3.5 million, which was roughly 70 per cent of their bonus pool that year. That’s a high-risk, high-reward play for someone that young, but the Blue Jays scouted him extensively beforehand making sure “he checked our three major offensive boxes: ability to hit or contact skills; controlling the strike zone/plate discipline; and power/damage,” says Tinnish.

Baseball America now ranks Martinez as the club’s No. 3 prospect – behind catcher Gabriel Moreno and Nate Pearson – after he hit 28 homers in 98 games between low-A and high-A last year.

“You have to be really thorough, obviously, and your scouts have to do a really good job of getting to know the players and getting to know their make-up,” Tinnish says more generally of the team’s approach. “But you can’t be afraid to take chances because if you’re afraid to take chances, this isn’t a market where you can play it safe. Obviously you have to have a process, which I feel like we do. As best you can you have to try to stick to your process, but at the same time, you have to be aggressive and creative. I think our guys have done a good job of that.”

Credibility and recognition in the market plays a role, too, which helped the Blue Jays land Beltre last year.

While he had initial interest in them thanks to their history of signing and fielding Dominican players, they were interested in his advanced swing, approach, knowledge of the strike zone and strong fundamentals.

He posted a .741 OPS in 53 Dominican Summer League games in 2021, a stat-line skewed by a 6-for-46 opening month. Impressively, he walked 41 times against just 33 strikeouts in 235 plate appearances while employing his line drives to the middle-of-the-field approach.

“It was a year with a lot of learning,” says Beltre. “I had to learn in the middle of the season that it’s OK to fail. I can’t freak out because of one or two bad weeks. That’s why this year was so good learning baseball, because that’s going to help me to do better next season.”

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