Newly signed catcher Ricardo Rodriguez. Mandatory Credit: Baseball America.com
International Free Agency is one of the more peculiar parts of MLB. It gives teams the option to sign kids as young as 15, as the Rays did with SS Adrian Rondon this year. Sometimes these guys turn into superstars like Miguel Cabrera, or uber prospects like Jurickson Profar. Sometimes they bust hard, like Jesus Montero did. But it’s similar to the amateur draft in a way, giving all teams new hope to replenish their farm systems with tools prospects dripping with athleticism and projection.
The Padres, being one of the worst teams last year, found themselves in a good spot this year with more money to spend on the IFA pool than most teams. And this is where IFA gets weird. Teams aren’t required to stay within their budgets. Of course, there are punishments if they don’t; a hard cap for next year and a 100% luxury tax for every dollar gone over. But it’s a move used by savvy front offices to scoop up as much talent as they can when their scouting departments believe in a deep crop of youngsters, or when the next year is projected as a weak one. It’s a move used mostly by big market teams (the evil empires of the Yankees and Red Sox are notorious for exploiting the flaw) but other smart, small market teams use the tactic as well, like the Rays did to get Rondon.
The Padres entered the 2014 IFA market with a $2.53MM pool, and managed to spend most of it to nab four prospects. If you haven’t already, read this piece by Jason Evans as he outlines the signings and even includes a scouting report for the top grab, catcher Ricardo Rodriguez. Seriously, read it.
Now that you’ve read the primer by the talented Mr. Evans, let’s dive down into who these four players are, what they project to be, and if we can expect to see them in San Diego, making some positive contributions. As the post-Josh Byrnes era begins, it’s time to see how the team did (unfortunately without Byrnes, they were not able to sign IFA soccer legend Cristiano Ronoldo):
Ricardo Rodriguez, C-Venezuela
Ranked 30th by MLB.com and 21st by Baseball America, Rodriguez is the belle of the ball for the Padres. We had been tied to him and a couple other high ceiling catchers, but R-Rod (his nickname is a work in progress) was our top target. He has no true elite tool, but is solid to plus across the board and should stick behind the plate. He had good arm strength and pop times, as well as strong instincts for blocking and receiving. He’s still learning to hone his pitch framing, a skill that we have noted the Padres look for in their catchers, as well as help develop good framers too. A few balls would bounce off his glove during his workouts when he tried too hard to frame bad pitches, but he shows good, quiet mechanics that form the base for a potentially above average framer.
Rodriguez doesn’t have the natural contact feel to hit enough for the top of the order, and instead sells out for power more often. His power may be just average with decent to OK contact. He struggles at times to keep the strike zone small, and can get too aggressive. There’s little projection left in his frame, so he will need to maximize his mechanics to bat higher than fifth or sixth in the order.
Rodriguez’ floor is a plus backup, with his ceiling as a solid regular. With Austin Hedges tearing his way through the minors, Rodriguez may only need to focus on being the guy to give Hedges a few days off from the tools of ignorance. There’s a huge safety net for him, but also a fairly sizable reward if he reaches his potential. As a catcher, he will take longer to develop, so don’t expect him to be racing through the ranks. If everything goes smoothly, he could be Ric-rolling the competition in San Diego as soon as 2020.
Eduardo Solano, LHP-Dominican Republic
Signing Solano can be best compared to buying a lottery ticket only when you see the totals pass $300MM. He’s a low-cost guy, but has scouts in awe over his projection if things can go well for him. He features a loose, deceptive arm angle and motion from his big 6’4″ frame that he uses to fool hitters and rack up strikeouts. Poor performance last season led him to not sign as a 16-year-old, and instead decided to train harder and get a better bonus at 17 instead.
The results have been good, even though teams are still worried about his mechanical repeatability and if he falls back into periods of ineffectiveness. The Padres were more than happy to take a flyer on him, as the payoff could be huge. Solano has started to show a feel for a good curveball, a pitch that overmatched the younger DR hitters. His fastball sits at low 90s right now, but maintains great life throughout outings, and he looks like he could grow into more velo as he matures.
Solano has a few more years to toil through Rookie ball and the Class A’s to help develop a third pitch, preferably a changeup. He could be a top half starter in a contending rotation, but don’t expect that. There’s a considerable amount of risk, and he may end up as more of a number four pitcher who has the ability to play up in some games. Depending on how well he finishes developing his curve, and how fast he learns another pitch, he could be up to the show in four years or so. If he doesn’t have that third pitch, he may end up as a bullpen arm or minor league burnout.
Pedro Beltran, RHP-Dominican Republic
Think of Pedro Beltran as Eduardo Solano from the right side of the rubber. The biggest difference between the two is Beltran is still just 16, but almost everything else is the same. Both have low 90s fastballs that project to touch mid 90s, both have feel for curveballs, neither has a true third pitch, they rely on deceptive mechanics and both stand 6’4″. That’s pretty much the entire scouting report from Solano, isn’t it?
Beltran could be an easier project though, since he’s younger he should add a tick more velocity than Solano will. Beltran also has a better feel for pitching, even though he doesn’t always show it late into outings. Beltran is also much less risky mechanically, as he’s well coordinated and quick to the plate with men on, despite being so huge.
Beltran could be a good number three starter, with his future hinging on his offspeed development. He and Solano may end up moving through the system together, seeing as they’re so similar and share a nationality.
Elvis Zabala, SS-Dominican Republic
The Padres did a good job using the IFA to fill up premium positions. Zabala plays well at short for now, but his 6’1″, 180-pound frame, makes some scouts wonder if he can stay there, or if his body will outgrow the position. He has a strong arm and quick release that works well from anywhere on the diamond, and plays up on the double play. He has good baseball instincts that help him perform at a higher level than his initial tool set may suggest.
Zabala hasn’t been blessed with an innate feel for hitting, so he’s had to work hard to get to where he is. As he learns to barrel up more consistently, we will see him start moving quickly through the system. He uses the entire field well when at the plate, maintaining a mature approach, especially for someone who’s just 16. He has just gap power for now, which works for shortstop, but if he fills out more, he’ll need to learn to use his body well to add some over-the-fence pop.
Zabala is definitely a project, and may not be more than a replacement-level fielder and hitter in the Show. The Padres developmental team doesn’t have the best track record grooming hitters, so the new regime in San Diego will have to focus hard to help Zabala start advancing through the system. He looks like a slow mover, and may not debut until he’s 23 or more likely 24, and even then, could be a bench player. But if they can help him improve his feel for hitting, Zabala could end up as one of the more underrated players of the entire class.
And that’s all she wrote! Overall, the Padres took a pretty safe route to this year’s international class. No one here projects to be a star player, but all could end up as solid regulars who have streaks better than such. There’s a lot of risk for players without huge ceilings, but by not overspending on the budget, this could help put the Padres in another good spot for next year’s IFA. The farm is already strong, and they’ve added a few more pieces that could start popping up in a few years.