For a while now among phans, there has been a quiet but consistent knock against the Phillies for their organizational failure to sign and develop top-flight international talent. For years, Vladimir Guerrero tore up Phillies' pitching staffs as an Expo, and now Miguel Cabrera is doing similar things for the Fish. The natural reaction for fans is to wonder: where is our Vlad? Where is our Johan Santana?
While the fans may be clamoring for more of an international impact, we all should keep in mind that finding gems internationally is much more difficult than doing so in the domestic draft, as many of the higher-ceiling international players are signed to contracts when they're as young as 16. When you're dealing with players that young, predicting how they are going to mature both mentally and physically is extremely hard. As much as I want to see every international signee develop into the next big thing, the simple fact that the team was willing to take a chance at adding a potential impact prospect to the system is more than enough to keep me satisfied. Thus, I want to make it clear that I will never criticize the team for spending heavily outside the U.S.
Among minor league devotees, however, the international market has simply become yet another area where the organization fails to deliver. Names like Josue Perez and Il Kim are the prospect equivalent of a nightmare to most fans, with Carlos Rodriguez and Seung Lee about ready to join them as part of the multitude of failed prospects that exist in the vast archives of the Phillies' Hall of Shame. What all four of these players have in common, though, and what people will most likely remember about them, is that they were all expensive signings. These were the guys that the organization typed up individual press releases for when they inked with the team, and therefore, their names stick in peoples' minds because they came to the United States with hype (Phillies-generated) that they simply could not live up to via their on-field performance.
Costing a combined $3.5 million, these four players are held up as the poster children for ineffective international scouting. Josue Perez ($850,000), in the organization since 1999 before being cut last season, simply could not hit, as evidenced by his career .252 batting average and embarrassing .325 slugging percentage over 1200 minor league at-bats. In Kim's case, poor character and lack of dedication (he signed in 2000 for $800,000 as a 190 lb. prospect and left as a 235 lb. non-prospect) led to his release in 2003 after just 113 innings for the organization. So far, Carlos Rodriguez ($700,000) looks like a combination of the two, mixing extremely poor attitude with equally poor performance (4-year career line: .256/.313/.343). Finally, of the four, Seung Lee ($1.2 million) has been the least disappointing after being the most expensive, pitching to a 4.42 career ERA in 441 IP, but, at 26 and still not out of AA, his chances of playing in the major leagues are slim at best.
Because the high-profile acquisitions have pretty much categorically flopped, the overall international program has received a bad reputation amongst fans. For every Il Kim, though, there has been a Carlos Silva-- a player who didn't develop out of nowhere, although it may have seemed that way because he signed cheaply in 1996 out of Venezuela without Phillies-generated hype. The same can be said for players like Elizardo Ramirez, Robinson Tejeda, and Ezequiel Astacio, all Phillies Latin signees who have pitched in the major leagues this season after successful minor league careers. That these five players combined cost roughly 1/5th of what the failed group did simultaneously shows what a crapshoot and boon Latin signings can be.
That list of names (Silva, Tejeda, Ramirez, and Astacio) does bring up two secondary issues that I'm not going to get into today but want to point out-- our apparent inability to develop any kind of positional talent out of Latin America, and the fact that Ed Wade has been far too quick on the trigger to include our less-heralded international prospects in trades for more expensive, veteran players. Another name to consider is Alfredo Simon, a top-10 prospect in 2004 (who still possesses major league potential) who was unnecessarily dealt away last year with Ricky Ledee at the deadline to San Francisco for Felix Rodriguez. What these names do indicate, however, is that the team's work outside U.S. borders has not been entirely fruitless.
Overall, I am optimistic about the future of our international crop, especially the encouraging early returns from several Australian products. In particular, 18 year-old third baseman Tim Kennelly has been outstanding, currently leading the Gulf Coast League with an on-base percentage close to .500 (albeit in a limited sample of 49 AB). This past offseason, three of the team's top ten prospects as selected by Baseball America were international products (Carlos Carrasco, Edgar Garcia, and Scott Mitchinson). To put that in perspective, the only other team in the National League that had that many home-grown international players in their top ten was the Mets, who had four. Some may view that number as more of an indictment of the U.S.-based scouts and scouting directors, but I'd like to think that international scouting director Sal Agostinelli is finally beginning to establish a Philadelphia presence globally, with a sharper eye for players who combined both ability with character, a sentiment Agostinelli himself confirmed in a Philadelphia Inquirer article from April. Since 2002, the pipeline of solid talent signed by his scouts has been impressive. Granted, most of these players are currently in the lowest levels of the system, and no one can be considered a lock to be a major-league producer at that point, but there is some hope that our system is being rebuilt thanks in large part to the Phils' improved international efforts.