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Phillies international signings: their share of major league talent, but no stars

The flow of solid major league contributors has slowed of late.

This is a companion piece to Phillies drafts: boom, bust, and Bohm, which reviewed the roller coaster ride that has been the team’s drafting and development: from best in MLB in the mid-’90s to mid-’00s, to worst in MLB for the next decade, and finally showing signs of improvement again over the last seven or so drafts.

As noted there, any discussion of player selection and development is incomplete without also reviewing international signings, which don’t go through the draft. About a quarter of all current production (by WAR) is generated by players who were signed as international free agents (IFAs) — either as teenagers who then rose through farm systems, or established pros ready to step directly onto major league rosters.

Here we’ll review the Phillies’ history in international signings (focusing more on the last 30 years), and like in the other piece we’ll use total WAR produced to date as a handy, quick measure of major league impact.[1]

Rough Beginnings

The Phillies started tentatively in exploring the international talent pool. In 1935 Chile Gomez became the team’s first Latino player, and the second Mexican-born major leaguer. He had been signed the year before by the Reds but made his major league debut with the Phils. Ten years later, with rosters depleted by the war, they acquired Cuban Izzy Leon, who had been playing in the Negro Leagues. He was apparently light-skinned enough to be allowed in the majors, and got into 14 games as a 34-year-old rookie.

They got more involved in Latin America after desegregation:

1950s:
- In 1954 they purchased Cuban first baseman Pancho Herrera from the Negro Leagues and he would be their first baseman in 1960-61, compiling 3 WAR in a three-year career.
- Signed Tony Curry of the Bahamas in 1957 (negative 2 WAR)
- Signed Cuban Marcelino Lopez (6 WAR) in 1959, and sent him to the Angels in 1964 when they acquired veteran slugger Vic Power for their (ill-fated) stretch run. Lopez won 14 games as a 21-year-old in 1965, and finished 2nd in the AL ROY voting.

1960s:
- In 1960 they signed Adolfo Phillips of Panama, who compiled 12 WAR in an eight-year career, most of it with the Cubs.
- Canada (like Puerto Rico) wasn’t included in the amateur draft until 1990, so it counts here, and the Phillies signed Fergie Jenkins in 1962. Alas he was sent to the Cubs in an all-time bad trade four years later, where he went on to compile 80 WAR in a Hall of Fame career.
- Pitcher Manny Muniz was signed in 1964 and eventually got a brief callup.
- They signed Venezuelan Manny Trillo (11 WAR) in 1968, but lost him in the 1969 Rule 5 draft, before reacquiring him to man second base in 1979-82.

1970s:
- Willie Hernandez (11 WAR) was signed in 1973, but was also lost in the Rule 5 draft three years later. He was reacquired in mid-1983, but when the Phillies traded for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss the following Spring, it was Hernandez who went to Detroit, where he proceeded to win both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards for 1984.
- In 1975 they signed outfielder Orlando Isales (0 WAR), who got a cup of coffee, and Luis Aguayo who lasted 10 years as a utility infielder (2 WAR). Both were from Puerto Rico.
- 1978 was a banner year with George Bell and Julio Franco, both from the Dominican Republic. Bell was lost to Toronto in the 1980 Rule 5 draft, and went on to an MVP season with the Jays in 1987, as well as three other top-10 MVP finishes and 20 total WAR. Franco was sent to Cleveland in the (in)famous 5-for-1 deal for Von Hayes, and lasted 23 years in the majors. He piled up 2,586 hits, and the 42 WAR he produced is still by far the most by any Phillies signing from outside of North America.

To summarize these 20 years, 1959 through 1978:

  • they were able to sign seven players who would have at least some success in the majors (Lopez, Phillips, Jenkins, Trillo, Hernandez, Franco, Bell)
  • those players produced a total of 182 WAR
  • 175 of that 182 WAR was produced for other teams — only 7 of it with the Phillies, and even that only after they were reacquired later in their careers

The 1980 class was a last hurrah of sorts, bringing pitcher Porfirio Altamirano (0 WAR), and first baseman Francisco Melendez (0 WAR), the Phillies’ #4 prospect in 1984, according to Baseball America. But the big prize that year was Juan Samuel (15 WAR) who gave them many years of solid play, and was also eventually turned into Lenny Dykstra.

After finally finding a good player who would actually help them on the field, they then proceeded to go 15 straight years, from 1981 through 1995, without signing a single international free agent who made it to the majors. There must have been some signings in there, but without MLB appearances as evidence it’s tough to say for sure. Were they scarred by their experience of the ‘60s and ‘70s, or did they keep plugging away with nothing to show for it?

The table below summarizes this period. As an example to get oriented, their international signings in 1978 went on to produce 62 WAR in their major league careers, all of it from position players.

Last 30 Years

That 15-year drought lasted from the last few years of the Paul Owens era, through all four years that Bill Giles was GM, and almost the entirety of Lee Thomas’ tenure. It finally came to an end when they signed Carlos Silva out of Venezuela in 1996. Silva went on to produce 10 WAR over a nine-year career, although again, almost none of it for the Phillies.

The table below is for the years since 1989, and adds the Phillies’ MLB ranking for each year’s signings. For example the 19 WAR produced by their 1998 class was the fourth highest career total among the 30 teams for that year’s signings. It also adds the highest-dollar signing in each year, where available.

The data used from across MLB for ranking purposes[2] includes all international free agents, i.e. essentially any players who were not eligible for the amateur draft at the time. So it’s not purely a gauge of international scouting. It’s also to a large extent a measure of the team’s willingness to sign pro players from Cuba, Japan, and South Korea.[3]

The Sal Agostinelli Era

Silva’s eventual success notwithstanding, the Phillies did not have much going on in Latin America in the 1990s. In fact, as Bob Brookover put it here:

The Phillies’ Latin American presence was pathetic before Agostinelli’s arrival.

Lee Thomas knew Agostinelli from their time in the Cardinals organization, and he traded for the minor league catcher in 1989 with an eye to using him as a coach. Agostinelli did coach during the 1992 season, but was offered a scouting position the following year. His success in that role, along with his fluency in Spanish, made him a logical, if somewhat unorthodox choice to head up scouting in Latin America.

He was named Director of International Scouting in 1997, and amazingly, through numerous changes in the Phillies’ front office and their scouting ranks, he is still in that role.

He started strong in 1998, signing second baseman Carlos Ruiz on a suggestion from scout Allan Lewis[4]. Ruiz (16 WAR) was converted to catcher, and four no-hitters and a World Series ring later the rest is history. Pitcher Robinson Tejeda also signed that year, and he put up 4 WAR in a 7-year career, including a pretty good rookie season with the 2005 Phils.

  • They signed two pitchers in 1999 who eventually made the majors: Alfredo Simon who was traded to the Giants in 2004 but went on to last 9 seasons (for 2 WAR); and Elizardo Ramirez (1 WAR in 5 years).
  • In 2001 the Phillies had lost their second and third-round draft picks by signing free agents Jose Mesa and Rheal Cormier, and seemed to try to make up for that loss by venturing to South Korea for two 21-year-old pitchers.

Seung Hak Lee (6-4, 225 pounds) signed for $1.2 million, and Il-yeop Kim (6-3, 225) for $800k. Scouting director Mike Arbuckle said they would have been considered for the first round in the amateur draft, had they been eligible.

Lee spent six years in the Phillies’ farm system, and made it as high as AAA. Kim was released after two seasons in the organization.

  • In 2009 they signed Maikel Franco (4 WAR) for $100k, and also Hector Neris (4 WAR).
  • 2010: in addition to pitcher Lino Martinez at $325k, they also signed shortstops Anderson Gonzalez ($300k) and Francisco Silva ($200k), and pitchers Miguel Nunez ($220k) and Ranfi Casimiro. Nunez and Casimiro are still knocking around in Mexican or Independent leagues.
  • Five players who were signed in 2011 have made the majors so far: Seranthony Dominguez, Severino Gonzalez, Ranger Suarez, Ricardo Pinto, and Carlos Tocci. Malquin Canelo spent 2019 with the Iron Pigs, while Elniery Garcia and Jiandido Tromp are playing unaffiliated ball.
  • From the 2012 signings, Deivy Grullon was a September call-up last year, and Jose Pujols, Grenny Cumana, and Franklyn Kilome (Mets) are still around.
  • Twelve years after signing Seung Hak Lee for $1.2 million, the Phillies finally exceeded that amount for an IFA by agreeing to a 3-year, $12 million contract with 26-year-old Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. (They had originally agreed on a 6-year $48 million deal before concerns about his health surfaced.) After two-plus years hampered by injuries and ineffectiveness, the Phils released M.A.G. before Opening Day 2016. The following year, Gonzalez was killed in a traffic accident in Cuba.
  • Among the amateurs signed in 2013 were Adonis Medina, Luis Encarnacion, and Edgar Garcia.
  • 2014 signings were headlined by shortstops Arquimedes Gamboa ($900k), Daniel Brito ($650k), and Jonathan Arauz ($600k), but it’s righty Sixto Sanchez ($35k) who is looking like the best prospect so far, and in fact good enough to anchor a trade for the best catcher in baseball.
  • In 2015, the Phillies paid the biggest bonus in their history to an international amateur ($4.0 million) when they signed slugging outfielder Jhaylin Ortiz from the Dominican Republic. Also signed that year was Venezuelan catcher Rafael Marchan ($200k).
  • The biggest signings from 2016-18 were catcher Abrahan Gutierrez ($3.5M), SS Luis Garcia ($2.5M), and pitcher Starlyn Castro ($1.8M). In addition, when the Red Sox violated international bonus pool rules and had to give up five of their prospects, the Phillies signed one of them, outfielder Simon Muzziotti.
  • In 2019, the Phillies were rumored to be signing top-10 IFA Yhoswar Garcia for around $2 million, before it came out that his age was 3-4 years older than he had said, and he was suspended. They are still likely to sign him when his suspension ends next month, but for more on the order of $100-200k. In the end their biggest signings are three at $350k each: catcher Jose Colmenarez and 2B Fernando Vasquez from Venezuela, and shortstop Randy Vasquez from the Dominican Rebublic. None of the three appear on ($) BA’s top 100 for 2019-20.

Below is a graphical view of their best signings of the last 30 years in terms of WAR produced to date. The more successful ones are broken out, and the rest are included in the light green “Others” columns:

The above doesn’t look particularly impressive, but it’s enough to rank the Phillies 13th in MLB since Agostinelli took over. (At least one source has him taking over international scouting in 1998, which would improve his ranking somewhat to 11th, but we’ll stick with the 1997 start here.)

The top of the list is dominated by east- and west-coast teams that have drawn most of the established foreign pros from Cuba and the Far East. Young stars like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto will also make their mark on this (though the Nats have a lot of catching up to do), as will many other prospects who are still in the minors.

Adding up total career WAR for all players is one way to measure impact. Another is by counting the number of players who reached a certain level of WAR. As we might expect, this isn’t wildly different from the overall WAR ranking:

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What the last row is saying is that, since 1997, only four teams have signed players who have already compiled 40 or more WAR:

Mariners: Ichiro Suzuki (2000, 58 WAR), and Felix Herandez (2002, 54 WAR)
Marlins: Miguel Cabrera (1999, 71 WAR)
Yankees: Robinson Cano (2001, 57 WAR)
Red Sox: Hanley Ramirez (2000, 42 WAR)

While it puts the Agostinelli era in some perspective, viewing the years since 1997 in aggregate is just one snapshot.

The next graph shows where the Phillies’ IFAs fall for each year’s class: the green line is the team whose signings from that year have produced the most WAR so far, yellow is the team with the lowest WAR produced from that year’s class, and black is the average for the 30 teams.

A reminder on this graph, each point represents the total career WAR produced by players who were signed that year. So for example all of Carlos Ruiz’s 16 career WAR is included in the 1998 numbers. The red line here is the same as the Phillies’ totals in the column graph above: it shows the occasional solid contributor through 2009, and then not much to show yet for the last decade.

All by his lonesome, Carlos Carrasco makes the Phillies’ 2003 class the best in terms of WAR produced by any team that year. The Phils traded Carrasco to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal, and so he is not only their most successful recent international signing by WAR, but also the most successful of the prospects the Phillies traded away during their winning run.

Their 2006 class has been 3rd best so far, thanks to Hernandez and Galvis, and the 2008 signings are 4th, mostly due to Jonathan Villar and Domingo Santana.

Some of the teams with the most successful signing classes along the green line:

1994 — Dodgers: 107 total (Beltre 84, Chan Ho Park 23)
2000 — Mariners: 96 total (Ichiro 58, Choo 35, Guzman 3)
2001 — Yankees: 73 total (Cano 57, Melky Cabrera 15)
2002 — Mariners: 82 total (Felix Hernandez 54, Asdrubal Cabrera 28)
2009 — Red Sox: 39 total (Bogaerts 25, Iglesias 12, Montas 3)
2012 — Dodgers; 38 total (Puig 18, Ryu 17, Urias 3)

The next graph is similar to the above, except at each point we look at all the signing classes combined, from that year through today. So for example, for all IFA signings since 2000, the team whose signings produced the most WAR has had about 230, the average is 75 WAR, and the Phillies’ IFAs over that time are just below that.

In addition to the average, the cumulative graph also includes the median. The Phillies have been around the median and the average for most of this period.

The year-by-year graph doesn’t include a median line, since that’s a zero for almost every year, i.e. in most years less than half the teams sign an international free agent who goes on to play in the majors.

Below are the year-by-year and cumulative WAR stats for the NL East teams:

To use a more recent starting point, this cuts the time frame in half and looks at the biggest contributors signed by each NL East team over the last 15 years:

The 2010’s

The Phillies’ 13th place ranking in WAR produced since 1997 is respectable, but the charts above also show a dearth of major league contributors signed since 2010. There is still time for many of those signings to make an impact: Seranthony Dominguez (2011), Adonis Medina (2013), Sixto Sanchez (2014), and others.

Still, when we break out the WAR from players signed through 2009, vs. that from signings since 2010, the Phillies are one of the few teams with nothing to show yet from the last decade:

The graph below takes the WAR produced by those signed since 2010 (the green portion above), and zooms in to identify the specific players. A good number are pros from Cuba, Japan, and South Korea (in pink), though many teams have also had teenagers rise quickly and start contributing (light blue). Pros and amateurs with WAR totals too small to break out are lumped in the light green bars.

Matt Winkelman recently summarized the Phillies’ struggles in the decade:

They didn’t blow up the market and they haven’t really hit on a big hitter. But they also have been kind of poor at the top. 2011 was Tocci, 2012 was Grullon/Pujols, 2013 was Encarnacion which flopped, 2014 was Gamboa/Brito/Arauz, 2015 was Ortiz/Marchan, 2016 was Morales/Muzziotti and a lot of people you will never hear about, 2017 was Luis Garcia, and 2018 was Starlyn Castillo. They were very good at cheap pitchers for a while, but that dried up and those guys flopped and/or were traded.

Summary

The Phillies had a bumpy start in their early forays into the international talent pool, and while they’ve had their share of success more recently, their reticence to sign established pros has limited them.

In the 1960s and ‘70s they signed a number of players who went on to some success in the majors, but only after the Phillies either traded them away (which at least got them some value), or lost them in the Rule 5 draft.

They then went an astounding 15 straight years in the 1980s and early ‘90s without signing a single international free agent who eventually made it to the majors.

Since handing international scouting to Sal Agostinelli in 1997, they have certainly found their share of major league talent, ranking in the middle of the pack or better, whether measuring total WAR produced, or counting the number of players hitting certain thresholds.

When discussing turning prospects into major leaguers, we often say we don’t know how much of the success or failure is due to picking the right players, vs. the coaching and development process. In the Phillies’ case, what if just a small part of their failure to produce good players in the mid 2000s-mid 2010s was due to poor development practices. That would make Agostinelli’s middle-of-the-pack 13th place ranking more impressive, especially since, unlike many other teams, it does not include a boost from the front office signing any established foreign players.

That ranking is also respectable despite not getting any production yet from their signings of the last decade. One could argue that Sixto Sanchez has already produced by netting J.T. Realmuto. Still, while Agostinelli was named International scout of the year in December 2018, if his more recent signings don’t start producing on the field, that may be another last hurrah in the annals of Phillies international scouting.

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Rise and Phight: 11/30/2022