Cardinals set to sign two top 30 teenage talents as international amateur market opens

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St. Louis Cardinals early position players gather before an informal workout during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

After they established themselves as a more active participant in the international market more than a decade ago, the Cardinals – through trial and error and several successes – shaped and developed strategies they’ve come to trust.

They like to spread the wealth and take advantage of time.

When this year’s international signing period opens Saturday, the Cardinals will be one of eight teams with the most money to spend, a purse of $6,262,200. The only NL Central team with the same limit is the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals expect to finalize a deal with a top-30 catching prospect, Venezuela’s Luis Rodriguez, sources said before the lockout began. Shortstop Jonathan Mejia, a top-15 prospect from the Dominican Republic, is also expected to sign with the Cardinals when the market opens, Baseball America reported.

For the second consecutive year the usual July 2 signing period has moved to January, adjusted due to the pandemic. This year, the international signing period will go from Saturday (Jan. 15) to Dec. 15. Teams cannot trade their spending pool during that time. Players must be 16 when they sign to be eligible.

Many of the top players are expected to finalize Saturday agreements already in place. The top prospects in this class are both switch-hitters: Cuban outfielder Cristian Vaquero and Dominican shortstop Roderick Arias. Vaquero reported has a deal in place with Washington, and Arias is expected to sign with the New York Yankees.

It is common for agreements to be in place before the signing period begins and the initial commitments can start when a player is 15. That is part of the reason owners are interested in establishing a international draft, and that was part of Thursday’s proposal to the players’ union for a new CBA.

The international signing period will continue despite the lockout because it does not involve major-league contracts or MLBPA members.

It is not clear how the Cardinals will handle the announcement of their signings given the team policy not to comment to the media during the lockout. They plan to finalize deals with more than two players over the weekend.

In past years, the Cardinals have not lumped their spending money on one or two players or pursued the top tier talents, and they have also preferred to keep some in their pocket for talent available later in the signing period. That was when they signed Randy Arozarena, rising prospect Malcom Nunez, a third baseman. Pitcher Freddy Pacheco, who was recently added to the 40-man roster, was a November 2017 international signing. He struck out 95 in 54 innings at three minor-league levels this past season.

In March, late in the rescheduled signing period, the Cardinals were able to sign Cuban outfielder Luis Mario Pino to a $767,000 bonus because they waited for him to become eligible. He had a solid pro debut this past summer with the Cardinals’ Dominican Summer League’s Blue team. He hit .247/.362/.418 for a .780 OPS in 42 games at 17. He hit six homers and struck out 52 times in 146 at-bats and walked 17.

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Two of Pino’s teammates on the DSL Blue Cardinals were the headliners from last year’s international signing class: shortstop Adari Grant, of the Bahamas, and catcher Leonardo Bernal, a standout youth player from Panama.

Grant, 18, hit .220/.326/.305 with a .631 OPS in 43 games. He had 53 strikeouts in 164 at-bats against 36 hits and 21 walks. He had 11 extra-base hits. A gifted athlete, he’s viewed as a rising defensive standout at the position while he grows into strength and experience that should improve his offensive game. Bernal, 17, grabbed attention with his offense and his leadership against older players in international tournaments. In his pro debut, Bernal hit .209/.298/.373 for a .671 OPS. He had five homers and 15 extra-base hits against 28 strikeouts in 158 at-bats.

Mejia, 16, ranks 13th in this class by Baseball America and 14th per MLB.com. A switch-hitter with a strong arm, Mejia “put on an impressive display in the batter’s box” during a showcase organized by Major League Baseball in November 2019, according to Baseball America. The teenager “has a sound swing and generally plays under control in games to make consistent contact … (with) good bat speed from both sides of the plate, enabling him to drive the ball for damage when he connects,” wrote BA’s Ben Badler in a scouting report.

He is the eighth shortstop ranked in BA’s top 15 players though as his bat carries him through development his position could shift – well, anywhere he excels.

“He makes lots of contact and hits the ball hard all of the time,” MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez wrote in a scouting report. Sanchez also mentioned how Mejia’s favorite player is Javier Baez. Sanchez’s report continued: “He shows advanced plate coverage along with average power and flashes of plus power.”

Rodriguez, 17, ranks 27th in BA’s list and 26th per MLB.com in its Top 50. When the Cardinals talked about Bernal, Rodriguez was mentioned by sources as an expected future signing with similarities and a true power profile.

A 6-foot-1 righthanded hitter, Rodriguez is viewed as catcher whose defense and agility behind the plate lags behind his offensive upside. Baseball America described him as “offensive-minded.” Sanchez’s scouting report at MLB.com elaborates on that description: “His ability to hit the ball hard, and out of the ballpark, is his calling card and why everybody in the international scouting community knows his name.”

The Cardinals are one of the teams with the most to spend because they received a competitive balance pick in Round B of most recent draft. Two teams, the Dodgers and Blues Jays, have the smallest purse, at $4,644,000. Signing bonuses of $10,000 or less do not count against the hard spending limit.

One of the assignments Jeff Luhnow had when hired to oversee the draft and amateur acquisition was to increase the Cardinals’ presence in Latin America. In his early months as general manager, John Mozeliak visited the Dominican to meet with representatives of players and express, in person, the Cardinals’ commitment to spending more and being a presence when it comes to acquiring talent. Moises Rodriguez, currently the team’s assistant general manager, ran international signing as the Cardinals signed Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, and the late Oscar Taveras. They had some million-dollar missteps early in their return to international waters, and over time they expressed how their sweet spot was the mid-tier bonuses and acquiring more players to increase their odds of developing prospects.

After Rodriguez’s promotion, Luis Morales moved up in 2017 to be the director of the Cardinals’ international operations.

The Cardinals’ top 30 prospect is stocked with international signings, led by top catching prospect and likely 2022 MLB debut Ivan Herrera, who signed in 2016. Johan Oviedo signed on July 2, 2016, right as that signing period opened. Shortstop Edmundo Sosa signed on July 2, 2012. Other prospects in the system from the international signing process are third baseman Nunez (2018), pitcher Edwin Nunez (2020), pitcher Angel Rondon (2016), catcher Julio Rodriguez (2017), pitcher Dionys Rodriguez (2018), and 17-year-old outfielder Carlos Carmona, who signed a year ago Saturday. A solid centerfielder, Carmona ranked 26th in Baseball America’s ranking of the top 30 prospects for the Cardinals’ system entering 2021.