When it comes to building a baseball team, especially a small-market one that doesn’t have a lot of money to lure or sign free agents, the international market can be a solid investment. The International Signing period, which is mostly geared toward players from Latin America, occurs a month after the MLB Draft, and for some teams, the International Signing period can be just as big a deal as the Rule 4 Draft when it comes to acquiring talent that can help a club long-term. Today, MLB.com writer and International expert Jesse Sanchez ranked his Top 30 International prospects who are eligible to be signed, and it seems like there are reports that the Royals are the favorites to land No. 11 prospect Daniel Vasquez, a shortstop prospect out of Valenzuela. More about Vasquez, and what the International Signing period could look like during this time of COVID was profiled in the Royals Review piece Tweeted below:
If the Royals do sign Vasquez (and considering he is wearing a KC hat in the highlight clip in the Royals Review post, I think it is likely), it will be another example of Dayton Moore and the Royals’ commitment to invest in Latin American talent and player development. That was further demonstrated last year with the signing of Erick Pena, a 17-year-old outfielder who is currently ranked as the 5th best prospect in the Royals system according to MLB.com, and has drawn some comparisons to a “Carlos Beltran-esque” outfielder.
Last year, the Royals signed the five-tool teenage outfielder out of the Dominican Republic for $3.8 million, a substantial commitment for such a young player. As said in previous articles linked in this post, Pena profiled as a long, athletic outfielder with a great hit tool, budding power, and some solid defensive ability. Rated as the fifth-best prospect overall from Latin America eligible for the July International Signing period in 2019, what separated Pena from the rest of the prospects in his class was his polish, as many scouts and experts claimed that Pena was one of the more developed players of the group, a good sign for a Royals team looking for young players to make an impact at the Major League level sooner rather than later.
Here is what MLB.com said about Pena in their 2020 write up about him:
“Pena’s bat and power are his best tools at the moment, but the other parts of his game are not far behind. The left-handed hitter has a sound approach with a slight uppercut swing that yields hard contact to all fields. He has shown strength and quickness through the strike zone and the ball jumps off of his bat. He could end up having plus power and does not have a lot of swing and miss. An average runner with a solid-to-average arm and solid defensive skills, he runs well enough to at least be given a chance to stick in center field. He could outgrow the up-the-middle position and move to right field, where he has the offensive tools to profile well.”No. 5: Erick Pena, “MLB Prospect Watch: Kansas City Royals”; MLB.com
MLB.com also mentioned his baseball IQ and makeup as a plus, and that he did impress in Instructional League play when he made the journey stateside. Furthermore, if you watch the video below of Pena, you can see talent and potential oozing from him at the plate. His swing is a little raw, as his approach (he flails around a little bit at the dish, and he has some bad swings and misses). However, he had a body type that he can grow into, and his swing has potential to be a 20-plus home run stroke if he can clean up things in the Arizona Rookie League, where he is projected to play in 2020 (that is of course if we have an AZL season).
It’s hard to say much on Pena considering he hasn’t really played professional ball outside of instructional league play. That being said, at 6’3 and 190 pounds, it appears that Pena has the size and tools to be a successful piece of the Royals outfield in the future. In fact, prospect experts think he could eventually push Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel out of center field, which is crazy to think considering Pena is only 17-years-old and hasn’t played a professional game yet.
That being said, the Royals did not spend nearly $4 million on him for nothing, and prospect experts, who usually are reserved when it comes to International signings entering their first year, are pretty bullish on Pena. Granted, while Royals fans will have to wait and see him put it together over a full Minor League campaign (which may not be until 2021, unfortunately), Pena may be one of the most exciting prospects to sign with the Royals since Adalberto Mondesi in 2011, who signed for half of what Pena did last year. And considering that Mondesi is projected to breakout this year after developing the past two seasons (if he stays healthy), that could give a hint of what kind of player Pena could become in Kansas City.
And a Mondesi breakout, and perhaps Pena one too in four or so years, could be the realization of the Royals plan over the past decade to develop a pipeline from Latin America to Kansas City.
Which is pretty crazy when you think about it, and one of the underrated aspects of Moore’s legacy as Royals general manager.
Prior to Moore, the Royals were not exactly a team that was “active” when it came to Latin American scouting. While the Royals have always tried to be ahead of the curve when it came to scouting and development over their franchise history, with scouts like Art Stewart and experiments like the Royals Baseball Academy (which produced Frank White), their activity in Latin American scouting was meager to put it lightly prior to Moore’s arrival. Yes, the Royals had players like Carlos Beltran, but Beltran was acquired through the draft, as he was from Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rican players are eligible to be selected in the Rule 4 draft (unlike players from the Dominican Republic for example). And other than Beltran, there weren’t many names worth remembering, unless Royals fans want to remember guys like Angel Berroa, Carlos Febles, and Runelvys Hernandez as notable International signings.
While clubs like the Yankees, Giants, Dodgers, and even the Cubs were making in-roads with extensive scouting and building academies in Latin America, the Royals for a while, especially in the 90’s and early 2000’s (mostly during the Allard Baird era), were pretty inactive, and were seemingly passing on an opportunity to help build their club with cost-controlled talent that could provide upside at the Major League level. Maybe owner David Glass didn’t believe in spending more money in this area of scouting at the time. Maybe Royals ownership and management felt that domestic scouting was more of a sure thing. Whatever the reason, it seemed plenty of Latin American talent passed the Royals by, which only contributed to the Royals’ woes during the Glass-era.
However, for all his faults as a GM, Moore has grown scouting and development in Latin America, and now, the Royals have become one of the better clubs in baseball (or at least fastest growing) when it comes to the acquisition of talent in Latin America. They currently have two Dominican Summer League teams (only 13 other clubs have two teams), with one of the clubs winning a DSL title for the first time a year ago. And they have become active when it comes to signing high-profile Latin American talent during the signing period, as not only Mondesi and Pena are examples, but they also spent considerable money on outfielder Seuly Matias and infielder Jeison Guzman when they were eligible in 2015 as well.
Now, spending all that money and increasing their capital in Latin American player development is all well and good as long as it produces players at the Major League level. So far, it has somewhat. Mondesi has been the Royals’ starting shortstop the past season and a half (it took a while for manager Ned Yost to finally bench Alcides Escobar), and catcher Salvador Perez is another success story that came from the Royals scouting team, especially in Venezuela.
In fact, the Royals biggest inroads in Latin American scouting have come in Venezuela, as in addition to Salvy, infielder Humberto Arteaga is another Venezuelan national who contributed to the Royals a year ago, and there are other options waiting in the wings such a pitchers Arnaldo Hernandez and Andres Machado and catchers Sebastian Rivero and Freddy Fermin. They were all players from Venezuela who were invited and participated in Spring Training camp this year in Surprise, which shows that Moore and the Royals’ Latin American scouting is producing something in the Majors and high minors at the very least.
This is all interesting mostly because Kansas City does not exactly have a huge Hispanic/Latinx population in comparison to other MLB markets. For example, Los Angeles’ metro has a Hispanic/Latix population of almost 45 percent, and Chicago and New York are over 20 percent. Kansas City? Around 8-9 percent depending on how optimistically you want to interpret the graph. Thus, Kansas City does not have the large Hispanic/Latinx market or fan base that would be demanding more talent from Latin America on the field like a Los Angeles or Chicago. And yet, the Royals are investing seriously into this region, knowing that it has not only helped bring on-field production to Kansas City recently, but could do so in even greater numbers in the future as well.
And that is a great thing to see for a city that is becoming more diverse over time. As someone from California, one of the questions I get a lot regarding Kansas City is diversity, and it gets a bad wrap at times. It can be seen as a “Trump Haven” of sorts, and while that does exist in some parts, it is an unfair characteristic of a City that I have grown to embrace since moving here.
Yes, Kansas City is not Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, but it is more culturally diverse here than when I moved here seven years ago, and I imagine in three years, it will be even more diverse as well. And though it is common to see a lot of the same “Midwestern White” faces in stands at the Kauffman, there is a growing diversity at Kauffman that is encouraging to behold. There are “Los Reales” nights, and dual-language newspapers like the Kansas City Hispanic News are covering the Royals more than before. There is a Spanish-broadcast of select home games on the radio, and though I wish there were more games on the radio in Spanish, it’s nice to see that they are growing in terms of catering to that demographic. And just look at Salvy, a native Venezuelan who has been so utterly embraced as the heart and soul of the Royals, even after missing a full year of play. Remember his ceremony at FanFest this January, and don’t tell me that Latin American players and the community have had an impact in Kansas City:
That’s why signings like Pena are important. They produce stories like Salvy in Kansas City. And it’s only a matter of time before Mondesi gains his own following, especially if he is able to truly breakout and stay healthy in 2020. And it’s possible that Pena not only will be embraced by Royals fans like Salvy, but he could also embrace a city like Kansas City that is taking steps toward becoming a more culturally diverse location.
It’s wishful thinking I know, but that is the benefit of the Royals going after players like Pena and putting more resources into scouting and development in Latin America. It not only produces a better product on the field, but it also leads to inspiring stories like Salvy’s that just better the Kansas City community as a whole.