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Why Mariners fans shouldn’t sleep on the MLB international signing period

Two of the Mariners' standout prospects were added during the international signing period. (AP)

The MLB youth movement is real. Look no further than this year’s All-Star Game roster for confirmation. Of the 64 players heading to the midsummer classic on July 9 in starter or reserve capacities, 33 are age 28 or younger. Fourteen players are 25 or younger.

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The average age on the National League roster is a mere 25.75 years young, making it the youngest collection of All-Stars in 90 years of the game’s existence. Heck, the Braves will be represented by not one but two players who are barely old enough to consume adult beverages. Second-year outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. narrowly edged out his teammate, rookie pitcher Mike Soroka for the title of youngest player in attendance.

Not only do these young contributors bring their significant talents to the All-Star Game, but they also light up one of baseball’s biggest stages with their personalities. This is baseball’s moment to shine globally, with rosters chalk full of international representatives and very little in the sports calendar to compete for viewer attention. MLB has a chance to convert new fans and solidify longtime ones. Who better to take the field than the players who inspired the “Let the Kids Play” movement in Major League Baseball? Bring on the moon shots and diving catches, the bat flips and boisterous displays of emotion.

There are several explanations for MLB’s youthful turn. More than ever, organizations are investing in player development. Clubs are protecting their personnel investments by dedicating generous resources to ensuring prospects have every opportunity for success at their disposal. Advances in technology and analytics help managers and front offices evaluate players in innovative ways that challenge traditional scouting or progression benchmarks. And sometimes promoting a young player is just good business. Putting a contributor on the field with a team that is actively competing for a world championship might be the best way to maximize his years of team control.

The annual MLB draft is the easiest way for teams to acquire young, underpaid talent. I say easiest with a near-laugh, because for all the research, complex analytics and sleepless nights that go into scouting prospects and preparing for the draft, there are most assuredly misses, flame-outs and failures awaiting clubs on the other side. A successful hitter misses seven times out of 10, and front offices are no different. Great baseball players remain undeterred by failure. They demonstrate resilience and a ‘growth mindset.’ The best front offices are remarkably similar. They minimize risk, maximize resources, and just like the elite players they put on the field evolve from their mistakes.

The MLB Draft is not the only way for teams to acquire young, promising talent. Tuesday marks another important date on the front office calendar – the first day teams can sign international amateur free agents. Beginning July 2 until June 15 the following year, teams can use their allotted pool money to sign eligible prospects (must be 16 upon signing and 17 before September 1, 2020, among other stipulations). Over 5,000 amateurs from a plethora of diverse countries have registered for their chance to join an MLB roster, with more than 900 signing last year.

While scouting mere teenagers presents its own set of challenges, especially when competition levels differ significantly from country to country, signing key international prospects can provide MLB teams with affordable depth in an era when controllability is everything.

Just look at the last three teams to win a World Series.

In 2016, the Cubs banished more than a century’s worth of demons to claim their first championship since 1908, making it to November thanks to contributions from 24-year-old catcher/outfielder Willson Contreras. The Venezuelan native signed as an amateur free agent with the Cubs in 2009 for a $850,000 signing bonus, then made the MLB minimum as a rookie in the Cubs’ World Series-winning year.

A year later, it was the Astros’ turn to end a championship drought. Three of the team’s top 10 WAR contributors in 2017 were former amateur free agent signings – infielder Yuli Gurriel (2.4 WAR), utility man Marwin González (4.1 WAR) and Gold Glove second baseman José Altuve (team-leading 8.1 WAR). The Astros signed Gurriel, who had come from Cuba, at age 32 to a 5-year, $47.5 million dollar deal, meaning he made a generous $14 million in base salary in 2017. But both Altuve and Gonzalez vastly outperformed their contracts, making $4.5 million and $3.725 million in 2017, respectively.

And last season, the Boston Red Sox won a World Series with key amateur free agent contributors. At 24, shortstop Xander Bogaerts already had three years of experience and an All-Star appearance under his belt when he won his second championship with the Red Sox, posting 3.8 WAR along the way. Right behind him with 3.0 WAR was 25-year-old pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, whose 23 starts and 13 wins helped augment Boston’s starting rotation.

Winning teams maximize resources, and international free agency is a potential goldmine if you know what to mine for – affordable young talent that can provide the kind of necessary depth, versatility and energy in the hunt for October. For a franchise building towards a competitive window, young and underpaid contributors allow an organization to free up payroll to sign elite free agents.

Every so often, there is a franchise-changing player or generational talent discovered this time of year. Mariners fans hold the proof in six-time All-Star, AL Cy Young winner and 50.4-career WAR holder Félix Hernández. While Hernández’s performance has dipped significantly in recent years, nothing can erase the memories of watching the King post double-digit wins as a 20-year old.

That is the power of the youth movement in baseball. And beginning Tuesday, the Mariners have a shot at finding their next potential young phenom – or at the very least, controllable depth.

We can’t know the ultimate value of the M’s recent amateur signings until (and if) they make it to the show, but if you buy into prospect rankings or pundit reviews, additions like outfielder Julio Rodriguez in 2017 and shortstop Noelvi Marte in 2018 are overwhelmingly promising.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan joined Brock & Salk recently and praised the Mariners’ international free agent signings.

“The Mariners have actually proven pretty good the last couple years at getting international guys,” Passan observed. “(Julio) Rodriguez is a dude. He’s probably the best prospect you know, outside of (Jarred) Kelenic and (Justin) Dunn in the Mariners organization right now, and Noelvi Marte has been really good too.”

Passan also commented on the value that some signings can yield at a relatively low cost of acquisition.

“When you have a chance to go out and get more talent, the money you spend will be a good return on investment there.”

The potential yield is years out, but for 30 MLB teams the investment begins today. The Mariners have $5,398,000 in bonus pool money to work with this year, though it is worth keeping in mind that teams are free to trade away this cash and do so often. Already Tuesday morning, the M’s front office has been very active. Baseball America has the Mariners linked to eight prospects in their IFA Signings Tracker, including four shortstops, two outfielders, one catcher and one right-handed pitcher. Six hail from the Dominican Republic, while the other two are from Venezuela.

The youth movement in baseball is here, my friends. And to quote Athletics Executive VP of Baseball Operations and Moneyball innovator Billy Beane, “Adapt or die.” If the Mariners’ goal is to win a World Series in a couple of years, they will need young, controllable assets to do so. This could be when the M’s acquire those building blocks. Feel free to get excited for the future.

Note: Contractual information from spotrac.com

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