With all the Shohei Ohtani talk going on so far this offseason, a subject not often talked about among casual fans has been brought to the forefront: international signing bonus pools. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement agreed to last year changed the rules for signing international prospects so that there is now a hard cap on how much each team can spend on signing bonuses each year. Previously, there was a soft cap on such bonuses, meaning teams could go over their limits, but would have to pay a penalty. Now teams cannot go over their limits at all.
Ohtani is only 23 years old, meaning he is subject to international signing rules, including the bonus pool limitations. Because the signing rules also mean he can only be paid the major league minimum salary next year, the signing bonus is where teams can offer the most to Ohtani financially. Low and behold, the Twins happen to have $3.25 million left in their signing bonus pool for this year, which is the third most of any team.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like having more bonus pool money will give the Twins a big leg up in their pursuit of Japanese star. After all, if Ohtani waited just two more years to come to MLB, he’d be 25 years old not subject to any signing limitations. In that case, he could get a contract perhaps as big as $200 or $300 million — but he doesn’t seem to care about being paid less, so he’s coming to MLB now.
Ohtani is expected to be officially posted tomorrow, December 1st, and teams who promise the $20 million posting fee will be able to start negotiating with him. In the coming weeks, we should learn more about what Ohtani is actually looking for, or at least the teams will.
What if, during negotiations, it becomes clear that Ohtani is not interested in coming to Minnesota? What should the Twins do with all that left over bonus pool then?
They have a few different options.
A nice thing about international signing bonus pool cap money is that it is trade-able. In fact, that’s one of the reasons the Twins still have so much money left: they received $500,000 in cap money from the Nationals as part of the Brandon Kintzler trade last season.
Early this month, Twins GM Thad Levine mentioned to the Star Tribune the possibility of trading bonus pool money as a way to cash in on the Ohtani craze. If the Twins sensed a team was in need of more cap money to sign the star, Levine explained, “those funds could become a trade chip with a team trying to better its position. So we are trying to use them as creatively as possible.”
Now, we know Ohtani doesn’t seem particularly focused on money, but perhaps it will play some role in his decision, or at least other teams will think that it will play a role and are willing to trade for more of it. If the Twins find out during negotiations that Ohtani isn’t truly interested in Minnesota, they may be able to trade cap money away to another team still in the running that is looking for an extra leg up.
Even besides Ohtani, there’s another reason teams may be interested in acquiring more signing bonus pool money: to sign the former Braves prospects newly turned free agents. In case you missed it, the Braves were recently caught making under the table deals with international prospects in order to skirt international signing rules, and MLB came down on them hard. One of the Braves’ punishments was having to relinquish 12 of their international prospects, including Kevin Maitan, who was considered the number one international prospect signing in 2016.
Teams may not be starved for bonus pool money to sign the Braves’ former prospects, however — MLB made it fair by allowing teams to spend money on these prospects from either this year’s pool or next year’s pool (teams cannot split bonuses between both pools, however). Still, it makes the left over bonus pool money for this year much more valuable, since otherwise it could only be used on lesser-prospects still left unsigned after months on the market.
Sign Former Braves Prospects
Speaking of those former Braves prospects, the Twins could just use their bonus pool money to sign one or more of them themselves. The bonus pool cap money doesn’t roll over to the next year, so it could be a good use for the money the Twins still have left.
As mentioned, Maitan leads the pack. Before last season, MLB.com had him ranked as the 32nd best prospect in all of baseball, and he’d probably rank even higher now since many of the players ahead of him graduated to the majors. Maitan spent most of 2017 playing shortstop in the Appalachian Rookie League, where he hit .220/.273/.323 with two home runs over 33 games. Those numbers may seem underwhelming, but keep in mind Maitan is only 17 years old, which is a good three years younger than the average age of his competition.
When the Braves signed Maitan in 2016, they gave him a $4.25 million signing bonus. Maitan gets to keep that money as part of the Braves’ punishment, and is now one again a free agent. Because of the new bonus limitations, Maitan’s new bonus won’t be as big as his old one, and he probably knows that.
Other former-Braves prospects turned free agents include catcher Abrahan Gutierrez; infielders Yunior Severino, Yenci Peña, Ji-Hwan Bae, Robert Puason, and Livan Soto; and pitchers Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, and Guillermo Zuniga.
Re-sign Jelfrey Marte
The biggest reason the Twins have so much international signing bonus pool money left this year is because they voided the contract with their top international signing of the year, Jelfrey Marte. The Twins originally signed Marte — ranked the 13th best international prospect in this year’s class — with a $3 million bonus back in early July. During Marte’s physical, however, the Twins discovered he had bad vision and voided his original contract. Hence, Marte is once again a free agent.
The Twins thought highly of Marte originally, and may still think highly of him now — they just might not think $3 million highly of him because of the eye problems. It’s not out of the question for the Twins to re-sign Marte to a new deal with a slightly lower bonus. Heck, maybe the Twins would have enough left to sign one of the other former Braves prospects as well.
The Twins don’t actually have to do anything with their remaining international signing bonus pool money. Though the money won’t roll over to next year, the Twins technically wouldn’t be losing any of it. International signing bonus pool “money” is really just a cap — it’s how much teams are allowed to spend, not the money itself. Hence, when the Twins received $500,000 of signing bonus pool money in the Brandon Kintzler trade, they didn’t actually get $500,000, they got the ability to spend $500,000 more of their own money on international signing bonuses.
So if the Twins don’t end up doing anything with that $3.25 million cap space, fine. They just keep $3.25 million of their own money and can spend it on something else, like, I dunno, the analytics department or something.
The only thing the Twins would be losing by doing nothing with the remaining bonus pool money is the potential value of the cap space. It seems sort of silly when you think about it, but giving other teams permission to spend more of their own money is itself valuable in this case. At the end of the day, however, the Twins might find no team is willing to give up anything significant for the extra cap space, and decide none of the former Braves prospects available are worth spending money on, and hence, do nothing.
Since the Twins do have a significant amount of international bonus pool cap money left, I personally think they should try their best to make use of it. As with seemingly almost everything this offseason, the direction they ultimately take all comes down to what Ohtani decides.
The Twins should try to find out as soon as possible whether Ohtani is seriously considering them, preferably before the Winter Meetings in early December. If Ohtani doesn’t seem interested, they should use the cap money as a trading chip. With Ohtani and all these Braves prospects available, that leftover cap money is more valuable now than it probably will ever be. While trying to sign Maitan or some of the other former Bracves is enticing, the Twins may be able to get players closer to major league ready by trading cap money, and they would be losing virtually nothing at this point by doing it.
What do you think the Twins should do with their remaining cap space?