I’ve been meaning to write up an article on Carlos Rivero, but more specifically, an article about the risk of signing 16 year old free agents out of Latin America, and how their developmental time frame is different from US born prospects subject to the draft. And with Rivero’s solid May, I thought now would be a good time to finally write this piece, because I think it will cover a number of interesting concepts. Well, you can be the judge of that. Anyway, let’s get after it.
As you know, MLB teams supplement their farm system every year via the MLB draft, with teams drafting about 50 guys each, sometimes more and sometimes less. In addition, teams wade in to the international free agent market where the rules of the draft do not apply. Anyone 16 years of age by July 1 is eligible to sign, and like most markets subject to inflation, the cost for acquiring premium talent in Latin America has steadily increased over the last 5+ years. Teams who previously did not venture in to Latin America, like the Pirates, have begun to throw around huge sums of money. Many teams, including the Phillies, have academies in Latin American countries for their new signees to train before coming stateside, and in general, teams have made huge investments in mining foreign talent. Just like the major league draft, however, the attrition rate is extremely high when signing prospects out of Latin America, and most of them never make it to the majors, with an even smaller sub-set turning in to stars. But, the chance is always there, and teams will always take it, hoping to unearth the next Hanley Ramirez.
Which brings me to the most crucial aspect of signing talent out of Latin America…….time. Most prospects sign at age 16. Most prospects also sign deals for the following season. Meaning, if the Phillies sign a 16 year old this year, he could sign a 2012 contract, meaning he can’t play any games in 2011, and his first game action would come in 2012, presumably at age 17. Per the collective bargaining agreement, a player signed before his 18th birthday must be protected on the 40 man roster after 5 minor league seasons. Minor leaguers are eligible for free agency after 6 seasons if they are unprotected. So, assuming you sign at 16, and sign a contract which starts the following year (assuming you sign in July), the chart looks like this
Season 1 – Age 17
Season 2 – Age 18
Season 3 – Age 19
Season 4 – Age 20
Season 5 – Age 21 (must be placed on 40 man roster or subjected to Rule 5 draft)
Season 6 – Age 22 (free agent if not placed on the 40 man roster)
A player subject to the draft taken out of high school is likely either 17 or 18. If they are 18, they have an additional year before having to be protected. See below
Season 1 – Age 18
Season 2 – Age 19
Season 3 – Age 20
Season 4 – Age 21
Season 5 – Age 22 (must be placed on 40 man roster or subjected to Rule 5 draft)
Season 6 – Age 23 (free agent if not placed on the 40 man roster)
For players aged 19 or older, they are subject to Rule 5 protection after their 4th season. So a college player drafted at age 21 would have the following schedule
Season 1 – 21
Season 2 – 22
Season 3 – 23
Season 4 – 24 (must be placed on 40 man roster or subjected to Rule 5 draft)
Season 5 – 25 (must be placed on 40 man roster or subjected to Rule 5 draft)
Season 6 – 26 (free agent if not placed on 40 man roster)
So why is this important? Because at 22, you are still really young, all things considered. In 2010, only 46 players played in the majors at age 22 or less. In 2009, it was 51. And that’s just an appearance in the majors, not playing full time and making positive contributions. Along these lines, there are a number of factors when looking at Latin American prospects in general:
* In many cases, 16 year old prospects are not playing competitive games, whereas US born players are playing on summer traveling squads as well as high school seasons.
* Many of these prospects are evaluated almost entirely on their individual workouts. This includes batting practice, fielding drills, and sometimes simulated games. Again, its not against elite competition.
* In lots of cases, teams elect to keep their big money signings in a foreign rookie league for their first season, so a prospect who signs at 16 and doesn’t debut at 17 might spend his first year in the Venezuelan or Dominican Summer League and not in the US. The level of competition in those leagues is inferior to the Gulf Coast League or Arizona League stateside.
* Latin American prospects, when they do reach the US, are subject to a number of challenges that US born prospects aren’t, namely the language and cultural barriers, as well as adapting to more structured routines and playing every day/pitching every 5th day.
This isn’t supposed to be a case against being active in Latin America. The Phillies have found a number of gems in Venezuela, Panama and the Dominican. The point is, these prospects face really long odds, and you could argue, longer odds than US born prospects. When you find the right guy and everything clicks, you can hit the jackpot. A $1.5M bonus could land you the next Felix Hernandez. But like the draft, its a long shot. And that brings me to Carlos Rivero.
Born on May 20th, 1988, the Indians signed Rivero out of Venezuela for a modest $100K in 2005 at age 17. Unlike the example I listed above, he played in his debut season, but it was his age 17 season and meshes with the chart I laid out. The Indians kept him in the DSL his first year, and he put up the following line (note, click any of the images if they don’t display properly, they should open full size in a new tab/window)
Certainly nothing to brag about, and for a $100K guy, it doesn’t really raise any eyebrows. The Indians brought him stateside in 2006 for his age 18 season. Baseball America didn’t start paying attention to him until after the 2007 season, so lets look at his 2006 and 2007 and then focus on his writeup.
Again, nothing to really get excited about from a performance standpoint. After splitting his age 18 season between two rookie league levels, the Indians jumped him to the SAL at age 19 in 2007. He didn’t hit for any power and didn’t run much, but he did draw walks and his 17% K rate (as a percentage of plate appearances, more meaningful than as a percentage of AB IMO) was fine considering his age and experience level. BA ranked him 18th in Cleveland’s system after the 2007 season and noted the following key points
* For his size (6’3/200) he still shows good hands, range, and a plus arm at short, though he may have to move to 3B
* He has big raw power and hitting ability
* His bat speed is above average and he features an easy, fluid swing.
* His plate discipline is a concern, as he has a hard time recognizing breaking balls
* Scouts question his maturity because he often loses focus and tries to be flashy
Rivero moved to the Carolina League in 2008. The CL plays fairly neutral, just for reference, and he would be 20 for the bulk of the season. He put up the following numbers:
His walk rate decreased and his strikeout rate increased by about the same amount. He did show a tick more raw power, but still not what you would expect from an elite or even very good prospect. BA wasn’t deterred, however, and bumped him up to 11th in the Cleveland system, making the following points:
* He was the 2nd youngest regular in the CAR and had a blistering final month, going .358/.413/.587 (with 5 HR)
* He has plus raw power which is more evident in batting practice than in games
* Good athleticism, fluid swing
* Soft hands and a strong arm
* Struggles to recognize breaking balls
* 16 of his 24 errors came on throws
* Below average runner with below average side to side range
* Comp’ed to Jhonny Peralta
This is kind of where it fell apart for Rivero. He spent 2009 and 2010, his age 21 and 22 seasons, at AA Akron in the Eastern League, the home of the Reading Phillies. Take a look at his numbers:
2009 was an interesting season. He bumped his walk rate back up and brought his K rate down into the 13% range, which is fairly excellent, however the power was still not there, with just a .102 ISO. The most interesting part of this was the immediate position switch, as the Phillies moved him to 3B, a move that was long predicted by scouts.
Update –> Rivero was added to the 40 man roster prior 2010. He was designated for assignment and removed from the 40 man roster prior to 2011 and claimed by the Phillies. Link
So how has Rivero looked so far this season?
The first obvious thing to take note of is the .162 ISO. His previous best was a .129 ISO in the Carolina League at age 20. His BB rate is solid at 9%, though his K rate has gone up to 21.7%, as he’s traded a bit of contact for more power. This, however, is a fairly acceptable tradeoff at this point, and 21.7% is manageable. A .162 ISO certainly isn’t elite for a 3B prospect, but its a fairly substantial jump from his previous career marks.
Rivero turned 23 on May 20th, and I think that is the big takeaway. 2011 is his 7th season in pro baseball, his 6th season in the US, and he is still younger than Harold Garcia, Matt Rizzotti and Cody Overbeck. The raw tools, the athleticism, have always been there, but the performances have never matched up. Some guys develop early and their tools match their ability at age 18, 19, or 20. Some guys don’t really blossom until age 24-25, and in some cases, it happens even later. Because of the nature of the international market and roster requirements, Rivero reached his 6 year free agent mark before he even turned 23. That might turn out to be the Phillies gain and the Indians loss. Rivero has a ways to go, and he’s still not putting up jaw dropping numbers, but things are moving in the right direction. After posting a respectable .265/.375/.382 mark in April, he’s hitting at a .300/.349/.500 clip in May.
To answer the question “is he a guy we should be monitoring” and “could he be for real?”, my answer is yes and hopefully. Stay tuned.