GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox reportedly have strong interest in 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Luis Robert and are perhaps even poised to sign a player who produced a 1.213 OPS last season.
That the organization has reached a point where it would make a significant investment in an extremely talented international prospect is yet another signal about the strength of its Latin American program. Headed by Marco Paddy, the White Sox have endured a transformation from the days of the Dave Wilder scandal to having a minimal presence in Latin America to once again becoming a player on the international market.
General manager Rick Hahn said much of the credit for the shift belongs to Paddy, a highly-respected, well-connected evaluator with an eye for talent who's in his sixth season with the team. Paddy has not only helped refurbish the team's once-tarnished reputation, but he also has provided ownership with a renewed sense of confidence. Such assurance could be critical for the White Sox to make another big international signing when Robert becomes eligible for free agency either in June or July.
"It wasn't just a matter of us going out and getting somebody and putting him in place internationally," Hahn said. "It was a matter of going out and getting someone we felt was among the best in the game and would bring his expertise and his network to our organization and help essentially re-establish ourselves from zero, which is where we were before he joined us."
"We were not in a great spot before he joined us internationally. He carries a lot of weight down there and gets us access to the right guys and is an excellent evaluator of talent."
As a result of Wilder's dismissal in May 2008, the White Sox had limited credibility in the international community when they hired Paddy away from the Toronto Blue Jays on Nov. 30, 2011. The involvement of Wilder and two scouts in a skimming scandal resulted in a two-month investigation by Major League Baseball and a two-year sentence on federal charges for the team's former player development director in 2013.
The team's international investments dried up almost immediately. The club's largest signing in the 3 1/2-year gap between Wilder's firing and Paddy's hire was a $125,000 bonus for left-handed pitcher Jefferson Olacio in 2010. Beyond him, most signings were of players valued in the $10-to-30,000 range.
The team had such a minimal scouting infrastructure that trainers rarely brought their top players to showcases because they didn't believe the White Sox were worth it.
"They had at best a token presence in Latin American up until Marco Paddy took over," Baseball America's Ben Badler said. "They just weren't finding any talent in any of those years.
"He was a very important addition for them. They were pretty much a non-factor and the trainers who have players throughout Latin American (knew) the White Sox were not going to spend money down there — ‘Why should we bother bringing them to the White Sox?'"
Paddy's hiring as Hahn's special assistant in charge of international operations gave the White Sox instant access to players previously unattainable. His resume includes five seasons as Toronto's Director of Latin America Operations (2007-11) and 14 with the Atlanta Braves, including the final three as their international director.
He also has earned a reputation for finding major league talent. Paddy signed Toronto closer Roberto Osuna as well as pitcher Henderson Alvarez, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, both of whom were included in the trade for Mark Buehrle. The Blue Jays traded outfielder Wuilmer Becerra to acquire R.A. Dickey from the New York Mets and catcher Carlos Perez to the Houston Astros for J.A. Happ. Both were signed by Paddy.
(Photo courtesy of El Nacional)
Within two weeks of his hire by the White Sox, Paddy signed right-handed pitcher Luis Martinez — who last season struck out 141 batters in 137 innings with a 3.81 ERA at Single-A Kannapolis — to a $250,000 bonus. But Paddy had plenty of work ahead to get the White Sox into position of overall respectability.
"It's safe to say it was more just standing still," Paddy said. "It was just there, just stagnant and not a lot movement. It was kind of waiting for someone to take over and lead the way. It was still functioning, but it needed someone to take the reigns and say ‘Ok, we're going to go in this direction.'"
Paddy's improvements include the hire of four scouts, including three full-timers in Venezuela. He also recommended an overhaul of the team's Dominican Republic academy in Boca Chica, which was close to dilapidated.
"It was really rundown, beat down," said amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler. "It was rough."
Among the items the White Sox added: an additional batting cage, air conditioning units, a computer lab and outdoor agility courses. They also upgrade the players' rooms and kitchen in a total refurbishing of the dorms. But beyond the improved infrastructure, the rest has been up to Paddy and his network of connections.
"Baseball is an industry where everybody knows everybody," he said. "What helped me was the reputation I have in the industry, especially internationally, the relationships I'd built during the time I was with Atlanta and then Toronto. It made it a lot easier for the White Sox to get more attention from (trainers)."
(Photo courtesy of the White Sox)
Paddy said the investment from ownership was the final piece to the program and it has steadily increased with time and trust. An ex-Braves farmhand, Paddy, 52, was instrumental in the team's pursuit and October 2013 signing of Jose Abreu, who was acquired for $68 million. Paddy suggested the White Sox sign the Cuban slugger and executive vice president Kenny Williams recommended it to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf after he attended a workout. Abreu's success after signing a franchise-record deal has only given the White Sox more confidence in Paddy.
The Abreu deal occurred four months after the team made its biggest international splash under Paddy, signing outfielder Micker Adolfo for a $1.6 million bonus.
While he hasn't yet exceeded his signing bonus pool with the White Sox, Paddy has continued to sign high-profile international teenagers. Infielder Franklin Reyes received $1.5 million in July 2015, a year after infielders Amado Nunez and Ricky Mota received $900,000 and $750,000, respectively. Catcher Jhoandro Alfaro also signed in July 2014 for $700,000.
Fernando Tatis Jr. — who was traded to San Diego last summer — signed for $700,000 in July 2015.
Last July, the White Sox signed three outfielders ranked among Baseball America's top-50 international prospects: Josue Guerrero (33rd overall), Luis Mieses (36) and Anderson Comas (37). Guerrero received $1.1 million, Mieses got $428,000 and Comas earned $450,000. The team also signed righty pitcher Henderson Caraballo for $350,000 and shortstop Lenyn Sosa for $325,000.
"They're definitely in a better position than they were previously," Badler said.
Hostetler and Williams raved about the sheer quantity of talented players who had begun to trickle into the system after the team held its instructional camp from mid-September through October. Those players had previously been absent after the club's three-year hiatus from adding international talent and hurt the depth of the club's farm system.
Though none of Paddy's 15-to-16-year old signees have yet reached the majors, the White Sox expected a five-to-six-year process at the minimum.
"He's starting to influx the system with really good, high ceiling, athletic, middle of the diamond-type guys as well as some power guys," Hostetler said. "My guess is we're looking at the next 18 months, these guys are going to start surfacing and flying up boards and (prospect) rankings."
While Adolfo was the biggest name at the time and Tatis' stock has risen to where he'd potentially be the first overall pick this summer were he available in the amateur draft, Robert could be the biggest of the bunch. Were MLB to be make Robert available before June 15, teams could bid for his services under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. There's no telling where the bidding could go for the lean, 6-foot-3 outfielder who last season hit .401/.526/.687 in 232 plate appearances in Cuba's Serie Nacional.
Two years ago, Boston signed current White Sox prospect Yoan Moncada for $31.5 million. By exceeding its bonus pool, the Red Sox had to pay an additional $31.5 million tax.
Though Baseball America reported that the White Sox are one of the most talked about teams as a landing spot for Robert, those talks could be premature as several key officials have yet to see him in person.
If Robert doesn't get cleared in time by MLB, he'll be added to the July 2 class and subject to a new set of rules under the recently signed CBA. Under the new system, teams' bonus pools max out near $5 million with most having about $4.75 million to spend. Several big spending teams already can't sign players during the upcoming period because they previously exceeded their max in 2015-16. Baseball America said the White Sox "would have more room than most in their bonus pool" starting July 2.
Whereas the previous CBA only taxed teams, the new one has harsher penalties, including the loss of draft picks and the inability to sign future prospects.
"This (new) system now is more about history, it's about knowing the player, who's willing to invest your entire pool, portions of it, whatever," Paddy said. "If you have history, and we've been fortunate to have history because we do our due diligence, then now you're more prepared to make an investment that may involve the entire amount you have for your signing pool."
Their confidence in Paddy and his staff and the leveled playing field have the White Sox liking their chances under the new CBA. When a similar change took place with signing bonuses in baseball's amateur draft in 2012, the White Sox became far bigger spenders on amateur talent. Since then, the White Sox have spent their entire bonus pool amount each time and even exceeded it to sign first-rounder Carlos Rodon in 2014. With an emphasis on adding young, homegrown talent, the rebuilding White Sox plan to do more of the same in the future.
"Now that there's a little firmer cap internationally it does tend to make it a little bit more perhaps old school and that's a competition among player evaluators — through player evaluation and economic muscle," Hahn said.
"We've got the utmost faith in Marco and his staff.
"With Marco's reputation and the work he has put in, and the network he has assembled down there, I feel like we have access to all the finest talent and good of a chance as anybody to sign them."