When Andy MacPhail became the Orioles' president of baseball operations in June 2007, he inherited an excess of deficiencies, perhaps none more glaring than the organization's woeful record in international development, perhaps the worst in baseball.
In the past two-plus years under MacPhail, the Orioles have established an international scouting department, moved into a new Dominican Republic facility and signed their first Japanese professional player, Koji Uehara. And they have significantly upgraded their financial investment.
The club has also increased its investment in international amateurs in 2009, signing 36 for about $1.5 million, light-years ahead of 2007, when they signed a dozen players for a total of $370,000.
Despite the strides, however, the Orioles have a formidable road ahead if they want to catch baseball's international leaders. Only time will tell whether they'll have the resources, the commitment and, ultimately, the player successes, to get there.
"Overall, we have made good headway in terms of exploring countries, the outlaying of signing bonuses and the utilization of personnel," MacPhail said. "We have done all of those things, and now we need to mine those areas we think are going to be the most fruitful for us and do it in a way that is effective for us."
The Orioles' increased international focus officially began in January 2008, when assistant general manager John Stockstill was selected to head the organization's first international scouting department.
The club's shift in philosophy, however, was set in motion in 2006, when development director David Stockstill took over the Latin American program. He scrapped the Venezuelan operation, which had been dormant for several years because of political strife and lack of production, but re-established it this year.
Also in 2006, the Orioles gave a $100,000 bonus to a nondrafted amateur, Dominican outfielder Luis A. Ramirez. Incredibly, it was the first time since the Orioles spent $135,000 on Dominican pitcher Sendy Rleal in 1999 that they had issued a six-figure bonus to a nondrafted amateur free agent.
The sense - if not an official policy - was that the Orioles wouldn't exceed $100,000 in individual bonuses for nondrafted players after they spent exorbitantly on international players who didn't pan out in the 1990s, including approximately $500,000 to Australian pitcher John Stephens, who had a one-season, 12-game major league career, and $160,000 to Australian catcher Andy Utting, who never made the majors.
According to the Orioles, in 2009 they have issued one bonus between $100,000 and $125,000 and three between $75,000 and $100,000. They officially have signed 36 international amateur players for about $1.5 million - which does not include the two-year, $10 million contract given to Uehara in January - up from 21 players and $750,000 in 2008.
"Clearly, we have placed a greater emphasis on it," MacPhail said. "We have dedicated more resources, improved facilities, and spent more on entry-level talent than we have in the past. And it is an area we'll continue to look to be aggressive in."
The criticism of the Orioles' new international surge, however, is twofold: They still haven't landed any top-dollar international amateurs during MacPhail's watch, and the club's international infrastructure lags far behind that of the elite programs.
Spending big bucks on 16-year-old unknowns is not a philosophy that easily meshes with MacPhail's conservative approach, especially when it doesn't guarantee they'll become major leaguers.
"You have to be careful," said John Stockstill, whose departmental efforts are concentrated in the Caribbean, Japan and parts of Europe. "In some countries, those higher bonuses don't always equate to better players, and sometimes there is no correlation at all between money and better players in certain countries."
So the Orioles' focus is now more on quantity and potential than reputed quality.
Each year there are a few high-profile amateurs who command a bidding war, and the Orioles, traditionally, have stayed away. This year they kicked the tires on 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Miguel Angel Sano, who signed with the Minnesota Twins for a reported $3.15 million. That's more than the Orioles have spent in the past three years on all their international amateur signings combined.
"We were interested in Sano," MacPhail said. "We just felt that it didn't make sense for us at that level. We told his agent if he could get over $3 million from somewhere else, he should take it, and that's what he got, and good for him."
Ultimately, it was the small-market Twins, known for sensible spending, who issued the second-largest signing bonus ever for a Latin American (non-Cuban) player.
"It's always a risk," Twins general manager Bill Smith said. "We try to take each player on an individual basis. ... We thought he was an offensive talent that was worth the risk."