Dominican outfielder, 16, prize of international crop
Changes to bonus pool altering landscape of signing period, which begins July 2
In many ways, Eloy Jimenez is just like any normal 16-year-old.
Playing video games is a normal part of his life. Driving the family car without supervision isn't.
Jimenez loves playing sports, especially baseball, and joking around with his buddies. Talking about dating, on the other hand, is primarily a shoulder-shrugging exercise.
But when the young outfielder hits in the batting cages, throws from the outfield and runs the bases, it is clear that Jimenez is unlike anyone his age.
When he's between the baselines, Jimenez transforms from a tall and awkward teenager trying to find his way in the world into a 6-foot-4, 198-pound specimen who knows exactly what he wants to do with his life.
Jimenez, the latest crown jewel of Dominican Republic baseball, is ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's list of Top 30 International Prospects. He has an ideal profile for an outfielder and is widely regarded as the prize of this year's signing class.
"It's my dream to be a Major League baseball player, but I don't want to just get there," Jimenez said in Spanish. "I want to be one of the best players in the game and to ever come from the Dominican Republic."
The first goal for Jimenez and teenage prospects like him is to sign with a big league club, which they can begin doing when the international signing period begins on July 2. The next step would be to enter a big league academy in the Dominican Republic. Usually after two years, the organization that runs the academy will decide if the prospect is ready to start playing in the Minor Leagues. It's not uncommon for an international prospect to begin his pro career in the U.S. at 17.
"July 2, the day -- wow, it's a beautiful event," Jimenez said. "It's the day one of your dreams comes true. You deserve that moment, because of all the hard work you put in. I can't wait."
Including Jimenez, there are 19 players from the Dominican Republic, seven from Venezuela, two from Colombia and one each from Taiwan and Italy on the Top 30 list. The position breakdown is eight outfielders, 15 infielders, six pitchers and one catcher.
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, a 16-year-old international player can sign during the period that extends from July 2 through June 15 of the following year if the prospect turns 17 before Sept. 1 or by the completion of his first Minor League season. Additionally, any prospect who is already 17 or older and has not previously signed a Major or Minor League contract, resides outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and has not been enrolled in a high school or college in the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico within the previous year is eligible to sign during the period.
"There's not a whole lot of depth pitching-wise, but this class has some depth in the outfield and some players that profile as shortstops," said Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia. "It's not a great class, but it's not a bad one, either, because it's a highly tooled group with a lot of upside and some good bodies. Few have the game-performance skill set, though."
Jimenez, who is from the Villa Francisca neighborhood of Santo Domingo, might be an exception. He is considered to be the complete package.
He started playing baseball at age 9 and played all around the infield until three years later, when he moved to the outfield. At 14, he caught the eye of trainer/agent Amauris Nina during a youth league game and immediately began working with him. His signing will mark the culmination of almost two years of training.
Nina estimated that Jimenez has worked out privately for each of the 30 big league teams at least three or four times over the past year. The star of Nina's International Prospect League, Jimenez was also a regular at MLB Amateur Prospect League games.
"I can honestly say that I feel like I'm his second father, because he lives with me and is part of my family," Nina said. "He plays with my kids. He eats what we eat and has all of the same rules my kids have. He's just better at baseball."
That's an understatement.
Scouts are impressed with Jimenez's intelligence, speed and gap-to-gap power, which is expected to improve as he gets older.
2013 international signing bonus POOLS
He's been praised as an advanced hitter with quick hands and he is expected to hit for average. On defense, Jimenez projects to be a corner outfielder, likely a right fielder because of his arm strength and athletic ability. He also runs the bases well and has the potential to be a basestealer.
The biggest knock on Jimenez? He might be too nice.
"I'm really excited, a little nervous and curious who I sign with, but I don't feel any pressure," Jimenez said. "I feel like I've done a great job so far. I know there are going to be highs and lows, but I'm staying positive. I'm ready to be a professional."
Jimenez is expected to command a seven-figure signing bonus, but the rules in place for the international signing period have changed.
In accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, each club was allotted $2.9 million to spend on the international market during the signing period that began last July 2. This year's international signing period will work similar to last year's, but all clubs won't have the same amount to spend. Those number have changed according to each team's record in 2012, with the pools ranging from just under $4.25 million for the Astros, who had the Majors' lowest winning percentage, to just under $1.15 million for the Nationals, who had the highest winning percentage.
Each team is allotted a $700,000 base. In addition to that base, each team gets a signing bonus pool that is made up of four slot values, based on its 2012 record. Additionally, clubs are allowed to trade pool money.
Like last year, there are exemptions. Clubs can sign six players for bonuses of $50,000 or less, and those do not count against the allotment. All bonuses of $10,000 or less are also exempt.
The international signing guidelines do not apply to players who previously signed a contract with a Major or Minor League club, nor do they apply to players who are least 23 years old and have played as a professional in a league recognized by the Commissioner's Office for a minimum of five seasons. Cuban players who are at least 23 and have played in a Cuban professional league for three or more seasons are also exempt.
"With the new rules in place, I believe teams have to have a plan -- know what next year's group will look like and be creative," said Joel Araujo, manager of Latin American game development for MLB. "It's all part of the changing international landscape, and it will be interesting to see how clubs operate and which will do well. I think anybody that tells you that they know exactly how it will all play out is not being honest."
Another change could be on the way.
In May, MLB and the Players Association agreed to table talks regarding an International Draft for players like Jimenez until the current CBA expires after the 2016 season.
If all goes according to plan, Jimenez will be a star in the Minor Leagues and on his way to the big leagues when the idea of an International Draft is revisited.
"I don't think just about me," Jimenez said. "I think about mom, buying her a house and taking care of my family. I want to be like my idol Roberto Clemente and help people by being a good person. I'd also love to be in the Hall of Fame."