MLB.com Columnist

Jonathan Mayo

Rays happy with returns from instructional league

Shortstop Rondon headlines talented crop of club's international prospects

Rays happy with returns from instructional league

The Tampa Bay Rays have been much more active on the international signing front in recent years, beginning with a 2012 signing period that saw them go way over the allotted $2.9 million pool each team was given to spend on international free agents that summer.

That wasn't a one-shot deal, either. They couldn't sign a player for over $250,000 in 2013 as part of the penalty for overspending in 2012, but they were aggressive once again this past summer, surpassing their pool by 75 percent (meaning they won't be able to go over $300,000 for any signing in 2015, in addition to the overage tax).

Time will tell if it was money well spent, but the Rays did like what they saw in many of their international players who were in Florida for instructional league play, which wrapped up for Tampa Bay on Friday.

"We had quite a few of our young Latin players here this year," Rays director of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. "We feel we have a number of exciting guys who just came to the United States, or will soon."

The Rays' most recent big-ticket item, Adrian Rondon, might get the most attention. Ranked No. 3 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list heading into the July 2 signing period, Rondon signed for $2.95 million. Rondon didn't turn 16 until July 7, so the Rays had to wait to sign him until he was officially eligible. His time at instructs is his first time the Dominican shortstop has played in the United States.

"He carries himself well," Bloom said. "It's easy to forget he's so young. He's precocious, and some of the good ones do go places when they're young. We have to remind ourselves that there has to be a maturation process both on and off the field -- every player has to build that foundation to prepare himself for the grind that's in his future.

"We obviously think very highly of him, and he's continued to show us great skill -- both in the field and at the plate. He can really impact the ball well for someone so young. Right now, we're still getting him accustomed to how we do things in the professional environment. We want to try to get a lot under his belt to prepare him for next year's challenges."

Rondon was far from the only international signee to perform well at instructs. Juan Carlos Arias, initially ranked No. 20 on MLB.com's 2012 Top 20, couldn't sign until the following June because of an age and identity investigation. The Rays finally got him for $200,000 in mid-June 2013. Like Rondon, Arias has yet to play in this country. A bit "older" at age 19, Arias played third in the Dominican Summer League and hit .236/.329/.391, though he did show some glimpses of the raw power that made him an intriguing prospect in the first place.

"He is a big man with enormous strength potential," Bloom said. "He has big power now and a very good arm. His next challenge is to acclimate to the level of pitching he will see in the States, and instructional league was the start of that process. Our staff who hadn't seen him before were really wowed by his ability, and he made a very positive impression."

The 2012 class that got it all going? They were there in force as well. Jose Castillo (No. 19 on 2012 Top 20), the lefty who got the highest bonus from the class, as well as other higher-priced guys like right-hander Jose Mujica (No. 8) were at instructs. But there are some sleeper types starting to make bigger names for themselves.

Deivy Mendez, younger brother of Rangers right-hander Roman, signed for $120,000 in 2012 and has thrown well. Outfielder Angel Moreno received $188,000 and was one of the youngest from that class to sign, not turning 16 until July 31 of that year. Manny Sanchez is a corner outfielder who joined the organization in April 2013 (technically, still the same signing period).

The Rays were far from conservative with the two teenagers -- Sanchez spent the summer at age 18; Moreno turned 18 at the end of July -- sending the pair to Princeton in the rookie-level Appalachian League for their U.S. debuts. Instructs afforded them the ability to add on to the lessons learned from their Appy League experiences.

"Both got a lot out of the summer in Princeton and showed impressive tools," Bloom said. "They were a bit under the radar the year that they signed, but are starting to emerge. Our international scouting staff deserves a lot of credit for their work with so many of these guys."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.