As the proportion of foreign-born players continues to rise and the secret gold mines in countries such as the Dominican Republic become anything but secretive, teams are beginning to explore new international markets. In these markets, where few teams have strong presences, savvy teams can enjoy a sort of a monopoly on the talent. Even if it isn’t as strong in these newer and lightly-scouted markets as the talent domestically and in more highly-scouted international markets, one could reason that acquiring a high percentage of the top talent from a lesser market could result in enough of a return to justify a substantial scouting presence in the area.
Australia and New Zealand are perhaps more heavily scouted than the hypothetical unexplored market to which I am alluding, but these are nevertheless much smaller and less explored territories relative to many of their Latin American counterparts. Further separating these markets, Australia and New Zealand have experienced anything but balanced scouting presences among the 30 clubs. Since 1987, the disparities in signings of Oceanic players tell a clear story about the scouting presences in and commitment to monopolizing these markets. (Note: for the sake of this article, Oceania refers solely to Australia and New Zealand. The vast majority of the players in these totals are from Australia, but a few hail from New Zealand).
The chart below tallies the raw number of signings by each club since 1987. Note that all franchises are listed under their current name, so all players signed by the Montreal Expos are included in the total for the Washington Nationals.
The presence of the Minnesota Twins in the Oceanic market is unprecedented and unmatched. The next closest club, the Atlanta Braves, has signed just over half as many players as the Twins since 1987. In a sport that until very recently allowed teams to scout and sign any and as many international players of age that they wished, it is quite surprising to see one team exhibit such dominance over a single market. Were the Twins foolish in spending so many resources in Oceania instead of using those resources in proven markets such as the Dominican Republic, or was the rest of the league foolish to let the Twins dominate these territories? Let’s take a look at the history of their signings in Australia and New Zealand and the data dealing with their results in these markets.
Return on Investment
From 1987 through the 1993 season, the Twins signed two Oceanic players, neither of whom reached Double-A. Over the next seven years, they signed ten players, about one and a half per year, for a combined $441,250. Included in these ten players was a pair of right handed pitchers, Peter Moylan and Grant Balfour, who received respective bonuses of just $20,000 and $15,000 and became two of the most successful major league players in Oceanic history.
In 2001, Major League Baseball helped open the MLB Australian Academy Program. Commonly known as the MLBAAP, the academy assisted scouts by bringing the top amateur talent in the region together for about eight weeks. Unsurprisingly, this boosted the amount of Oceanic signings significantly. From 1987 through 2000, only 9.6 Oceanic players were signed to major league organizations each year, but since the start of the academy through 2012, that figure rose to 16.8 per season.
The Twins were the biggest contributor to this rise, and their number of signings rose dramatically once the academy program began. Instead of their usual one and a half per year, in 2001 the Twins added six Oceanic players to their system, including future major leaguer Trent Oeltjen. These aggressive acquisitions continued throughout the decade, as they averaged almost three per year from 2001 through 2010 (two players were acquired through the first year player draft, the rest were not subject to the draft and signed as amateur international free agents). Two years later in, 2012, they were at it again, signing five players (including Lewis Thorpe, the current top Australian prospect in affiliated system, for a $500,000 bonus).
In numerical form, the Twins’ efforts in Australia have resulted in the following totals:
|MLB Players with org||3|
Note: The Twins surely spent more than just the roughly $3.5 million in bonuses on their presence in Oceania, but this additional spending isn’t enough to excessively alter the results. Feel free to insert your own guess on the organization’s scouting budget during this time and alter your conclusions accordingly.
Major league players: Grant Balfour, Liam Hendriks, Peter Moylan, Luke Hughes, Trent Oeltjen
Current Prospects: Lewis Thorpe, Logan Wade, James Beresford, Tim Atherton, Jack Barrie, Jacob Younis, Sam Gibbons, Josh Guyer, Lachlan Wells (yet to debut in affiliated ball)
There are many ways to interpret these numbers. Perhaps the easiest way is to see that the Twins spent nearly $3.5 million on five major league players. That equals almost $700,000 per major league player, all others excluded. Considering the solid careers of players like Balfour and Moylan and the six years of club control at team-friendly rates, $700,000 per player (plus scouting costs) seems like a bargain.
At a deeper level, we can measure the total return on investment through time spent with the major league club and WAR (bWAR, to be specific), both with the Twins and total career. Let’s take a look at each of the five major leaguer players to get an idea of the return on investment for each one.
|Name||Pos||MLB Debut||Seasons w Twins||WAR w Twins||Total Seasons||Total WAR|
|Moylan, Peter M||RHP||2006||0||0||8||4.1|
|Balfour, Grant R||RHP||2001||3||0.7||11||9.1|
|Oeltjen, Trent C||OF||2009||0||0||3||0|
On the basis of WAR, the Twins received nine seasons of contributions with a net negative WAR total from their Oceanic players. Hendriks is the main culprit for that low total, but even he provided value to the club, as he ate innings that would have presumably been given to a pitcher deemed by the club to be much worse than him. However, no matter how one looks at it, the Twins saw just three players reach the show under their tutelage, and all three were roughly replacement-level players who were either released or waived within three years.
That being said, the Twins could have reaped the benefits of the quality seasons by Balfour and Moylan had they stuck with the players a bit longer. This isn’t said to criticize the Twins for cutting bait so soon; rather, this hindsight shows that these totals for the Twins expenditures in Oceania could have been substantially better.
This has been a retrospective analysis, not a prospective one, and therefore it is difficult to use it to justify or rebuke future expenditures down under. If the Twins sign an All Star from Oceania, all their expenditures will be more than justified, while if players like Lewis Thorpe and Lachlan Wells never become quality major league players, their total return on investment will remain little more than a few replacement-level players.
Oceania is not presently a premier international market, and the team that has cornered the market has gotten merely a few replacement level contributions for their efforts, but I believe Australia is still a market worth exploring in the future. As the youth programs improve (Australia was awarded an automatic bid to the Little League World Series beginning in 2013), awareness of the game increases from MLB’s concentrated effort to showcase the game through the 2014 Opening Series and the ABL, and the MLB Australian Academy Program continues to succeed, this market will rise further. Baseball is growing rapidly in Australia – more rapidly than in any other country – and shows little signs of slowing. It is highly probable that the most fruitful returns in the Oceanic market have yet to come, and though the Twins have yet to experience a substantial return on their investments down under, they remain leaders in this market and the club most likely to profit from the Oceanic market in the future.
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All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference. All signing bonus information courtesy of Major League Baseball International.
Dan Weigel is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and an Author of Minor League Ball. Follow him on twitter at @DanWiggles38 and/or around Blacktown International Sportspark this weekend during the Sydney Blue Sox first home series of the season.