As if you needed another reminder about how the game of baseball has changed in the last decade, check out the first two batters in Tuesday's All-Star Game in Miami
For the American League, Houston's Jose Altuve will lead off followed by Cleveland's Jose Ramirez. The pair of infielders, hitting .347 and .332, respectively, were each signed as amateur free agents as teenagers before blossoming unexpectedly into productive major-leaguers and now stars. Each signed relatively inexpensive long-term extensions with their current teams, providing surplus value on the contract.
Altuve and Ramirez are just two of 11 players in Tuesday night's game who signed as amateur free agents with their current teams. That’s the same number of All-Stars who were acquired by their current team through free agency.
This has changed dramatically in the last decade. In 2007, just three players reached the All-Star Game with the team that signed them as amateur free agents. That contrasted with the 16 who had landed with their current team through free agency.
This isn't exactly a revelation. In the last decade-plus, regular free agency has become less and less efficient. Players don't age as well into their 30s as they used to, and most marquee signings come with the understanding that a player won't be worth the contract by its end.
In 2007, just about a quarter of All-Stars had been acquired by their current team through free agency. This year, it's barely 15 percent.
The trade market has remained more or less the same. Eleven of the 65 All-Stars in 2007 were dealt to their current team as major-leaguers; that’s true of 11 of the 71 All-Stars this year, including a pair of Red Sox in Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel.
It's notable again, though, how Boston acquired Sale and Kimbrel — or more specifically, who it used to acquire them. In Sale's case, the key piece was Yoan Moncada — notoriously signed to the largest deal ever for an amateur international free agent. For Kimbrel, Boston's biggest pieces going the other way were Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra — two more prospects signed internationally.
When spending restrictions came down on the draft five years ago, that also became a more difficult means of landing impact players. Teams could no longer hand out huge bonuses to amateur talent; it had to distribute its financial allotment as wisely as possible. (The Astros' 2012 draft, in which it selected All-Stars Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers in the first round, remains the shiniest example of that.)
These developments have left the amateur international market as the most efficient way to bring potential major-league talent into your organization. Altuve signed for a $15,000 bonus; Ramirez for $50,000. Contrast that with the $2.6 million bonus the Red Sox just gave to first-round pick Tanner Houck, let alone the nine-figure deals teams hand out in free agency to aging stars.
Amateur free agency helps teams in smaller markets bring in big-time talent, be it Minnesota with Miguel Sano or Kansas City with Sal Perez. Of course, the big-market teams wade in just as much: The Yankees signed Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez as amateur free agents, and that's how the Dodgers initially inked a catcher named Kenley Jansen.
That’s why, while the most noteworthy acquisition the Red Sox make this month figures to occur close to July 31, the most important ones may have already happened. After sanctions passed down by Major League Baseball forced Boston to sit out the international market for a year, the Sox spent big on young talent this month. The Red Sox have reportedly come to agreements with catcher Daniel Flores and shortstops Danny Diaz and Antoni Flores — all ranked in Baseball America's top 35 international prospects.
The hope, of course, is that the next Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers resides somewhere in that group. While Boston president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has his fingerprints on a whole host of 2017 All-Stars — he's drafted two, traded for five and traded away three — the amateur international market wasn't as big a focus for him in Detroit as it is in Boston. (It's worth pointing out the Tigers did sign Avisail Garcia as an amateur free agent under Dombrowski.)
"One of the things I really love about being with the Red Sox is that there's a global perspective and the ability to pursue talent all over the globe," Dombrowski said Saturday at Tropicana Field. "It's something we're aggressive in trying to do all the time."