As teams continue to work to bolster their presence internationally to gain a greater edge on the amateur scouting front, the Padres, Mariners, Yankees and Blue Jays have set themselves apart for the 2022-2023 international free agent period. Each team is currently positioned to sign one of the top four free agents in next year’s market.
The 2022-2023 international free agent market will feature at least three teenagers set to sign contracts that exceed $4 million in bonuses. Venezuelan catcher Ethan Salas, Dominican shortstop Felnin Celesten, and Dominican outfielder Emmanuel Bonilla. The Yankees have long been believed be the frontrunner for Cuban outfielder Brandon Mayea, with reports of a $4.5 million deal on the table, though the terms of that deal are less concrete at time of publish.
Having spoken with four international scouting directors, the top two players in next year’s class appear undisputed. Salas and Celesten are premier prospects with considerable upside to go along with unmatched floors. Both players possess upper-tier talent and projection, albeit polar opposites in terms of what they are to the scouting industry. Bonilla and Mayea are both extremely talented in their own right, though each director I spoke to believed they were just a half-tick below the former two.
C Ethan Salas – San Diego Padres
Perhaps no player in the 2022-2023 class presents the combination of upside and safety than does Salas. The younger brother of Marlins prospect Jose Salas, Ethan has been a mainstay within scouting circles since he was 12 years old. He’s spent much of the last two years training in Orlando, Florida, so the industry has an extensive feel for what he is and what he can potentially become.
Unlike most international free agents his age, Salas has a track record of facing much older competition. He’s shown a consistent ability to barrel up mid-90s velocity. At just 14 years old, Salas turned around 97 for a ringing double into the pull-side gap. He can also identify spin out of the hand well beyond the expectations of someone his age. And the defense is there too.
Ethan Salas BP at Salas Baseball Farm. pic.twitter.com/VaT3RAQWbK— Tim Rock FTB Scout / Former SF Giants Scout. (@TimRock86524690) April 17, 2021
“He’s just so damn good,” one NL international scouting director said. “It’s a great body, too. Projectable for the position. Big arm. Loose swing. Chance to get into good power. Serious defensive upside. Family pedigree is there. He checks every single box.”
That same director would go on to say how impressive it is watching Salas match up against guys much older than him.
“The biggest risk in (teenage international prospects) is whether they’ll ever hit,” he said. “Salas has been turning around mid-90s heat since he was 14.”
Most international teenagers are seeing mid-80s velocity on a day-to-day basis. Salas has graduated well-beyond that level of competition.
“He constantly puts bat-on-ball,” he said. “Nobody is ever a sure thing, but we all feel pretty darn good about him.”
One AL scouting director summed it up best.
“We all wanted him,” he said. “He’s the best international catching prospect I’ve seen since (Jorge) Alfaro. That was, what, a decade ago?”
The AL director likes Salas more than he did Diego Cartaya or Francisco Alvarez, both of whom signed for more than $2.5 million in 2018 with the Dodgers and Mets respectively. Cartaya and Alvarez are both Top 25 prospects in baseball according to Baseball America. Identifying high-end catching prospects on the international market has never been more in vogue. According to Baseball America, four of the top 25 prospects in baseball are currently catchers that came from the international ranks.
Salas is expected to command close to $5 million next January. That is, unless the new collective bargaining agreement moves the international signing day back up six months to July 2022, which is a possibility, though most feel is unlikely.
SS Felnin Celesten – Seattle Mariners
Despite recently interviewing the Mariners Director of International Scouting Frankie Thon Jr., none of his opinions on Celesten were included here, nor was he willing to speak on the player.
Celesten, according to every scouting director I surveyed, is on the Mount Rushmore of international free agent shortstops available over the last decade. While Wander Franco was the unanimous “top shortstop prospect available” on the international free agent market since 2013, one director believed Celesten to be the next-best. The other directors had him fitting in somewhere in a pool of Franco, Marco Luciano and Orelvis Martinez.
In any case, it’s high company; a highly decorated group of prospects.
It was made pretty clear Celesten has arguably the greatest upside of any player in next year’s class.
“(Celesten) would be on the short list of best prospects to come by way of international signings over the last decade,” one AL director said. “The (Francisco) Lindor comps made some sense, but then he grew five inches. It’s like Didi Gregorious now, but with next-level athleticism and defensive traits. It’s legitimately plus across the whole board. There isn’t really an appropriate comparison right now.”
Felnin Celesten doing some yard work this afternoon in the DR. The Mariners are expected to sign the young Dominican shortstop to a $4 million deal as early as September 2022 when he becomes eligible to sign. Barely 16 years old. pic.twitter.com/icOyiI9AGh— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) October 7, 2021
Celesten, now 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, is far from a sure thing. Salas is so valued inside the industry, in part, because of his track record with the bat against advanced stuff. Celesten doesn’t have that kind of polish or exposure.
“The question is will he hit?” the same AL director added. “That’s not to say he hasn’t hit. He certainly has. But he’s 16 years old. That’s the thing with these guys. If he hits, he could be a perennial all-star. But if he doesn’t, like so many don’t, he might not ever see Double-A.”
Indeed, Celesten is yet to consistently see 90+ mph velocity or advanced breaking balls. Something to watch as he’s presumably assimilated to professional ball in 2023.
So at such a young age, and with the bat in question, what is it that makes Celesten such an elite prospect?
“The profile is just so loud and toolsy. He’s such an athlete shortstop,” one NL director said. “That wasn’t Wander. We knew Wander was going to hit his whole life. There was no question on that. Celesten is more of a pure shortstop with upside. He’s similar to Robert Puason in that way. But (Celesten) has way more instincts, game skill and just a better hit tool at this same stage. More impact.”
Puason signed with the Athletics in July 2019 for $5 million, barely 16 years old at the time.
“The tools are 60s everywhere,” he added. “He’s going to play shortstop. And I don’t throw that around. Most guys don’t stick. He’ll have to prove he can hit. But they all do. He’s got to hit to reach the ceiling. I’d rather have him than Puason. The question will be is it a pretty good bat, and plus bat, or even better than that?”
Celesten is expected to sign a deal exceeding $4.5 million. He’ll turn 17 years old in September, so he will immediately be eligible to sign with any team after his birthday should he want to jump into the 2021-2022 class. That said, it is extremely unlikely any team would have enough left in the current year’s bonus pool to make that happen. His bonus will be almost double that of any international signing bonus ever doled out by the Mariners.
OF Emmanuel Bonilla – Toronto Blue Jays
Bonilla is your prototype corner outfielder with a huge bat and a big arm. Already 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Bonilla has prodigious raw power, but unlike most sluggers his age, his feel for hit allows evaluators to project a more complete profile at the plate as a pro.
“Most of the time, guys like this don’t get big money because you look at the body, you look at the corner profile at this age and fear where it all goes from here,” one AL director said. “Bonilla is in such a different category with the hit tool, it made negotiations between teams pretty unique.”
Most directors shied away from comparisons, but they were effusive of Bonilla’s ability not to become a one-tool guy.
“This isn’t Franmail Reyes,” the AL director added. “Teams can go get big sluggers lacking hit tools on the free agent market whenever they want. You can go draft a kid like that for $100k. Paying this kind of bonus to a teenage corner guy says a lot about the industry’s feel for his ability to hit.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bonilla is a very good athlete as well. The Mariners recently signed Lázaro Montes, similarly a corner outfield profile, to a $2.5 million signing bonus. Bonilla figures to exceed that figure quite comfortably.
“He’s a better athlete than Montes is,” the AL director said. “Hit tool is pretty similar. Both impact the hell out of the baseball. Neither swing and miss much. Montes has a real chance of ending up at first base. Most of us don’t think that possibility really exists with Emmanuel.”
Bonilla is set to sign for right around $4 million, if not a shade more.
OF Brandon Mayea – New York Yankees
Mayea is the x-factor here. It has been previously reported that Mayea and the Yankees are in agreement on a deal close to $5 million. My sources don’t contend that deal won’t happen, but also wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a done deal. It does sound like there’s been some late bidding for the Cuban outfielder.
BACK TO BACK!!! ☄️⚾️ Alexander Alcantara 2022 y Brandon Mayea (El mejor jugador para el 2022)— Felix Walls (@FelixWalls_) February 25, 2021
Ahora mismo no hay una actividad donde haya tanto talento como el torneo de la Zona Sur del país que se está realizando. #MLB #Baseball #Scout pic.twitter.com/wRk419k6BI
Back in 2020, Mayea was revered within the industry for his ability to impact the baseball and his innate feel for finding the barrel. He hasn’t added the physicality or athleticism many expected he would over the last 18 months, but scouts are still excited about the big potential with the bat. He’s got an athletic, barrel-chested build with top-tier feel for the game and solid routes in the centerfield. Evaluators would like to see a little more of the twitch and consistency in his offensive game he showed in 2020 and the early parts of 2021.
It remains to be seen exactly where Mayea will sign, though the Yankees do appear to be the odds-on favorite today. Like Celesten, Mayea turns 17 in September and could be a target for teams that have a ton of bonus pool monies left over from 2021-2022. Again, it’s unlikely that much money would be left over for anyone to make such an aggressive move. Mayea will likely sign for close to $4.5 million.