Cubs ignore stop sign on international signings

Epstein & Co. likely to pay around $2 million in taxes for spending beyond their limit

Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum on Carlos Villanueva's return to the rotation.

When they were working the system in Boston, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer accumulated 16 additional picks in the first three rounds of the draft over a nine-year run. That helped greatly in building a Red Sox farm system that Curt Schilling called "a player development machine.''

The loopholes they exploited closed with the arrival of the 2-year-old collective bargaining agreement, which rewrote the rules for free-agent compensation and instituted spending limits in the draft and on international players. But executives across baseball never stop looking for ways to beat the system, and it seems the Cubs believe they've found one.

MLB assigns teams a signing pool for international amateurs based on reverse standings from the previous year and installed disincentives to stop teams from spending beyond their limit. While Epstein and Hoyer, the Cubs president and general manager, respectively, decline to comment on their thinking, it has become clear they plan to race right past that stop sign, signing 16-year-olds from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere until they have run out of guys they like.

Conventional wisdom held that they probably were done signing major free agents after they locked up Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres and pitchers Jefferson Mejia (Dominican) and Erling Moreno (Colombia) for a combined $6.15 million — or about $630,000 above their allotment, which was about $4.56 million before they increased it in a series of moves Tuesday, the first day of the signing period.

But the Cubs have not stopped working to sign international players, and indications are that they have enough money to land at least one more of the most highly regarded guys and a small handful of others. They could wind up spending $8 million or more, which would leave them paying around $2 million in taxes, unless they make another trade or two to acquire signing space.

Among the intriguing guys still on the market are Dominican 15-year-olds Luis Encarnacion and Leonardo Molina, who aren't eligible to sign until their 16th birthdays, and Taiwanese right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng.

Molina, a speedy center fielder who is extremely athletic, turns 16 on Aug. 1; Encarnacion, a third baseman with raw power, turns 16 on Aug. 9. Tseng is 18 and eligible to sign. Tseng is considered a wild card as he hasn't pitched as well in the last year as he did before, but he was advanced enough to land a spot alongside Chien-Ming Wang on Taiwan's team in the World Baseball Classic.

While it will be interesting to see who else the Cubs do sign, it's the aggressive approach that is really fascinating.

The only team that is being as aggressive as the Cubs during this period is the Rangers, and they started with a pool of only about $1.9 million. The White Sox used $1.6 million of their pool on power-hitting outfielder Micker Adolfo Zapata, and sources indicate they probably will not spend beyond their limit of about $2.2 million.

But the Cubs believe this year's crop is a lot better than next year's group will be and they're willing to be suffer the stiffest penalties under the rules — a 100 percent tax on the overage and a limit of $250,000 on any pick in 2014-15.

It's significant that the Cubs' pool won't go down next year because they are spending so heavily this year. Their preliminary plan calls for them to round up the best arms they can find, signing as many as 12-18 for $250,000 per pitcher.

Will any of this matter? Conventional wisdom is you have to give international teenagers five to eight years to develop, but I won't be surprised if a lot of these guys are names we hear in trade rumors three or four years from now, when the Cubs are July 31 buyers, not sellers.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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