Just like in the MLB, international players are a big part of HBD for some but not all owners. The decision to play in the IFA market or not is a key strategic decision for HBD owners, a fork in the road reached every budgeting day. Competing in the IFA market is expensive and it means sacrifices must be made elsewhere. In the Jersey League, several recent World Series champs (Helena, Las Vegas, Tuscon) have signed multiple marquee (+$10M bonus) IFAs over the years, while two-time World Series champ Houston has not, showing that either path can lead to glory.
The signing bonus for an IFA varies widely based on factors besides the player's projected ratings. The biggest factor is how many other teams with available money scout the player. Huge bargains can be had when a player is only spotted by several teams with available money, and conversly teams pay more when a prospect is widely known.
Signing bonus size also varies widely based on timing. Early in the season when many teams have available cash, IFAs can be very expensive. Late in the season, only a few teams may be left in the market, allowing for bargains. There are exceptions to both rules: some teams are gun shy before the amateur draft. Also, in the final weeks of the season, even mediocre IFAs can provoke bidding wars if several teams are sitting on cash that could be lost at rollover. This makes it hard to judge other team's signings, because the answer to the question "Why did he spend so much on THAT guy?" might be, "He was sitting on money at the end of the season."
Another factor in bonus size is the willingness of owners to sign a MLB contract with young IFAs. While this allows owners to stretch their prospect budget and can make the difference in a bidding war, it can also cause problems in future years when those players reach the high minors without any options left, limiting roster flexibility.
Ten years in (this year isn't included), here is some data on the Jersey League IFA market and the top ten bonus babies:
IFAs Signed by Bonus
Top 10 IFA bonuses:
#1 Felipe Sierra (age 18, 2B): Season 8, $25M (MILB), Helena Vigilantes. Spent just two full seasons in the minors before being called up last year when rosters expended. Sierra then made the playoff roster for the eventual World Series Champs. This year Sierra is a strong hitting 3B though he could also see time at 2B and RF. This was a great signing--future all-star and possibly Hall of Famer, but for $25M it better be a great signing!
#2 Pascual Flores (age 18, SP): $23M (MILB w/STI): Season 5, Nashville Men of Sorrow (now Richmond Rattlers) . Flores, now age 24, pitched in just 34 minor league games and quickly developed into the ace of the Richmond staff and one of the best pitchers in the game. He's a horse that has thrown over 200 innings three years in a row and now has 68 big league wins, with a 3.51 career ERA. Again, a super signing, this kid already has two Cy Youngs on his mantle and is probably on his way to the Hall of Fame if he stays relatively healthy.
#3 Pedro Tavarez (age 18, SP): $22.7M (MLB), Season 6, Washington D.C. Freedom (now Pittsburgh Sluggers). Now age 23, spent about 2 years in the minors. Tavarez hasn't had quite the success as Flores, in part due to three DL stints (despite good health rating). Still, through about 500 MLB innings, he's 35-21 with a 3.89 ERA. Despite the slower start, could close the gap with Flores as time goes by. Imagine someone spending $23M on an IFA and then leaving the league!
#4 Karim Espinosa (age 21, 2B): $22.5M (MILB) Season 4, Vancouver Roses (now Iowa City Independence but still same owner). Espinosa held the record for highest signing bonus at the time and was the oldest at signing of any of the top 10. He spent 3 full years in the minors, not reaching MLB until age 24, a fairly ripe age for a marquee IFA. Espinosa is a very solid player and a key reason for the recent success of Iowa City, yet with a career OPS of .741 and no all-star appearances he hasn't broken out as a star yet. Admittedly, the Iowa ballpark stunts his offensive stats, and he's a very solid all around player: one gold glove, steals about 40 bags a season, and has the high makeup and durability that should provide for a long successful career.
#5 Tomas Calles (age 20, SS): $21M (MLB), Season 7 Louisville Slugs (now Nashville Gryphons). Calles spent just 1/2 of a season in the miors before hitting the majors at age 20, the year of his signing. I wonder if that rush job stunted the growth of his glove? Calles is similar to Espinosa in that he hasn't put up eye-opening stats (career OPS .797) but is a solid all around player with good speed, good health, durability, and makeup. In season 9 he was wisely switched from a SS to CF, after he made a dreadful 55 errors at SS in season 8. I expect a long and successful career.
#6 (tied) Mariano Lima (age 18, P): $20.8M (MLB) Season 4, Tuscon Hohokams. Lima has perhaps been the biggest disappointment of the top ten. He spent a lengthy apprenticeship in the minors, not cracking the big leagues until mid-season 9. Since then, he's racked up just a 22-18 record with a 5.53 ERA. Lima has been held back by his control, walking 238 in just 400 ML innings.
#6 (tied) Fernando Fernandez (age 18, CF): $20.8M (MLB), Season 4, Helena Vigilantes. Fernandez is off to a great career, with 3 all-star appearances and 3 silver sluggers before his 25th birthday. Fernandez spent 3 seasons in the minors and then quickly established himself as one of the all-around best centerfielders in the game. He plays good defense, has good speed, and hits for power and average. He's unfortunately notorious for poor baserunning though, and his health is always a worry, with 2 trips to the DL already.
#8 Vincente Martinez (age 18, 2B): $18M (MILB), Season 10, Minnesota Peacefrog. Martinez is younger than the others on this list and is still just a prospect--but a damn sweet prospect. Martinez was assigned to HiA last year after being signed and is in AA this year. He has played mostly CF but may need to move to 2B or even LF in the majors. Will hit for outstanding average, some power, and will be a baserunning threat.
#9 Pascual Rodgriguez (age 18, 2B): $17.4M (MLB), Season 7, Tuscon Hohokams. Rodriguez has also not hit the big leagues yet, but he could be ready any day. He's been brought along slowly, with two years in LoA, and a full year each in HiA and AA, before landing in AAA this year. He might also be a bit of a disappointment for that large bonus, but Rodriguez does project as an every-day ML player, probably a 2B with a bit of a weak glove. He's a good hitter though, and hit 48 HRs with a 1.133 OPS in AA last year.
#10 Esteban Gardel (age 18, LF): $16.8M (MILB), Season 7, Iowa City Independence. Gardel, a RF, is the only one in the top 10 to have been traded, in a season 8 blockbuster. Gardel spent 4+ years in the minors before a recent promotion to the ML. He's made an impressive debut, with 8 HRs and 8 SBs in just 17 games. Gardel is an outstanding offensive performer, with great speed and baserunning, huge power, and a good eye. He's weak defensively though, and while he's at RF now he's already made 3 negative plays there and is more suited to LF, 1B, or DH.