In 2000, the Red Sox wrote a $20,000 check to a 16-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic by the name of Hanley Ramirez. To that point, the international market hadn't been hugely productive for the team. Rafael Betancourt and Frank Francisco each found their way to the major leagues and enjoyed some reasonable success, but neither one ended up playing for Boston.
If Ramirez would prove to be a giant milestone for the Sox on the international market, however, he did not signal the dawn of a new day. They had a very impressive follow-up with Anibal Sanchez in 2001, to be sure, but Felix Doubront is the next name of any real significance to have come from the system, and he didn't show up until 2004.
The 2006-2007 signing period was another milestone, but for different reasons. Outside of Doubront, the only names produced by the system since Sanchez had been Yamaico Navarro, who is looking like a classic Quadruple-A player, and Chih-Hsien Chiang, who only just managed to make himself worth something in the Eric Bedard trade, courtesy of a career year in Double-A. 2006, however, proved to be the year of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. Okajima was good for the most part, though he was seriously overshadowed by Daisuke's awfulness, but either way both were established players in NPB, and as a result don't exactly count.
It's at this point where we start running up against players for whom the ending is not necessarily written, but still the rest of that class reads as a series of disappointments. Che-Hsuan Lin doesn't seem likely to ever be anything more than a defensive replacement/pinch runner type, what little hype Manny Rivera and Oscar Tejeda managed to produce has has pretty much vanished, and of course Stolmy Pimentel seems to have stalled out in Double-A and is now a Pirate (ditto Tejeda, for that matter).
Michael Almanzar leads the disappointment charge for 2007-2008, though the toolsy corner infielder finally showed some progress in his fifth year in the system. Roman Mendez has some impressive stuff, but now resides in Texas courtesy of the Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade (where he has seen mixed results).
You may have noticed that since 2001, the Sox' system has produced just the one major league player in Felix Doubront, and even he might fall off from that if he doesn't improve in 2013. It's that which makes the arrival of Junichi Tazawa in 2008 so important, given how dominant he looked in 2012. The expensive Oscar Perez, who could have made this class something special, has struggled mightily to live up to his signing bonus, but Keury De La Cruz has enjoyed something of a breakout, and could add to Tazawa's value. Still, after so many barren years, Tazawa would prove a welcome change of pace to the system's history should he prove to be as good as he looked last year.
And, if Tazawa does pull it off, he will hopefully end up being just the first page in a new, more productive chapter for the Red Sox in the international market. Looking at the 2009-2010 class, it's easy to see how that could prove to be the case. Jose Iglesias was the big money sink, coming in as Boston's most expensive international signing outside of established talent like Diasuke at $8 million all told. He would take that title from Jose Vinicio, who came in just months before him at $2 million. Raul Alcantara is now with the Athletics, but was a pretty significant piece of the Andrew Bailey - Josh Reddick trade (much as we may now be regretting it). The Sox even added a 16-year-old Frank Montas, whose big fastball is earning him some attention as the organization tries to mold him into a pitcher.
Most important of all, though, 2009 saw the Sox lock up another 16-year-old shortstop, this time one by the name of Xander Bogaerts.
The comparisons between Bogaerts and Ramirez have been made often enough, and I would be as happy as anyone else to see Bogaerts shine like Ramirez has. Personally, though, I'm hoping for one major difference. In the eight years between Hanley and Bogaerts, the Sox found all of three major league caliber players in the international market (excluding, again, Daisuke and Okajima). Hopefully, Bogaerts will not be followed by such a barren stretch.
The Sox have always enjoyed the luxury of having more money to spend than just about anyone else in this game, save the Yankees, but in a market where teams were limited only by how much they could spend, the Sox produced surprisingly little. Now things are different. Teams can't spend without consequence, meaning that now more than ever the ability to scout effectively will be important to finding value in the international market.
It's too soon to know if the signs are good or bad for the future. Some players like Manuel Margot, a speedy outfielder signed in 2011, are already making some waves, but it won't be until 2014, 2015, or even 2016 that we can start to determine if 2009-2010 was an blip on the radar, or the start of something new for the team. Hopefully it's the latter, because with their ability to throw their financial weight around in the draft also mitigated, the team will have to find a way to keep the prospects flowing.
[A/N: SoxProspects.com was, as always, completely invaluable.]