One of the winter's most highly-sought free agents remains unsigned at this writing — and no, we're not talking about James Shields. Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old Cuban infielder who's considered by many to be the best prospect the island has produced in recent years, has been cleared to sign with any team. His clearance alone has been precedent-setting, for it has resulted in a change in MLB policy.
Via Baseball America's Ben Badler, Moncada has been on the radar of scouts since October 2010, when he began dominating 16-and-under (16U) tournaments and Cuba's own 16U league, and he continued his dominance when moving up to Cuba's 18U league. He made his Serie Nacional debut in 2012, playing alongside Jose Abreu and Erisbel Arruebarruena for Cienfuegos and hitting .283/.414/.348 in 172 PA — not bad for a 17-year-old. Since then, he's played for the Cuban national team and for their 18U national team, and in 2013-14, he hit .273/.365/.405 in 195 PA in Serie Nacional, playing primarily at second base with spot duty at shortstop and centerfield.
Unlike Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig and other Cuban stars who have reached the majors in recent years, Moncada didn't have to defect to become eligible to play stateside. The Cuban government — which last year allowed older stars such as Yuliesky Gourriel, Frederich Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne to play in Japan so long as they returned at season's end — let Moncada leave the country in October, armed with passport and visa, and establish permanent residency in Guatemala. On Nov. 12, he held an open workout in Guatemala City that drew roughly 100 scouts and executives representing nearly every team. In December, he arrived in Florida, and since then, he's worked out privately for the Brewers, Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rangers, Rays, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees. Now that he's officially a free agent, more teams may join the fray.
Due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, players who defected in the past were required by MLB to obtain a specific unblocking license from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before they could sign with teams in order not to run afoul of the Trading With the Enemies Act. It often took six months or so to cut through the bureaucratic red tape in order to do so. In the wake of President Obama's announcement in December that the U.S. would begin normalizing relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century, OFAC no longer issues specific licenses. Instead, there is a general license under which players who have documentary proof of residence in a third country are unblocked.
It took MLB changing its policy for all of this to come to fruition. As of this week, a player is clear once he signs an affidavit that states in part, "I have taken up permanent residence outside of Cuba. In addition, I hereby state that I do not intend to, nor would I be welcome to, return to Cuba. Further, I hereby state that I am not a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba ... and am not a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party."
Moncada has met that requirement and is now a free agent, but there's an additional hitch. Because he's not yet 23 years old and has less than five years of experience in professional baseball, he's subject to MLB's international signing guidelines, which limit the amount of money teams can spend in a slotting system similar to the amateur draft, based on reverse order of winning percentage, with trades of slot money allowed. For the 2014-15 signing period, the Astros had the largest bonus pool at $5,015,400, with the Cardinals last at $1,866,300. Teams that exceed their pools by more than 15 percent pay a 100-percent tax on every dollar over that amount, and are limited to individual bonuses of no more than $300,000 during the next two signing periods.
The Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees have all reached their limit, which lent a bit of urgency to the proceedings, at least prior to Moncada's clearance, as any of those teams would need to sign him during this period instead of the 2015-16 one, which starts on July 2. Under previous protocol, it was possible that Moncada might not be cleared until after that date; that he was cleared eliminates the Cubs and Rangers, whose overages in the 2013-14 signing period cap their individual bonuses. The good news for the team signing him is that despite that 100-percent tax, whatever bonus is paid to Moncada won't count against the team's major league payroll for luxury tax purposes.
Even $5 million dollars isn't going to be nearly enough to sign Moncada; the figure that's been thrown around quite often in recent reports is $40 million, which would translate into a total investment of $80 million due to the tax. That's a larger sum than all but the top five free-agent deals thus far this winter: Max Scherzer ($210 million), Jon Lester ($155 million), Pablo Sandoval ($95 million), Hanley Ramirez ($88 million) and Russell Martin ($82 million), with Shields possibly winding up in that ballpark. Even considering only the player's salary, $40 million would be the 15th-largest free-agent contract of the winter. That count includes the six-year, $68 million pact of Yasmany Tomas with the Diamondbacks, which was not subject to the international signing rules because of his age (24).
So just how good is Moncada? Badler wrote that he has more upside than either Tomas or Rusney Castillo, who signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox last fall, noting, "If Moncada were eligible for the 2015 draft, he would be in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick." Scouts consider the 19-year-old switch-hitter, who measures up at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, to be in great shape, a marked contrast to so many defectors such as Puig whose paths out of Cuba included missing a year of competition. Moncada has the kind of five-tool potential that draws comparisons to Puig and Jorge Soler, according to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, who quoted a scout at that Nov. 12 workout as having graded his speed as a 70 (plus-plus) on the 20-80 scale, with his hit tool and power (from both sides of the plate) grading as 60 (plus) and his fielding as a 50 (average). The caveat is that those grades came in a showcase format, not against live pitching in a game situation. MLB.com's Jim Callis suggested that once Moncada signs, he'll be considered among the game's top 10 prospects.
Even with those lofty appraisals, Moncada — like most 1/1 picks of any age, and most 19-year-olds— isn't likely to leap straight to the majors. He'll spend perhaps a year or two in the minors, and his eventual position is unclear, with shortstop unlikely but second base, third base and centerfield all possibilities, and the needs of whichever organization that signs him obviously factoring into that decision. As to who that might be, here's a quick rundown of the top teams mentioned:
• Dodgers: Money is apparently no object for a team with a $265 million payroll for 2015 and $166 million in commitments for '16 and '17 as well. If top prospect Corey Seager can stick at shortstop, Moncada would likely be groomed for third, though if Seager shifts to third — a move that many feel is inevitable given his size (6-4, 215 pounds) — Moncada could wind up at second.
• Yankees: While their farm system is much improved thanks to better drafting and a $15 million international spending binge, they could view Moncada as their next Derek Jeter/Robinson Cano cornerstone, with second base the most likely destination given Chase Headley's four-year deal. It's possible that the extinguishing of the team's rumored interest in Shields is related to Moncada's sudden availability, but the Yankees always figured to be in the mix for the Cuban so long as he became available during this signing period.
• Red Sox: With Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Sandoval and Mookie Betts — not to mention Castillo — all in the fold, they don't appear to have a clear need. Even so, signing Moncada would allow the team to use Betts or Bogaerts in a deal for Cole Hamels or another frontline pitcher, a definite need given a rotation currently fronted by Rick Porcello and Wade Miley. They could groom Moncada for third base, with Sandoval eventually moving to first.
• Tigers: MLB Network's Peter Gammons reported that three GMs whose teams weren't in the mix "warned about the Tigers" in addition to mentioning the three heavyweights above, and GM Dave Dombrowski has confirmed the team's interest. The Tigers have Ian Kinsler signed through 2017, and while Nick Castellanos had an adequate rookie season at the plate, he was a whopping 30 runs below average at third base according to Defensive Runs Saved, suggesting that his long-term future could be in the outfield.
• Athletics: ESPN's Buster Olney noted that many believe the A's — who shocked the baseball world by signing Cespedes three years ago and who have cleaned out their minor league system, particularly their middle infielders, in recent trades for Jeff Samardzija and Ben Zobrist — could be involved.
Via Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, Moncada is booked for multiple workouts into the latter third of this month, including second visits with his top suitors. Meanwhile, the MLB policy change means that other Cubans, such as 21-year-old second baseman Andy Ibanez and 29-year-old second baseman Hector Olivera, whom Baseball America respectively ranked eighth and sixth among all Cuban players last August, are now in play. It's certain that more will follow.