Red Sox land infielder Yoan Moncada, off-season's top Cuban prospect
The last of the winter's big free agents has signed. Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada has agreed to a deal with the Red Sox, one that will pay the 19-year-old switch-hitting infielder a record-setting $31.5 million bonus. His acquisition further enriches a thriving farm system, and while it will cost Boston double the sticker price due to the penalty for exceeding international spending limits, the move is additionally a blow to the Yankees, one of the teams who were finalists in Moncada's pursuit.
Scouts view the 6'2", 210-pound Moncada as both being in great shape despite having not played competitively since December 2013 and as having the kind of five-tool potential that has drawn comparisons to countrymen Yasiel Puig and Jorge Soler, as well as Dominican star Robinson Cano. In the aftermath of a Nov. 12 workout in Guatemala, which was attended by some 60 or 70 scouts and created considerable industry buzz, MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo quoted a scout who graded Moncada's speed as a 70 (plus-plus) on the 20-80 scale, with his hit tool, power (from both sides of the plate) and arm grading as 60 (plus) and his fielding as a 50 (average). On news of the agreement, Baseball America's Ben Badler—who had previously written that if Moncada were eligible for the '15 amateur draft, he would be in consideration as the No. 1 pick—wrote that once the deal is official, Moncada "will rank as the No. 10 prospect in baseball, making him Boston's new No. 1 prospect." Here's what one scout told Badler:
"He’s electric… When I saw him at the 18U World Championship in Taiwan [where he hit .375/.483/.542 in 29 plate appearances], he did what good hitters do. He has tools, he’s athletic and he has a chance to hit for power. It’s bat speed that you don’t see except from the select few. The guy has different bat speed from everyone else, period. It’s a beautiful swing too from the left side, which is better than his righthanded swing."
Because Moncada is neither 23 years old nor with at least five years of experience in Cuban professional baseball (he has two), he was 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, which began last July 2, the Astros had the largest bonus pool at $5,015,400, with the Red Sox second-to-last at $1,881,700. 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 Red Sox had already exceeded that cap, as had the Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays and Yankees; Arizona's $8.27 million bonus to 21-year-old Cuban righty Yoan Lopez set the previous bonus record in January. The Cubs and Rangers, who went over their limits in the 2013-14 signing period, were unable to pursue Moncada. The penalty that the Red Sox must pay is due by July 15, but the bonus that they'll pay can be spread out over three years and does not count against the team's major league payroll for luxury tax purposes. As with any other player who accumulates service time upon reaching the majors, Moncada will be eligible for arbitration after three seasons (though he can qualify as a Super Two), and for free agency after six.
That arrival in the majors could be a year or two away, particularly given Moncada's age and the depth of the Red Sox roster. His eventual position isn't clear; he played second base in his two seasons with Cienfuegos in Serie Nacional, with that position, third base and centerfield his most likely landing spots. But Boston has second baseman Dustin Pedroia signed through 2021, his age-37 season; third baseman Pablo Sandoval signed through '19, his age-32 season; and centerfielder Rusney Castillo (a Cuban defector added last fall) signed through '20, his age-32 season. That trio is guaranteed $324 million through the end of those contracts.
Additionally, the Red Sox have young centerfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, both of whom fulfilled their rookie status in 2014, as part of a larger logjam in their big league outfield. Consensus Top 100 prospects Rafael Devers (a third baseman) and Manuel Margot (a centerfielder) are lower down in a minor league system that has been ranked as high as fifth among the 30 teams, though both are just 18 years old and years away from the majors.
That roster crunch could be alleviated by the free agency of Mike Napoli after this season and the eventual retirement or departure of 39-year-old David Ortiz, who has $10 million club options for 2016 and '17, both of which can vest and increase to as much as $16 million per year or the value of a qualifying offer. Sandoval could move to fill either the first base or DH slot, with fellow incoming free agent/new leftfielder Hanley Ramirez taking the other spot, leaving Moncada a path to third base.
Moncada has been on scouts' radar since October 2010, when he began dominating 16-and-under (16U) tournaments and Cuba's own 16U league. He continued his dominance when moving up to Cuba's 18U league and playing for both the Cuban national team and their 18U national team. Additionally, he played his age-17 and -18 seasons for Cienfuegos, hitting a combined .277/.388/.380 with four homers and 21 steals in 367 PA, playing alongside future major leaguers Jose Abreu and Erisbel Arruebarrena.
Unlike those two players and the rest of the wave of Cuban stars now populating MLB, 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—released Moncada from his Serie Nacional commitment and allowed him to leave the country last October in possession of both passport and visa, and to establish permanent residency in Guatemala. With President Obama's announcement in December that the US would begin normalizing relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of embargo, Moncada was not required by MLB to obtain a specific unblocking license from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before signing with a team (previously necessary not to run afoul of the Trading With the Enemies Act).
Under a new policy, OFAC now issues a general license under which players who have documentary proof of residence in a third country are unblocked. Beyond that, a recent change in MLB policy requires a Cuban player to sign signing an affidavit stating 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."
Once Moncada signed that affidavit, he became eligible to sign with a team, and held private showcases with several, some of them multiple times, with the Yankees, Dodgers and Brewers among the other finalists. The Yankees reportedly held three private workouts for Moncada, including a pair on back-to-back days last week, the second of which included general partner Hank Steinbrenner among the onlookers. Via the New York Post's Joel Sherman, New York offered Moncada $25 million and was willing to go as high as $27 million, the same amount the team offered Soler in 2012, when he was 20; he instead signed a nine-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs. General manager Brian Cashman wanted Moncada but apparently couldn't get managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner to go higher; the team thus lost out to its rivals over a difference of $9 million, including the penalty. Cashman told ESPN New York's Wallace Matthews:
"We went to where we were comfortable going, and it was an uncomfortable number to put forth... But it still fell short. We were involved in the Moncada efforts until the very end. Yesterday they said they were going to make a decision and wanted your best offer. We presented that. It just didn’t work."
Even the Red Sox were outbid, though. Via Sherman, the Dodgers—who were believed by many within the industry to be the front-runners for his services—were willing to go as high as $35 million, but only if Moncada waited until July 2, the start of the 2015-16 signing period. That would have allowed them to continue loading up within that period while effectively eliminating the Yankees and Red Sox from competition due to their previous penalties.
Moncada's signing, as well as the U.S. and MLB policy changes, will likely benefit a whole new wave of Cuban players who are becoming available. Atop the list for the moment is 29-year-old second baseman Hector Olivera, whom BA ranked sixth among all Cuban players last August, and who won't be subject to the international signing rules, unlike Moncada and 21-year-old Cuban second baseman Andy Ibanez (who ranked eighth on that list and has several suitors). MLB Network's Peter Gammons reported two executives estimating the value of Olivera's deal ranging from $45 million to $70 million, so don’t expect news of pricey Cuban signees to leave the headlines anytime soon.