MLB General Managers Continue Their Futile Search for the Next José Abreu

Tomas, Ibáñez and Moncada

José Abreu’s celebrated Rookie-of-Year trophy has so far had little time to gather much dust and already a highly publicized search has been launched across Major League Baseball camps for what will hopefully be the next Abreu, or next Yasiel Puig, or at the very least perhaps the next Rusney Castillo or Jorge Soler. The growing fraternity of Cuban “defectors” has suddenly become the hottest topic in North American professional baseball circles and just about every big league ball club’s management brain trust is apparently more than ready to dangle bank-busting salaries in front of almost any former national team fixture recently departed from his island homeland in desperate quest for promised gold-mine richest up north.

The Cuban recruitment phenomenon has exploded almost beyond imagination thanks mainly to the sensational “immediate-impact” rookie seasons enjoyed by Abreu with the Chicago White Sox this past summer and Puig with the Los Angeles Dodgers only one year earlier. And it has also been accompanied by its fair share of disturbingly “seedy” elements in the form of numerous circulating reports detailing gangster-sponsored human trafficking operations underpinning the smuggling of prized prospects like Puig, Leonys Martin, Yoenis Céspedes, Aroldis Chapman – even possibly Abreu according to some recent stories – out of their Cuban homeland. But embarrassing scandals and ridiculously inflated marketplaces aside, the bidding wars continue to heat up. Big league ball clubs find themselves flush with untold amounts of excess cash which they are now willing to throw at any elite group of promising recruits, and the Cubans – the one contingent that can still circumvent recently adopted restrictions on bank-breaking free-agent signing bonuses – now stand alone as the principle beneficiaries. What makes these Cubans so attractive – beyond their obvious on-field skills and their now more-widely accepted big-league readiness? It is the simple fact that these island refugees offer big league executives a large loophole in the free-agent player market – a loophole permitting them to write blank checks for any potential immediate-impact recruit without having to relinquish a single future pick in the annual spring amateur free-agent draft.

Under the new MLB restrictions adopted two years back, only international players over 23 and with five or more years of professional experience at home are cleared for unlimited free-agent bankrolls. Younger and less experienced players (Cuban Yoan Moncada for example) cannot be inked for more than $300,000 without penalties; but the specified penalty of a dollar fine for every dollar spent above that $300,000 baseline amount does not appear to be much of a deterrent. Teams exceeding the allowable bonus maximum by more than 15% are also banned from further international signings for two years. But if there is a Moncada or Andy Ibáñez or Rasiel Iglesias or any other highly touted Cuban available for the taking most clubs are apparently more than willing to incur the sanctions if they can only land what appears to be the next future “Cuban Comet” now looming on the horizon.

It now appears that former Havana Industriales slugger Yasmani Tomás will likely be the next high-profile Cuban import to cash in big-time. Tomás was showcased in the Dominican Republic in late September before hordes of MLB scouts and the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies are now widely reported by the U.S. baseball press as the clubs most likely to score in this latest talent hunt. The Atlanta Braves, Red Sox and Giants are also rumored to be in the mix as primary contenders. Tomás’ agent, Jay Alou, is reportedly asking $100 million-plus for a player he hypes as the next big impact story out of Cuba. It took nearly a full decade for the 2004 record $32 million deal signed by José Contreras with the Yankees to be surpassed by the $36 million package Yoenis Céspedes inked in 2012 with Oakland. Since then the numbers have simply spun completely out of control. Abreu was grabbed by the White Sox for $68 million (a six-year pact) and only last summer the Red Sox were willing to part with $72 million for a reported a ten-year deal with Rusney Castillo. Tomás now appears about push the bar far beyond the limits of reason and the asking price is now apparently so high that many cash-flush clubs actually seem to be backing off from earlier interest. Recent rumor suggests that Tomás’ handlers will attempt to finalize a deal during the late-November general managers gathering in Phoenix, or perhaps at the full-fledged early-December MLB winter meetings in San Diego.

Tómas is not the only recently “liberated” Cuban prospect currently salivating over instant big league riches. Highly touted 19-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada is about to be cleared for free-agent status while marking time in Guatemala. Former national team second baseman (2007-2011) Héctor Olivera is sitting in limbo in the Dominican Republic in hopes of also entering the free agent bidding wars. And so is another talented youngster named Andy Ibáñez who was the backup middle infielder as a raw 19-year-old on the 2013 WBC team in Japan. But are these players worth the kind of money that is now up for grabs? Can any be expected to produce the same type of instant payback on investment that was earlier reaped with Puig and Abreu? And what will it take to finally break this out-of-control spending spree that only tempts even more starry-eyed Cuban youngster to risk life and limb for a promised pot of gold at the end of the risky refugee rainbow? These are all intriguing questions and ones that don’t always submit to easy answers. 

One distinct possibility of course is that the current spending frenzy may well be collapse rather drastically once one or more of these Cuban “wonder boys” fails dramatically at the big league level. And there are certainly a number of real downsides attached to each of the latest crop. Tomás definitely brings an A-level power game to the table (he was a staple at Cuban League All-Star weekend home run derby contests) but there are plenty of reasons for caution here. His time with the Cuban national team was brief (the 2013 WBC was his only A-team trial) and his five-year Cuban league stats are not overly impressive. He was frequently injured (missing all of the 2010-11 campaign and most of the previous one and never enjoyed a full truly productive season on the island). Tomás poked 37 total Cuban National Series round trippers in five years (about equal to what Abreu did in each of three individual seasons alone); his career strikeouts (152) exceeded his career RBIs (139), and his five-year .284 BA was achieved in a hitter-friendly league than sometimes produces upwards of 30 .300 hitters in any given year. His strengths are raw power, relatively good speed and an above average arm. But he is acknowledged to demonstrate little plate discipline and his frequent strikeouts raise many red flags about his ability to hit at the big league level without drastic improvement and plenty of seasoning. A number of MLB scouts have gone on record on exactly this point. One anonymous MLB bird dog summed up the issue by observing “I’m not sure he can start right away in the big leaguer” – a view that truly begs the issue of a nine-figure signing bonus windfall.

Only a few years back Héctor Olivera was one of the top island prospects and might well have demanded huge contract numbers had he fled home in the late 2000s. But then he was injured during the Panama IBAF World Cup of September 2011 and subsequently was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that kept him out of action for nearly two full years. Even if he is once again relatively healthy Olivera is also now admittedly rusty and thus a sizable gamble after several seasons of limit on-field activity. Moncada presents a similar puzzle. The Cienfuegos youngster was a truly phenomenal junior-level prospect (a switch-hitting infielder with plenty of Puig-like power and speed) but nonetheless never played enough in the National Series to show much evidence of fine-tuning (he batted .278 with but one homer in his single full season back home). And Moncada also has now sat inactive for more than a full calendar year. Andy Ibáñez perhaps an even more polished talent than Moncada (and a much younger prospect than 30-something Olivera) yet he too has been inactive for the same talent-eroding span of time.

In brief, the question remains if any of these newly minted free agents will prove to be on a par with either Castillo or Soler (who both showed well during late-season 2014 call-up action), let alone have the impact of a Puig, Abreu or even Yoenis Céspedes. It is puzzle that likely won’t be long in the solving. Will Tómas and his potential $100 million price tag simply up the ante when it comes to this sudden glut of Cuban prospects, or will his more limited talents prove to be the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back” when it comes to such out-of-control big league free-agent spending on so many largely untested foreign imports?

 

Peter C. Bjarkman is Senior Writer at BaseballdeCuba.com (since 2007), widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball history (both pre- and post-revolution) and author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) among numerous other titles.