Cuban baseball players on brink of free-agent dominance
Now that this year’s rather bland amateur draft has come and gone, MLB teams are gearing up for the international segment. On July 2, teams will ponder a pool of primarily Dominican and Venezuelan teenagers, offer them life-changing money and hope for the best. After all, almost every prominent Latino superstar in the big leagues has been a product of this process.
A new twist this year, however, is the emerging presence of Cuban baseball players who have taken advantage of the State Department’s warming of relations with the Communist island. It’s been more than a year and a half since Los Angeles Dodgers pinch-hitting sensation Alex Guerrero declared there were only “a few good players left in Cuba.” That might be true, but owners and general managers are buying into this revolution because the Cuban baseball players are more experienced and game-ready than their younger rivals. This new commodity is driving up free-agent bonuses, making creative accounting more difficult for wealthy teams, and economically challenging for small-market clubs.
I’m not going to sit at my keyboard, try to handicap these Cuban players and offer a mock draft scenario. First of all, this isn’t a draft. It’s a funky selection system full of flaws that has become more like a high-stakes Las Vegas poker tournament. Teams with self-inflicted “bad hands” are those that overspent in previous years and are subject to penalties, although many have a wiggle-room strategy that will allow them to participate anyway. Secondly, I think it’s a gamble to invest heavily in players who have only been scouted through simulated game showcases. For the time being, many of these Cuban phenoms have paperwork pending and are not eligible to cut a deal when the signing period begins. But the situation remains fluid, and clubs need to have money stashed away for the unexpected. Andy Ibanez, for example, is a proven 22-year-old who could sign now or later, depending on how his new agents see the market shaping up.
The Minnesota Twins, a group that has been surprisingly good this season, have almost $4 million to spend in pool money and are one of a few franchises in the driver’s seat. But the competition will be stiff from the cocky Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets. Meanwhile, the cash-happy Dodgers are likely to max out their allotment and head for the penalty box, a crowded spot currently occupied by the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Arizona Diamondbacks. None of those organizations can sign a player for over $300,000 during the next two periods. The following are my 10 top picks who have registered for the upcoming sweepstakes and will command bonus prices in the seven-figure category:
Yadier Alvarez, RHP, 6′-3″, 175
Because pitching is so thin in this year’s derby, the 19-year-old Alvarez will be a high-ticket item. He has electric, “crack the whip” stuff and a hard plus slider.
Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, 6′-2″, 195
Top dog and cream of the crop. Scouts compare him to a young Andruw Jones, and at the ripe age of 20, Martinez is a bit more mature than his peers.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr, OF, 6′-2″, 210
This is one big 16-year-old with great bloodlines and probably the best power potential of any player available.
Starling Heredia, OF, 6′-0″, 215
Excellent athletic ability with multiple tools, including raw speed, superior arm and a heavy stick. Built like a football running back, Heredia is probably second to Guerrero as a prospect, only because of the experience factor.
Wander Javier, 2B/SS, 6′-0′, 165
Smooth, solid all-around guy. Highest scores are from a defensive standpoint, but the 16-year-old drives the ball with authority and makes solid contact. The Twins might blow their wad with this kid.
Leodys Taveras, OF, 6′-1″, 165
The nephew of former big league standout Willy Taveras is big on speed and instincts with superior ball-tracking skills. Potential lead-off candidate with a bit of work. The Texas Rangers are the front-runners for the Taveras Express.
Andres Gimenez, SS, 5′-11″, 165
The best of the “parada corta” crop from a country famous for producing stars at that position. Solid lefty bat with potential big-fly pop.
Daniel Montano, OF, 6′-1″, 185
Big left-handed power from Montano and a top outfield prospect because of his solid overall skills. I like him as a left fielder.
Yonathan Perlaza, SS, 5′-8″, 175
A shorter, stockier version of Gimenez, the Maracaibo native reminds me a lot of Jonathan Herrera, both in appearance and style. But with all due respect to the Cub’s utility man, Perlaza hopes for a more financially rewarding career.
Alvaro Seijas, RHP, 6′-1″, 175
Scout’s love this 16-year-old’s live fastball with movement and filthy breaking pitch. Seijas is a hard worker who won’t break the bank, and the St. Louis Cardinals are all over him.
The Dodgers are expected to go after both of the aforementioned Cuban kids, which isn’t exactly a shocker. With Yasiel Puig, Guerrero and then Hector Olivera soon to come aboard, you might as well call this bunch the Los Angeles Dodgers of Havana. I see Vladdy Jr. going to the Blue Jays, and he has a cousin, shortstop Gregory Guerrero, who is being courted by the Mets. But that’s only Plan B in case the Queens residents can’t ink Gimenez. The Atlanta Braves are rumored to be stalking another quality shortstop named Derian Cruz, even though Andrelton Simmons is locked in until 2020. Go figure. And I should probably add Dominican outfielder Seuly Matias to the most-wanted list, although Kansas City would seem to be the inside suitors for his services.
So while the Cubans won’t dominate the selection show just yet, they will be knocking on the door during next’s year’s event. That’s troubling to me because it means prospects from Colombia, Curacao and other Caribbean countries and Central America will get less exposure. The World Team that plays the United States in the Futures Game on July 12 have quite a diverse group, with representation from Taiwan, The Bahamas, Corn Island, Nicaragua and even Germany on the squad. When the Cubans crash the party, that melting pot might be temporarily unrealistic.
The MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December 2016, and you can bet that the subject of an international draft will be discussed and put up for a vote. As imperfect as the current process is though, I don’t see such a draft put into place. It’s just too complicated and not enough countries would be willing to participate. Once the uniqueness and mystique of the Cuban movement wears thin, look for the same messed up system to get back to normal. And I guess that’s okay. You could even see a female upstart like France’s Melissa Mayeux get a chance to wear a big league uniform. Stranger things have happened.