The Cuban revolution in Major League Baseball ends this week. Technically, Luis Robert, 19 years old, 6-foot-2, 180 yoked pounds, outfielder, right-handed hitter and thrower, fast as a bullwhip and, like every one of his predecessors, especially interesting because he is shrouded in the unknown, is not the last baseball player to come to the United States from Cuba. The drip-drip-drip of talent, whether through defection or an agreement between the league and nation, will cease no time soon.
What does conclude with Robert’s signing, which multiple sources told Yahoo Sports they expect to be with the Chicago White Sox or St. Louis Cardinals, is the huge-money era of Cubans in the sport. Over the past seven years, beginning with Aroldis Chapman’s defection, teams guaranteed well over three-quarters of a billion dollars to Cubans that hadn’t played a single inning of organized baseball outside of their homeland. There were a few booms. There were as many, if not more, busts. Now, with Robert, it’s over.
Robert is the last elite talent available to sign under the rules of the old collective-bargaining agreement – ones that allowed teams to spend whatever they please on international talent, so long as they pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty on it and accept spending restrictions on international amateurs for the next two years. It’s why the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t in the running for Robert: None can offer more than $300,000 for an individual player.
Instead, the favorites are the White Sox and Cardinals, and two sources familiar with the talks have said Robert already has chosen a team and is expected to sign soon after he is eligible Saturday. The price could be exorbitant. When teams were asked to submit their first bids for Robert on May 8, the suggested floor was $20 million, according to three sources with teams that placed bids.
Whichever team Robert chooses will pay the dollar-for-dollar penalty on his signing bonus. Whether his deal will approach that of Yoan Moncada’s record $31.5 million bonus is unclear, but multiple sources speculated the price could approach $25 million.
Whether Robert is another Moncada – a second baseman in the White Sox organization widely considered one of the five best prospects in baseball – or Rusney Castillo – the $72.5 million bust at the Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate – is up for debate. Some teams see Robert as a no-doubt center fielder, his elite speed allowing him to track balls even if his instinct doesn’t quite scream a fit at the position. Others worry Robert will be confined to a corner-outfield spot, especially once his body fills out, and that his bat might not be enough to warrant playing there.
Whatever the case, Robert’s signing will bring to an end the wild market for Cuban players that grew so staggering it compelled teams to change the rules for them. Under the old collective-bargaining agreement, players under 23 years old were considered international amateurs, and their signings were subject to the tax. Those over 23, like Castillo, Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig, could sign major league deals.
The new CBA pushed the amateur threshold to 25 years old, and the prospect of a player spending nearly a decade toiling away in the Cuban professional league – Robert, and other elite players, turn pro at 16 – is unlikely. Combined with a spending cap on international amateurs that gives teams $5.75 million at most and allows them to trade for another 75 percent of that figure, the theoretical limit a team will be able to spend to sign a single Cuban player is less than $10.1 million.
The outlay on Robert may wind up five times that. It won’t match that of Castillo, Yasmany Tomas ($68.5 million) or Abreu ($68 million). It won’t be from the Dodgers, who alone have shelled out more than $200 million for Puig, busts Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena, and prospects Yadier Alvarez, Yusniel Diaz and Omar Estevez. It’s still an enormous sum, and it speaks to teams’ fear that the new rules restrict spending enough that overpaying for a lottery ticket like Robert is actually pragmatic.
The White Sox and Cardinals weren’t the only teams going after Robert. The Astros, Padres, A’s and Reds showed enough interest to send high-level executives and scouts to see him, according to sources. As in every case with Cuban players, the possibility of a surprise team lurking in the background remains a possibility.
Never was the Cuban market particularly rational, and that’s part of what made it so fascinating. It showed how the domestic amateur draft depresses prices of talent. It made decent players rich. And it brought into the game an unsavory element that the league now, through negotiations with Cuban officials, wants to make more like that of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Gone, MLB hopes, will be the ugly stories that peppered so many Cuban defections. The kidnapping of Leonys Martin that led to one agent being convicted of human trafficking and being sentenced to at least three years in federal prison. The murder of a man. The desperation of Abreu, who ate a page of a fake passport on the advice of his smuggler. The knowledge that millions of dollars have been funneled from MLB teams to the gangs that smuggle the players.
If the new rules and an agreement do, in fact, alter the culture that has fueled the Cuban revolution, baseball will be a better place for it. The talent that comes from the tiny island is undeniable and has imbued the sport with an element previous generations yearned to see. The moral and ethical price was too heavy.
Luis Robert is the last of this generation, an elite talent and a baseball player with plenty of questions who perfectly personifies the $800 million-plus investment that simultaneously was good and bad for baseball but undoubtedly changed the game.
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