The most intriguing free agent in the world spends his days in Guatemala, a place not exactly known for its rich baseball history. More than 18,000 major league players’ birthplaces are known, and not a single one was born in the country that serves as a bridge between Mexico and the rest of Central America.
Neither, for that matter, was Yoan Moncada. He is a 19-year-old, switch-hitting, fast-twitch-muscled, movie-star-looking bundle of talent from Cuba packed into a 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame. Nobody – not Yasiel Puig, not Jose Abreu, not Yoenis Cespedes – has at such a young age created so much hype among the Cuban baseball establishment since Omar Linares, the 1980s star widely regarded as the best talent ever from the island.
The fascination surrounding Moncada extends far beyond his skills, which for years have left major league evaluators frothing at international tournaments. They wonder how he got to Guatemala, and how he did so on what his handlers say is a legal Cuban passport, meaning the government OK’d his departure, something never before done for a high-level ballplayer. Further, they speculate how much money it’s going to take to sign him. And then they try to understand how one kid from Cuba could change the entire structure of amateur talent around the world.
In Guatemala City on Wednesday, officials from all 30 major league teams are expected to attend the first official showcase for Moncada. He’ll hit. He’ll take ground balls at shortstop, his natural position, and perhaps third base, where many expect him to end up. They’ll see him in great shape, perhaps wearing a jersey with his name and the No. 24 he sported in Cuba. And then they’ll wait.
Major League Baseball currently is conducting its standard investigation into Moncada’s permanent residency in Guatemala and has yet to clear him. The Office of Foreign Assets Control must also unblock Moncada before he can sign with a team. Once that happens, the bidding is expected to go wild – far more wild than any since baseball implemented new rules in 2012 that were supposed to squash such exorbitant prices.
Two general managers and two other officials familiar with Moncada and Cuban baseball this week all agreed on the expected price once he hits the market: between $30 million and $40 million. While that’s close to what the similarly aged Puig ($42 million) and the Cubs' Jorge Soler ($30 million) received, the circumstances for Moncada are entirely different than when Puig and Soler signed in 2012.
Under baseball’s current collective-bargaining agreement, international free agents under 23 years old with fewer than five years’ experience in a professional league fall under the purview of MLB’s international bonus pool. Meaning for every dollar a team goes beyond its allotted budget to sign international amateurs – the highest this season is Houston with $4.94 million – it must pay a 100 percent tax. On top of that, if a team goes 15 percent beyond its pool, it cannot spend more than $300,000 on an international amateur for the next two signing periods.
The upshot: If a team does indeed give Moncada a $30 million deal, it will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million. Should the bidding jump to $40 million, Moncada would cost $80 million – more than Abreu, Rusney Castillo, Puig, Cespedes, Soler, Alexander Guerrero, Erisbel Arruebarrena or any of the other Cuban defectors to this point.
So far, the closest any team has come to shattering its pool with one player is the Los Angeles Angels, who signed 20-year-old infielder Roberto Baldoquin for $8 million last week. Moncada is considered a far superior prospect, and with the Angels, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox among the teams that have exceeded their 2014 pools by 15 percent, the incentive exists to go strong on Moncada. Few avenues still exist to outright buy amateur talent, and as MLB goes forward, this may represent among the last.
The rules aimed to stomp on the amateur market and lead toward an international draft, and should the Moncada bidding truly get past $30 million, owners will push new commissioner Rob Manfred to continue his predecessor Bud Selig’s fight against spending on amateurs. As much as the MLB Players Association understands that amateurs become its future members, trading items in the draft and international market for concessions in the major leagues has been standard operating procedure.
The policies, ostensibly intended to give teams that lose a greater chance at signing top talent because their amateur pools are higher, haven’t had their intended effect internationally. The Cubs and Rangers reached far beyond their pools two years ago, and the Yankees this year spent more than five times their $1.87 million pool on talent in July.
Whether they’ll be in on Moncada depends, too, on when OFAC unblocks him and MLB declares him a free agent. If Moncada reaches free agency before June 15, 2015, the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels are eligible to sign him. If not, because of the penalties that will restrict who they can sign in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 periods, the max they would be able to offer is $300,000.
And so the intrigue is just starting. Teams see Moncada as the best amateur player available, better than any draft-eligible high school or college player, better potentially even than Yasmany Tomas, the Cuban slugger who could fetch $100 million as a free agent.
Executives in the 1980s dreamed of the day Linares would defect and immediately become the best third baseman in the major leagues. It never happened. More than 30 years later, they’ve got a chance with Moncada, the handsome kid with a crazy story and the sort of talent that will fascinate for years to come.
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