Over the last few days, we have answered submitted questions from our Q&A article back on Friday. Tim Williams broke up the questions into two articles. Part one can be read here, and part two here. Today we expand on signings out of Cuba under a new system put in place by MLB two months ago. I also took a look back at Cuban signings in the past for the Pirates, plus compared the old system of Cuban signings to the changes we will see.
Jim Deweese: With the change in diplomacy affecting Cuban baseball, do the Pirates have a good scouting presence for Cuba? Are there any Cuban prospects (besides Yolbert Sanchez) that PP2 feels are interesting?
Major League Baseball worked out a system with the Cuban baseball federation in December to make deals with their players that are similar to the posting systems currently used in South Korea, China and Japan. It’s a three-year agreement at this point. The players eligible to sign have six years of pro ball or they are at least 25 years old before they are able to sign with an MLB team. There is also a chance for players who are at least 18 years old, with no pro experience in Cuba, to leave early. By reaching this agreement, they are hoping to completely eliminate the dangerous practice of players leaving Cuba early to sign MLB deals, though that could still happen. Only players who are signed by the Cuban Baseball Federation fall under the posting system, which leaves an opening that defections may still occur.
With that program in effect, you don’t need a strong scouting presence in Cuba for the older players. They would already be a known professional in the country, with plenty of time to scout them over the years. Teams will know when they are becoming eligible, so they will have a chance to increase the scouting on players of interest. One person would likely be following them, and if teams get serious about signing a player, then multiple scouts will then get a look. The majority of international scouts are in the Dominican and Venezuela because those players are eligible to sign at 16 years old. Those scouts will travel to other countries at times though, especially when clubs want to get multiple opinions. If you already have trusted scouts in place, then you utilize them elsewhere when needed.
You don’t see many younger players leave Japan, China or South Korea, who all use the same system for amateurs, so I would expect Cuba to be similar under the same rules. The Pirates were able to sign South Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae this way, but teams had time to scout him, knowing he was going to be available to sign.
You still may get players who continue to leave early and have to wait to be cleared to sign, but it seems unlikely to happen often. If it does happen, teams get chances to see those players, usually either in the U.S. or the Dominican, where they already have their two strongest scouting presences. Right now, we don’t know if this new agreement will completely stop players from leaving because we haven’t had enough time to see the effects.
The Pirates have signed some Cuban players over the years, though none have worked out. Two years ago, they signed pitchers Yoandy Fernandez and Dany Hernandez. Fernandez actually went to school in the U.S. after defecting, so he wasn’t even an international signing. Hernandez found a trainer in the Dominican and he signed after hitting 95-96 MPH in front of scouts. When they signed Yoslan Herrera back in 2006, he was in the Dominican already. When Cesar Lopez signed for $600,000 in 2011, he was already playing pro ball in Mexico. Carlos Mesa signed for $490,000 in 2011 and he was scouted in El Salvador, though he was already know from international competitions with Cuban teams. Five players with varying degrees of experience in Cuba and all were elsewhere for an extended time before signing.
In October, the Marlins made a huge splash when they signed Victor Victor Mesa and his brother Victor Mesa Jr. Scouts had already seen the players on the international circuit, including the World Baseball Classic. Before they signed though, they held a showcase for all 30 teams in Miami and events like that are where you see the strong scouting presence. Another Cuban player named Sandy Gaston was there and he already went through an international showcase event, which gave teams a chance to see more than you would get from a one-day showcase for all 30 teams. They were the top Cuban players available to sign at the time.
Yolbert Sanchez is easily the biggest name left unsigned during this current international signing period, which ends June 15th. The Baltimore Orioles are the favorites right now to sign the Cuban shortstop because they can offer a lot more money than any other team. Their international bonus pool still had nearly $6 M left when the news of Sanchez being available to sign came out last month. The Orioles have made three international signings since then, though none of them were significant, so they are still the favorites.
Sanchez has the option to wait until July 2nd when the international bonus pools reset, which won’t get him more money, but it will give him more options as to where he can sign. If that happens, then the Pirates (and a lot of other teams) become an option.
As for future options, there aren’t any big names right now from Cuba available outside of Sanchez, but that could change under the new agreement, depending on who becomes available. Ben Badler from Baseball America started rolling out some international prospects to watch recently. You can see part one here and part two here. He lists about 20 names total. None are Cuban and none are likely landing spots for the Pirates. Fangraphs also just started their July 2nd rankings. Through the very early stages, they don’t have any Cuban players listed, and no one attached to the Pirates either, but they have just five names.
So the basic answer to the question is that a lot of scouting for Cuban players has happened outside of Cuba in the past, but that appears likely to change. With this new agreement in place for at least the next three years, the majority of the available players will likely be older players who teams are already familiar with from past international events.
The Pirates and every other team will surely increase their scouting in Cuba now, but it’s still an area where you’re not going to be digging up hidden gems and you’ll have time to scout a known group of players. We may not even see a real change in the amount of Cuban players being signed because they already have a solid presence in the majors with 26 players during the 2018 season in the big leagues. Players will know they have a future by remaining in the country and playing well. It’s going to take some time to see the effects and teams will adjust their scouting accordingly.
One final note on the international side and that’s potential plans for the Pirates during the 2019-20 signing period. We don’t have any names yet, but the Pirates will have around $6 M to spend and their recently history suggests that they will spend it all. The signing of Bae for $1.25 M also shows that they are willing to spend seven figures on the right player. We will hear more names as the signing period gets closer, but those names might not even end up being the biggest signings, as we saw this past July when they spent over $3.5 M combined on their top eight signings. Leading up to July 2nd, there was almost nothing that indicated it would be a big day. This July 2nd could be more of the same.