International Free Agency Preview: A Tale of two Cubans- Part I

If you were one of the masochists who was able to endure my last article on International free agency (“IFA”), you may remember that I reviewed the prerequisites and fundamentals of the entire process. For your reference and as a shameless plug:

International Free Agency Preview 2020/21 – Part I

I also touched upon the amount of IFA that each team has for the 2020/21 signing period, which is set to begin in January 2021.

Our newly capitalized Mets are currently in the middle of the pack with $5.35 million to spend on this talented crop of sub 25 year-old amateurs. Also of importance is that the Mets have not been “linked” with any of the prospects currently listed in MLB.com’s top 30 ranked players.

MLB.com/prospects/international/

Go ahead, click on each one – there are some good bios, scouting reports and other info on all 30 of the players, hailing from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela. And you also will notice that in each of the 30 bios, the final sentence will say “the XXXX are the favorites to sign him.” Unfortunately, as mentioned in my last article, this term “favorites to sign” basically means that player already (for all intensive purposes) HAS signed with that team.

Although these “futures” contracts are not enforceable in a court of law, history has shown that such contracts have a long pattern of unilateral preference, in favor of the MLB team. This basically means that unless the player suffers an injury or commits a crime, or, sadly, if the MLB team finds something better that it needs to spend it’s hard cap dollar figure on, that player is locked into the team that is the “favorite” to sign him. Let’s keep the “finds something better that it needs to spend it’s hard cap..” part in abeyance for now, and return to it later..

Also read: Free Agent Target: Jackie Bradley Jr

As further solidification of the “favorite” to sign precedence, approximately 7 of the top 30 prospects have already gone public, through their representation, and disclosed the “rumored” amount of signing bonus to be earned at the commencement of the IFA period in January. Thank you to Fangraphs for this information.

https://www.fangraphs.com/prospects/the-board/2020-international/summary?sort=-1,1

Let’s ignore #1 on this list, as Kim falls into a different category. As mentioned in my last article (READ IT!!!), players 25 and older are not subject to this “Hard Cap” established under the newest CBA revision with relation to International Free Agency, and the Korean Baseball Organization (“KBO”) utilizes an entirely different system of player migration, inclusive of a revenue sharing “posting” system that is not a characteristic of Latino regional baseball activity. Kim will receive substantial offers, but that is a topic for a different day.

But back to the rest, each of the top prospects, Numbers “2” to “30” all are linked to a team, with quantifiable contracts for a few disclosed in the Fangraphs chart above, and for all intensive purposes are “spoken for” and therefore not legitimate options for our Mets.

Also read: Mets Trade Target: Francisco Lindor

Wait… but what about the first guy on the MLB list – he’s not favored to go to ANY club. Right? And the name sounds awful familiar… The last name sounds like some muscle-bound, wild boar fighting Cubano cowboy, who sounds like the subject of an Ernest Hemmingway novel.. It can’t be the same…

Oh Yes!! – Tale of Cuban Option (or perhaps Opt-in) #1 – Yoelqui Cespedes

The consensus #1 International prospect who is currently eligible to be part of this IFA 2020/21 draft is indeed the younger HALF-brother of our beloved and bemoaned Cuban lightning rod – Yoenis Cespedes.

Yoelqui is a 23 year old, right handed outfielder, who accumulated 692 plate appearances in the Cuban National Series, the top baseball league in Cuba, playing for the Alazanes de Granma, from 2015-2018. He also competed in the Caribbean Serioes and Can-Am Leagues from 2016-2019. He defected from Cuba in June of 2019, during a Can-Am League event in Ohio, and has since established residency in the Bahamas, in order to train with his brother for his professional career.

Also read: 8-10 teams have shown interest in Morton

The younger Cespedes, is 5’9 and a bulky 205 pounds, and has a striking resemblance to his older sibling. His scouting grades are all above average, with his run and arm tool grading out at 60s respectively, while hit, power and field amount to 50,55 and 55 respectively.

He is a line drive hitter, who can play all three positions in the outfield, and it should be noted that he was approximately 10 years younger than the Cuban National League average during his tenure with Granma.

The biggest fault to his scouting report is trouble with good breaking stuff, and it is worth noting that Cuba is known for being a breaking-ball intensive league, but his overall batting stats did not convey a pervasive deficiency overall at .287/.351/.415 with 12 Homeruns and 98 RBIs in 721 career at bats. Reliance on stats for the Cuban National League is not always the best indicator of future success, as the record keeping has been labeled as “incomplete” and “erroneous” in past.

Also read: Free Agent Target: James Paxton

Scouts do like the overall game of the young, stout outfielder, and he has signed with the well-known Magnus Media out of Miami, of which Marc Anthony has an ownership stake, and currently represents well known athletes such as Aroldis Chapman (Cuba), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Luis Robert.

OK, so we briefly reviewed his resume, but the question remains, why hasn’t he been linked to any team? I mean, he is the top ranked player, what’s the story here? Get to it!

Let’s slow down for just a moment.. In my last article, I stated that certain MLB teams are known for their relevance with certain Latino regions. The Mets have had a strong baseball relationship within the Dominican baseball community, with a growing presence in Venezuela as well. Tampa and LA Dodgers also are bullish within the Dominican arena. With regards to Cuba, the teams that are strongest in the this market are without doubt the Miami Marlins and the Chicago White Sox, with a nod to the Oakland Athletics and the Cincinnati Reds.

Also read: Hello, is it me (NL CY Young finalist) you’re looking for?

The Chicago White sox have in recent years been all about gobbling up as much Cuban talent as their “hard cap” “legally” allows them to do. However, their tradition with relationships with Cuban players date all the way back to Minnie Minoso, who was the first black Cuban to play baseball in the United States. To date, they have been the team with any traction with Cespedes. Now this is where the issue of “legally” comes in. The White Sox are already linked to 2 of the big players in the Cuban IFA market for 2020/21. One of these players- you can see above – in the fangraphs snippet – Norge Vera, is a highly regarded RHP from Cuba, who has most likely already signed a futures contract with the White Sox for approximately 1.5 mil. Well, this shouldn’t be a problem, as the Sox are allotted $5.35 mil – just like our Mets- they still should have around 3.8 mil to throw at Yoelquis, right? And if you read the top 30 post that you amateurishly posted a link above, The Sox aren’t linked with anyone else.. so all good. Right? Well… not so fast. Firstly , it would be wrong to think that they haven’t committed at least 1.5-2mil of that 3.8 residual amount on lower profile free agents. While, such lower profile commitments have historically not been difficult for teams to find a way to wiggle their way out of, due to the unilateral nature of these future contracts, there is one other factor which I would say precludes the Sox from acting on Cespedes – and his name is Oscar Luis Colas, aka the “Cuban” Ohtani.

Colas defected from Cuba in January 2020, subsequent to the list of 30 prospects being updated. This 6’1 , 210 lb 21 year old is an intriguing prospect as he can play all three outfield spots, first base, and he throws 95 mph with solid breaking stuff from the left hand side. The scouting on his isn’t as comprehensive as that on other Cuban imports, as much of his tape is from developmental and promotional games within the Western League of Japan, with the Fukuokoa Softbank Hawks. What is apparent is his size, his swing and his obvious athletic ability. One only has to check out the following Youtube highlight vid to see why scouts are all-in on the kid.

OK, so where does he factor in? Due to the fact that he came in kind of late to the 20/21 equation, and most teams have allocated their moneys elsewhere, Oscar wisely has been advised to consider waiting until the 21/22 signing period in order to ensure that he gets a signing bonus in the 5 million area. And that may be tough for teams to garner up at this stage of the game. This was the presumption for Colas, but as of recently, the smoke between he and the White Sox has been hot and heavy, with the White Sox being rumored to be the “significant favorites” to sign Colas in the current 20/21 period. This could be achieved through either trading for more IFA money from other teams, or by allocating every remaining dollar after the 1.5 million pledged to the high profile Vera. Either way, it appears that the Sox are going to discover a way to add the Cuban Ohtani this year, and this use of money all but eliminates them from any chance of having enough resources to enter the Cespedes sweepstakes.

Whew, so a big Cuban player out of the way, does this help the Mets chances of possibly signing Yoenis’s kid bro? Well, it can’t hurt. It also can’t hurt that the other heavy hitters in the MLB Cuban market have also allocated significant amounts to high profile prospects, while the Mets are to be rumored to have a significant amount of smaller ($500,000 to $750,000) contracts floating around, those that could be more easily retracted.

Also read: Free Agent Target: Alex Colome

Now, while I have stated why I think that the White Sox, and certain other MLB teams are not in an optimal position to sign Yoelqui, I want to now make the argument that Yoelqui does NOT want to be signed at all… by a Major league baseball club – at this time!

Wait… this seems quite misleading.. the article says that this he is an “option” for us; MLB.com list has him as a 2020/21 prospect, then he has to sign now, right? Some team, preferably us, can muster up 5 mil or so as a bonus to entice him; his brother will vouch for us, right?

Ok, let’s recap the definition of the term International Free agent, as it relates to the 2020/21 signing period:

In order for a player to be eligible as an “International Free Agent”, the player must:

  • Be of the age of 16 or will turn 16 prior to September 1st of the current signing period.
  • Reside outside of the United States, Canada or Puerto Rico and has not enrolled in High school in any of these places within past calendar year.

Now let’s recap players that are “exempt” from the Hard-cap rules related to the IFA structure:

players who are exempt from this “hard cap” must be:

  • at least 25 years old
  • have played in a recognized professional league (the big ones are Korea, Japan and Cuba) for at least “6” years prior to start of signing period.

Eureka! We have arrived at the money shot! 25 year olds rejoice! If you meet the above criteria, a team can pay you! And not these petty cash amounts sitting around in Steve Cohen’s 1995 Z-Cavaricci pants- no – real money! Luis Robert money ($26 mil signing bonus prior to the “hard cap” restructuring) Moncada money, Jose Abreu money… Kaz Matsui money! You get the pic…

Also read: Shaping up the Mets bullpen

But…But… what about time value of money, isn’t $5 mil in the hand… stop! I’m not suggesting that little Ces go on unemployment for the next two years, while he waits for his legal age to become “25”, he has other options.. This gap solution exists across the Pacific, where the surname Cespedes could possibly fetch our young protagonist a contract in Japan or Korea that could provide him the opportunity to play at the highest levels in those respective countries, while matriculating the years needed to meet the “6 year” professional league requirement to be granted this aforementioned exemption. If he thrives in say , the Nippon or KBO league (which many equate to AA levels in the States) , upon his maturity to 25, he can return state side and allow the bidding to take off in an uncapped environment.

Now, let’s not get too scared off by this option. What will not happen is the following: Yoelqui signs a 2 year 30 million equivalent dollar contract with the Yomiuri Giants, and upon fulfillment of contract, he signs a 5 year 100 million dollar contract with a MLB team. Let’s provide a point of reference.

The highest paid players in the Nippon professional league:

so let’s not go nuts here… to compound this, there are first year ceilings and caps and tons of tax rules in Japan which complicate things even further. The chance of him getting close to $5,000,000 USD while earning the 2 years is nil. Korea – even less money at the top. There’s no win-win here.

Also read: Mets Trade Target: Carlos Correa

Let’s bring this to a close – Yoelqui is in a unique situation, he’s not spoken-for at this moment. The team that has shown the most interest in him- the White Sox, would like him to sit idly for a year, and wait for the 21/22 free agency period, so they can throw their entire amount at him. I don’t think they stand alone in this position. Although I’ve analyzed the White Sox, and you can surmise from the charts above that the Marlins would have to move mountains to be a legitimate player for him during 20/21, I do think teams like the Mets and other lower profile players in IFA have a distinct advantage to procure his services. Because of the Mets lack of involvement in the Cuban defector movement, I have my doubts whether they could be considered favorites at this moment, but we have about a month and a half left before the signings begin, and I’d put my chances with the Mets Cespedes sequel coming to fruition at around 40%, which is much higher than I’d put it in any other normal season.

In my next article, I plan on touching on ANOTHER recent Cuban import, to whom I’m actually feeling confident about our chances!

Also read: The Mets Junkies Fix: The Press Conference (Episode 1)

Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB via Getty Images

International Free Agency Preview 2020/21 – Part I

As Mets fans cross over into the newly gifted “Land of the Solvent”, and we strive to put the B.C. (Before Cohen) era collectively behind us, visions of our newly anointed Messiah, spreading the gospel of Piazza, Wright and Seaver to the chosen elite of the newly freed agents, while rewarding them with infinite coin and riches, dancing through our minds. Flushing, NY serves as the new shrine to this Renaissance of Baseball, as 8 All-Stars jog to their places on the field (one behind the plate and the other 7 to the left of 2nd base-I mean it IS 2021 and a lefty is up) behind the most tried and true disciple of them all – Jacob, son of Anthony, Degrom. On a daily basis, the scoreboard emphasizes the insurmountable schism between the mortals of Atlanta, Philadelphia, Miami, Washington and our beloved Mercenaries in blue and orange! The City begins its plans for the Canyon of Heroes celebration on April 15th, as while the “magic number” may be 152, our deflated opponents have already mentally accepted their fate. Excitement! Hope! Rebirth! Dynasties! It is months away from fruition! And as literary foreplay, just to add more to this longed-for sensation of euphoric bliss………….. I will now discuss two potential international free agents that I feel would help buttress our lower and upper minor league systems. Nice finish – went from Blake Lively to Ben Lively. Hey, but Ben had a pretty ok career too.. and he pitched in the KBO league, so a perfect segue, correct?

Also read: Free Agent Target: Alex Colome

Can hear it now… “We just inherited 14 billion dollars! And you want to talk about guys who will sign for $10,000 and an Iphone-7?” or, “Stop with the Wilponomics – we are out of bankruptcy now – very fair and appropriate queries based upon our team’s middling history. However, the two do not need to be mutually exclusive, right? We can still reap the high priced domestic fruit of the offseason, while at the same time, cultivate the garden that produces the high priced fruit, can’t we?

Let’s take a brief look at the International free agent (IFA) signing period and some specs:

  • The IFA period runs on a fiscal year, so it’s 19/20, 20//21 etc. and it runs from July to June. The 19/20 period just recently ended, as the final signing day was extended until 10/15/20 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The 20/21 period, which was set to start in July 2020, was pushed back to January 15, 2021, hence no players have yet “officially” been signed. “Officially” is a key term, and I’ll get to it down below.
  • In order for a player to be eligible as an “International Free Agent”, the player must:
    • Be of the age of 16 or will turn 16 prior to September 1st of the current signing period.
    • Reside outside of the United States, Canada or Puerto Rico and has not enrolled in High school in any of these places within past calendar year.
  • Each team has a certain allotment of “signing bonus” or “pool” money, which can not be exceeded in any particular signing period (“Hard Cap”). For 2020/21, there are 6 pools:
    • Pool A – $6.4 million (Brewers, Reds, Marlins, Rays, Tigers, Twins)
    • Pool B – $5.9 million (Cards, D-Backs, Cle, Balt, SD, Pitt, Col, KC)
    • Pool C – $5.35 mil (Mets and most every other team)
    • Pool D – $4.7 mil (Angels, Phils)
    • Pool E – $4.2 mil (Yanks)- starting to like this structure
    • Pool F – $1.5 mil (Braves) Really starting to like this …
  • A team can not “carry over” this money to a subsequent signing period. A team may, however, trade for up to 75% of it’s initial pool (in $250,000 increments) amount from another team. International players who are exempt from this “hard cap” must be:
    • at least 25 years old
    • have played in a recognized professional league (the big ones are Korea, Japan and Cuba) for at least “6” years prior to start of signing period.

Also read: Mets Trade Target: Francisco Lindor

So let’s put some pictures to the words here. Firstly, it’s important to note that the “hard cap” rules changed in 2017/18. If you recall the names Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Rusney Castillo, Yasiel Puig – all these guys signed for multiple times what the maximum “hard cap” is for an entire team. Well, this is true – prior to 2017/18 as part of a facet of the CBA then in place related to IFA, the MLB allowed teams to execute International contracts, subject to a “quasi” luxury tax (not sure if “quasi” is correctly used here, but I’ve always wanted to write that.) So for instance, White Sox signed Luis Robert for a signing bonus, prior to end of 17/18 for $26 million bucks! They actually ended up paying a dollar for dollar penalty or tax. So it really cost them $52 million. Teams can no longer do this, so gone are the days of these huge signing bonuses for IFAs. The maximum (in concept) amount that an IFA under age 25 could get is $11,200,000, but this would entail a team not doling out any other signing bonuses over $10,000 (any contracts beneath this amount do not count against the hard cap), and a team trading for 75% of it’s initial hard cap space. In other words, its not likely. Most high-end bonuses fall in the range of 4-5 million. For reference, the top two 19/20 IFA prospects – Jason Dominguez (Yanks) and Robert Puason (A’s) both penned signing bonuses of $5.1 million respectively. The Mets traditionally have shied away from handing out very large individual bonuses, taking the “quantity over quality approach” with Omar Minaya having an integral long-term role in the process prior to his recent separation with the team. The bonuses handed out to more highly regarded prospects by the Mets in recent years have been as follows:

Amed Rosario (12/13) $1,750,000

Ronny Maurico (17/18) $2,100,000

Francisco Alvarez (18/19) $2,700,000

Also read: Hello, is it me (Nolan Arenado) you’re looking for?

And in staying with tradition, for the 19/20 signing period, the Mets handed out a 2.1 million dollar signing bonus to highly regarded 17 year old Dominican Centerfielder Alexander Ramirez, who was ranked 26th out of 30 ranked IFA players by Baseball America’s Ben Badler. The Mets, while not dabbling in the top 5-10 ranked prospects in the past, have been able to locate some great values, as they continued to do in this past signing period, by inking Robert Dominguez, an 18 year old Venezuelan RHP from the DR league, who was signed for a bargain of $95,000, and is widely regarded as having the highest upside of all pitchers in the 19/20 IFA class. Then, to boot, right before the 19/20 signing period concluded, we nabbed Venezuelan late blooming RHP, Richard Brito, who wasn’t on the scouting radar, but who consistently clocked 100 mph heat while also pitching in the DR. International scouts actually raved about the Mets ability to procure these two Venezuelan flame throwers, and lauded their strategy – some calling Ramirez the most projectable Centerfielder out of the entire prospect class.

As I mentioned before, the Mets are not known for shooting their proverbial international load in one shot, as they, to the chagrin of many Mets fans, have missed out on the “big-named” Cuban prospects such as Jose Abreu and Cespedes (both of whom were signed prior to the hard cap) or Moncada and Robert (see above). However, at the same time, they haven’t been unnecessarily burden with albatrosses of contracts of high-profile, yet high-priced disappointments from the Pearl of the Antilles such as Boston Red Sox punchline Rusney Castillo or the Cuban Willie Mays – Lazarito Armenteros of Oakland A’s. They have been relatively quiet on the Cuban market, but very shrewd and active in reaping the crop of lower profile, but high ceiling prospects from the DR. There is an underlying theme here – certain teams are known for having a stronger presence in certain Latino regions. Rafael Perez, the director of international operations, is a Dominican native, and has held multiple posts centered out of Santo Domingo, as a mainstay in the area. To say he has a finger on the pulse of the Dominican landscape is an understatement. He oversaw the club’s Dominican Academy for over a decade, and is one of the most respected scouts of local talent. The Mets have had less success in Cuba, and middle of the road success with Venezuela, but did apparently land a blue-chipper in Venezuelan Catcher Francisco Alvarez as mentioned above with the highest signing bonus in Mets history.

Also read: Free Agent Target: Jackie Bradley Jr

If you have stopped reading this by now, I totally understand, but if not, scroll back up to the adjective “officially” that I used to describe the unsigned players of the 2020/21 signing period. I use this term “officially” as if you scroll through the list of the top 30 2020/21 International prospects, and check out their biographies, you can’t help but notice that each one of the top 30, sans one (next article lol), has the following snippet in their bio: “Player XX from the DR is rumored to be of interest with the Oakland A’s, or the Florida Marlins , or the LA Dodgers. Well, that stinks, you may say, we must have been late to the game… Well… not exactly. With regards to many players in the Latino regions, have been “rumored” to be of interest with a specific team, probably from the age of 12 or 13. And this “rumor” of interest is usually synonymous with unilateral handshake contracts between the player and a team. I mentioned before that Perez has run the Mets “Academy” in the area. These Academies are not exactly ones that promote transience or transfers. Once a player is in a team’s academy, starting as early as the prepubescent years of 11, if the player shows promise, they will be cultivated, groomed and for all intensive purposes, bred to prepare for their 16th birthday, at which time they will sign with their “supporting” organization. How do teams ensure such “loyalty” amongst these children? Well… this is where it gets ugly. Where talent is present, so is financial opportunity – not just for those blessed by god to play this magnificent game, but also for those blessed with funds to advance to the parents of these potential cash-cows. For every MLB scout drooling over a 13 year old 82 mph, there are 3-5 loan sharks salivating over the thought of a defaulted futures loan at usurious rates ranging from 15-20%. To no one’s surprise, when parents are offered a $100,000 advance loan, to be paid back from their son’s future signing bonus, interest-free until the player either signs or does not sign with a MLB club, the temptation is too great to pass up, and parents will do everything in their power to obtain an unofficial “futures” contract with their child’s supporting team. Some 13 year-olds will turn into stronger and faster 16 year-olds, who are able to fulfill the Cinderella rags-to-riches ending that is universally desired, while others, while promised the world by their child’s baseball benefactor, will end up as the child of unsurmountable debt, as their bodies just never caught up, physically, to their dreams.

Also read: Mets Trade Target: Byron Buxton

It’s not as glamourous as the visions of Trevor Bauer, George Springer or JT Reamulto, but if you take inventory around the league, you don’t have to go further than division foe Atlanta to see how vital this process can be to the future success of an organization.

As a teaser for my next article (I’m sure you are waiting with bated breath), I mentioned that all thirty 2020/21 prospects, EXCEPT for ONE, is rumored (aka already signed) to be affiliated with a team. The Mets are not affiliated with any of the 29 already “rumored” prospects. Well… who is this lone straggler? Who is this man with no home? Part II will discuss this prospect, who happens to be the #1 consensus prospect on most experts list… and he might sound a bit familiar to you…

Also read: Marcus Stroman must impress in 2021

Photo from MetsInsider.MLBlogs.com