Aside from spring training, there was some news this week that got me thinking. How connected are the Cubs parts of talent acquisition when it comes to International Free Agency and the MLB Draft? Are they mutually exclusive or are they connected – even slightly? It is an interesting set of questions to consider as the Cubs get ready to procure another set of prospects this summer as the first wave of players obtained by Epstein and McLeod take part in Spring Training this week.
My thinking begins in Cuba. Yoan Moncada is still unsinged, but there are other Cubans out there, lots of them, waiting to come to America to play baseball. Some names are well known and have created quite a bit of interest (Hector Olivera), while others like Yasmany Romero Hernandez have been hanging in the breeze for several months. Over the past month, Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com and Ben Badler of Baseball America have written wonderful profiles of the Cuban market.
However, when it comes to the Cubs the past year, they have been left out of the market, so to speak, because of the penalties imposed by MLB because of their 2013 International Free Agent spending spree involving Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, and others. When it comes to Moncada, the Cubs are effectively shut out of the market until July 2, when they can begin spending again, and Moncada will likely be signed in the next few weeks. The Cubs could be in the Hector Olivera market if they wanted because he is 29 and outside of the spending limits, but I don’t think the Cubs are looking at him at all. They want something a little younger, make that a lot younger, and someone they can control for several years.
This week, two Cubans were put into the 2015 International Free Agent pool by MLB for this summer – Yadier Alvares and Vladimir Gutierrez, both young pitchers. Alvares, only 18, is a righty who has been impressive in workouts in the Dominican the past month (see video below). As Alvares establishes residency, he can build up his long, lean, 6’3” frame and add to his already impressive repertoire. Kiley McDaniel of Fan Graphs estimated that Alvares could cost over $10 million to sign (*I have seen his name spelled Alvares by Baseball America and Alvarez by FanGraphs).
Gutierrez is the lesser known of the two. But along with right-handed pitcher Jorge Despaigne,
Jorge Soler’s best friend outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and lefty Yasmany Romero Hernandez, the Cubs could make a killing acquiring talent this summer. To do so would require them to blow past their international pool money and this is only just for Cubans. And from events in the news, there are more names to come. With recent decisions by the Obama administration towards Cuba along with recent defections, it could be a wave of players.
But that’s not the best part of it. This doesn’t include the Cubs signing other Latin/Caribbean players from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, or Venezuela. These countries are also part of the International Free Agent spending pool. The Cubs would then be paying a dollar for dollar penalty if (when) they exceed the allotment given to them by Major League Baseball. It might be worth it this summer.
Here’s why – this year’s MLB draft is devoid of high end bats at both the college and high school levels. Sure there are some nice bats who will make excellent pros, like my favorite Joe McCarthy of Virginia, but there is no Kris Bryant, no Kyle Schwarber, nor a Javy Baez or Addison Russell. It doesn’t mean there won’t be as there is a lot of baseball yet to be played. However, when looking at the International Free Agents, there are a lot of high risk, high reward bats who could be the type of players the Cubs are looking for. When it comes down to draft strategy this year, I think the Cubs are really looking at who they can acquire in international free agency and that could affect who they take in round in one.
That strategy begins in the Dominican Republic and his name is Starling Heredia. The Cubs have already been linked to him in several reports on Baseball America by Ben Badler. A beast at 6’4”, Heredia wowed Scouts last summer at the Under Armour game at Wrigley Field. Like Eloy Jimenez, Heredia is still raw but is a great athlete and shows plus power and decent enough arm strength (see video below). At only 16, he could be the bat the Cubs are looking to add this summer. Add in another Dominican outfielder in Franklin Reyes, who is similar in size to Heredia, and the Cubs could make a killing in acquiring high end talent this summer before the draft begins even though the signings won’t be announced until after the draft.
Fast rising college arms like Dillon Tate and Luke Gillingham and projectable arms like high schooler Mike Nikorak are going to make it very hard for the Cubs to pass on one of them to go for the more projectable bat. Jason McLeod has stated unequivocally that bats are easier to project to the majors than arms. Taking an arm is much more of a risk. And in a year devoid of high end hitters (so far), those arms look mighty good…or do they?
One thing the Cubs have done under Epstein and McLeod is rebuild the scouting system. I think, in conspiracy theory terms, Epstein and McLeod could foresee this two events converging over the past few months based upon the reports of the scouts. Now, in my opinion, the emergence of so many international free agents and the lack of bats in the MLB draft is just pure coincidence. On the other hand, taking advantage of the situation is not!
The Cubs truly lack a prospect in their organization who is considered a #1 starting pitcher. Duane Underwood might be the closest things but he will only be at High A Myrtle Beach this year. There’s a lot of baseball between High A and the majors. This year’s draft has some nice pitchers, but is there truly a #1 type pitcher? Is Alvares or Guitierrez?
SS Brendan Rodgers is the consensus top player in this year’s draft. After he goes #1, there are a plethora of arms to take: Matuella, Aiken, Buehler, Funkhouser, Kirby, Allard, Ashe Russell, Fullmer, Bickford, Ponce, Hooper, Ferrell, Tate, Gillingham, and LeMoine; to name a few. And to be honest, there is not much separation between them. I like Funkhouser a lot, but is he a 1? He’s solid, but does he have a high ceiling to go with his high floor? This is the type of question the Cubs have to ask themselves before they pick at #9. Do Ashe Russell, Mike Nikorak, Justin Hooper, or Kolby Allard have the pitches it takes to transition to be a pro pitcher? How projectable are they? Or, would the Cubs be better off going with a high quality bat with great makeup like Catcher Chris Betts despite the now plethora of catchers in the Cubs organization? Is Isiah Gilliam an option again in rounds, one, two, or three? There are lots of things to consider.
Then again, I think the bigger question out of all the questions will be, “Who do we already have signed from the International Free Agent Market?” Why is this the better question? It’s easy – that is where the better talent is this summer. Starling Heredia, to me, is more of a high end prospect than anyone in the draft save Demi Orimoloye. The Cubs are not taking Demi at #9 – too much of a reach right now. They could take Betts or a pitcher, but their choices for a bat at #9 are slim. Trenton Clark and Nick Plummer are nice bats, but they don’t project much. Daz Cameron, who has slipped the last year, could have a good spring and make all these questions obsolete.
The odds of finding a higher end bat are better in the Caribbean. And those choices might be a part of the plan, or they might be because of the plan.
The Cubs have shown a design to take four types of players in the draft under Epstein and McLeod:
1. High end bats (Bryant, Schwarber)
2. Baseball Rats (Almora, Zagunis, Chesny Young)
3. Athletes (Mitchell, Burks)
4. Waves and Waves and Waves of pitching
I don’t think this year is going to be any different after the first round. They could surprise us and take an arm, but the odds are stacked against that. The two parts of talent acquisition are tied together, and they are also mutually exclusive, but how much? I think the answer is some. And even if they are, I don’t think you will ever hear Theo say this summer that because we got Starling Heredia or Yadier Alvares that we went with whomever they take in round one. He would also never say that because there were no big bats, we went out and got Starling Heredia and/or Franklin Reyes
But I am sure it has some influence on the risk they take in both parts of acquiring talent. I think the international free agents might influence who they might take in round one only from a risk standpoint. But if a bat emerges between now and the draft, the Cubs are going with the bat and that point is moot. Never the less, the Cubs know the bats lacking in the draft might place more urgency on acquiring a bat in International Free Agency. It is almost a paradox of parallelism. Regardless of the talent, the Cubs are going to go for that talent because it is there to be taken whether it’s the draft or the international market. This year, though, it is a strange convergence of the two markets with inequities in each.