We all know that the Rays love exploiting inefficiencies to find the edge they need to continue contending on a tight budget. There is a certain population of players right that fall right into their wheelhouse, and it is only a matter of time before they start signing them.
Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement entails that major league teams have a limit for the amount of money they can spend on international free agents based on their record the previous season. That cap, however, applies to only players younger than 23 who played professionally in a foreign country. Of course, that excludes the high-profile pitchers from Japan and South Korea and almost all of the well-regarded defectors from Cuba as well. Players like Yu Darvish, Yasiel Puig, and Aroldis Chapman got their big contracts and are now critical pieces for their respective teams’ futures. For players not quite at that level, though, things get more interesting. They are not quite good enough to get the big contracts yet still are not part of the international free agent spending cap. That is where the Rays come in.
The 2012 international signing period was quite a time for the Tampa Bay Rays. They signed three of the top prospects around in right-hander Jose Castillo, lefty Jose Mujica, and catcher David Rodriguez as they shocked everyone by outpacing the other 29 MLB teams in international spending at $3.7 million. In doing so, however, the Rays spent considerably more than the $2.9 million cap, and incurred a series of penalties, the most notable of which was an inability to sign any player for above $250,000. The Rays have made their signings this year, but they have needed to go for the lesser prospects who would take less money. Plenty of players signed for little have turned into All-Stars, but it still has to sting the Rays that they can’t make their pitch to the players who especially stand out. One avenue thing they could do to counteract that problem, though, is to go for players like recent Cuban defector Erisbel Arruebarruena.
Arruebarruena hopes to sign with a major league team, but he will do so as a prospect. A shortstop with Gold Glove-caliber defense thanks to hands and arm strength that are as good as you will ever see, Arruebarruena has work to do at the plate, where he has to cut down on his swing and improve his pitch recognition. Considering he is already 23 years old, there is a real risk that Arruebarruena’s bat will never become big league-caliber. But because he is 23 and spent six years playing in Cuba’s professional league, Arruebarruena will not be subject to the international spending cap, and the Rays might be the team that pounces. Arruebarruena’s bonus will likely be inflated because of of the lack of restrictions, but there is a real chance it will end up at just $1.5 million or even less because of concerns about his hitting. That is something the Rays could really afford. If they think they can help Arruebarruena develop sufficiently at the plate that his defense will allow him to be a starting shortstop, they could take a chance on him and see how good he can become.
In a crowd of less explosive prospects from their international free agent class for this year, Erisbel Arruebarruena could be the Rays’ headliner, the player with a little more talent that they can have some confidence in. Yes, the Rays have Yunel Escobar starting at shortstop and Hak-Ju Lee rising up the ranks, but if they have too many quality shortstops, that is an enviable problem. If the price stays low enough and the Rays have enough confidence in Arruebarruena’s bat, they could circumvent the penalties imposed on them and get an impact talent nevertheless. Even if Arruebarruena isn’t the answer, though, it’s only a matter of time before one of these lower-profile Cuban defectors catches the Rays’ eyes and becomes the Rays’ latest attempt to push the envelope just a little bit more.