In recent years, the Tampa Bay Rays have signed exactly one Cuban defector straight out of Cuba: outfielder/first baseman Leslie Anderson. It did not go particularly well, with Anderson not appearing in a single big league game before the Rays released him so he could go to Japan. Suddenly, however, the Rays may find themselves in a favorable position to land another Cuban product, and one in an entirely different situation: second baseman Yoan Moncada.
Moncada, just 19 years old, has left Cuba and may possess as much upside as any player to come out of the country. As described by Ben Badler of Baseball America, Moncada is a switch-hitting infielder with blazing speed, a fluid swing, and power potential. He certainly lacks the polish of a player like Jose Abreu or Yasiel Puig, but his upside may be just as high and his relative rawness will lower the cost to sign him. The best comparable for a contract would be Jorge Soler, who received nine years and $30 million from the Chicago Cubs. There is only one problem: with Moncada being just 19 years old, his signing will be subject to teams’ international free agent signing pools. Any team that signs him will surely have to be a hefty tax and be unable to sign any player for over $300,000 in the following signing period. Is it worthwhile for a team to suffer such penalties? It very well could be–Moncada is a very talented player–but three teams have no reason to hesitate: the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays have already exceeded their international signing limit, primarily thanks to the signing of top shortstop prospect Adrian Rondon out of the Dominican Republic. With that in mind, all signing Yoan Moncada would do to them is cost them a little more cash–they won’t be able to sign a player for more than $300,000 next signing period either way. The same is true for the Red Sox and the Yankees, but could this be the Rays’ chance to make a splash? The money Moncada will command will be a hefty sum for the Rays, especially for an unproven player, but they could view the signing like one of the team-friendly extensions they are so well-known for making, and they could have an extremely good player for a very long time. Soler received a $6 million signing bonus in two different increments and then won’t make more than $4 million in any year of the deal. If Soler harnesses any part of his potential, that contract will be excellent value. That type of deal has to appeal to the Rays as well. In exchange for moderate risk, they could get their long-term second baseman for seven or eight years (after a couple years in the minors) at a fraction of what he is worth. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox can more easily absorb that type of money, and bidding against them is always a dangerous proposition. But while the Rays cannot compete with them on the free agent market, this is an opportunity for them to go head to head with them for a talented player and win.
This entire discussion is assuming that Yoan Moncada will be declared eligible to sign by June 15, 2015. If he is not cleared by then, the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox will be physically unable to sign him because of the penalty for exceeding their bonus pools. If he does hit the open market by then, expect the Rays to make a legitimate bid for him and just maybe come away with a tremendous talent in the process.