Could Targeting Cuban Prospects Be the Next Way the Rays Gain an Edge?

By Robbie Knopf

With a limited payroll, the Rays have to be on constant lookout for new ways to acquire talent. They have worked hard to develop their system through the draft, and last year they went crazy on the international free agent market, signing top prospects Jose Castillo, Jose Mujica, and David Rodriguez. Spending in the draft and international free agency has long been a way for smaller-market teams to compete with the teams who have more resources because the number of many in play is exponentially less and putting in a few more million dollars can make all the difference. But the way baseball is constructed under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that began in 2012, there is only so much teams like the Rays can do.

There are now draft pools and spending limits that cause teams to incur penalties if they spend too much. When the Rays signed Castillo, Mujica, and Rodriguez, the Rays suffered severe penalties for this year’s international free agent class that will prevent them from signing any player for more than $250,000. And while the Rays did select make one high-risk, high-reward pick in this year’s draft, selecting Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek after bonus demands dropped him to the end of the first round, that was the only such selection they could make and they had to compensate by drafting conservatively otherwise. So as the Rays look to acquire the talent that they need to keep competing, where will it come from? Are they on the same playing field as everybody else only wearing second-rate equipment while the higher-payroll teams where the highest-quality equipment around? The answer to that last question is probably yes, demonstrating why so few teams have managed anything remotely similar to what the Rays have done the last six years. But as they hope to find the boost they need to compete in an unbalanced game, one place they could look is the Cuban defector that arrives next.

If a player defects from Cuba, if he’s 22 years old or younger, he counts towards a team’s cap for international free agent spending. If he’s 23 or older and has at least three years of professional baseball under his belt, though, he is not subject to the cap and teams could sign them completely independently of their cap or any penalties they may have incurred. Essentially, the only way that the Rays could sign an international free agent for more than $250,000 this year is to sign a Cuban defector who 23 years of age or older. The latest such player is right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a 26 year old with a fastball touching 97 MPH to headline an incredible arsenal. The Rays will not be signing Gonzalez–he could command a contract similar to Yasiel Puig‘s 7-year, $42 million contact if not more, and it’s rare to see the Rays give out contracts even remotely similar to that. But maybe the next player will be a different story, ending up with a bonus of a couple million dollars and nothing more. And when that player comes around, especially this year when their international free agent options are limited, the Rays could very well be the team that pounces. The Rays will never outbid anyone on the free agent market. But if they pick their battles correctly, there is plenty they can do with the money they have. You won’t hear the Rays targeting the big-money players, but next time you hear of a lower-profile prospect out of Cuba, don’t be surprised if the Rays are very much involved.