Could the Tampa Bay Rays Make Another International Free Agent Splash?
By Robbie Knopf
The Tampa Bay Rays lack the finances to compete with teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers for top-tier free agents, but international prospects are another story. The Rays asserted themselves on the international free agent market by signing the top prospect available, shortstop Adrian Rondon, for $2.95 million. Then they came away with outfielder Jesus Sanchez and hard-throwing lefty Francisco Sanchez to give them an impressive trio of 16 year olds.
In signing Rondon and both Sanchez’s, the Rays have already surpassed their allotted bonus pool money and triggered penalties. They did trade Matt Ramsey to the Miami Marlins to expand their bonus pool, but their three signings still totaled $4.025 million, blowing past the $2.982 million figure they could have paid without any ramifications.
Since they surpassed their bonus pool, the Rays will pay a 100% tax on the overage and will be unable to sign any international free agent for more than $300,000 in both the 2015 and 2016 signing periods. However, the 2015 signing period does not begin until July 2nd, so the Rays have five and a half months to continue making signings.
The Rays will continue to be taxed if they sign anyone else, but given that their timeframe to sign top international prospects is running out, it makes sense for them to make at least one more move. The top prospects from last July 2nd are all gone, but several notable Cuban players have defected since then and could fit for the Rays. Let’s go through three names and see if the Rays could target any of them.
Moncada is easily the highest-profile player available. He a 19-year-old middle infield prospect who combines excellent bat speed, blazing foot speed, raw power, and the defensive chops to stick at second base or centerfield. He is the type of prospects everyone wants–but he is also reportedly going to cost a team at least $30 million in bonus money.
Considering that the $30 million would require any team to blow past their bonus pool, however, we are really talking about a $60 million commitment or more counting the 100% tax. Considering the Rays’ 2015 payroll is currently lined up to be around $76 million, spending that much money on Moncada would mean spending nearly as much as their entire team is set to make this season combined.
In addition, since Moncada is subject to international free agent rules, that money has to be a bonus–it can’t be a major league contract that pays him over time. The Rays simply can’t afford that, and there is no reason at all to believe that they can hang with the Yankees, Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox in the Moncada sweepstakes.
Ibanez, 21, is another standout second base prospect, albeit one whose tools trail Moncada’s by a wide margin. He stands out more for a good plate approach than any particular skill as he is ranks around average for all five tools (hitting, power, speed, fielding, and arm). That will likely lead to a bonus of just a couple million dollars, which is much more reasonable for the Rays.
On the other hand, the Rays really don’t need another second baseman. Obviously Moncada is something special, but why would the Rays need Ibanez when they have Nick Franklin, Ryan Brett, Andrew Velazquez, and Kean Wong? It is hard to see the Rays signing him to a contract.
Despaigne may be the most notable Cuban prospect the Rays truly have a chance at. He is a 23-year-old right-hander with a fastball that touches 95 MPH along with a changeup and breaking ball. His pure stuff ranked among the best in Cuba, but he has significant work to do refining his mechanics and firming up his command.
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The Rays have plenty pitching prospects, but Despaigne’s stuff could hang with any of them if the Rays can work with him. That’s the difference between him and Ibanez–he has the type of talent that is worth adding despite the Rays’ depth. Despaigne is at least a couple of years away from the major leagues and may end up in the bullpen, but the Rays would have the flexibility to give him as much time as he needs to develop into a starter.
Despaigne’s cousin, Odrisamer Despaigne, received $1 million from the San Diego Padres last May as a pitcher with worse stuff but more polish. Jorge Despaigne, meanwhile, will likely receive slightly more than his cousin, with his increased upside balancing out the risk that comes with him. The Rays will only sign Despaigne if he receives a strong evaluation from them, but the possibility is certainly there.
The Tampa Bay Rays will not use the penalties they are set to receive for exceeding their international bonus pool as a reason to go crazy. They will not target a player set to receive an exorbitant amount like Moncada or someone they don’t need like Ibanez. However, they may have more incentive to go after a prospect like Jorge Despaigne and we will have to see if they finish the 2014-2015 international signing period with a bang.