Plenty of impact major league players have come out of Cuba in recent years, with Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Aroldis Chapman ranking among the most notable. Unsurprisingly, no player who even comes close to meeting that description signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. Their most notable signing out of Cuba in recent years was Leslie Anderson, who they paid $3.75 million on a four-year deal in 2010 but was never deemed worthy of a single big league game. They are hoping for different results with fellow outfielder Dayron Varona.
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Varona, whose signing was reported by Ben Badler of Baseball America, is a 27-year-old outfielder known for his defense, arm strength, and speed. Keith Law thought Varona could receive a $10 million bonus, but the indications are that the Rays signed him for much less than that. Varona is ready for Double-A or Triple-A in the Rays’ system once he secures a visa to enter the country, although they may send him to High-A initially so he can acclimate to America in the warmer temperatures of Florida.
In seven seasons in the Cuban National Series, Varona hit to a .312/.376/.470 line in 1504 plate appearances. That line looks pretty good, but his 217-99 strikeout to walk ratio was unimpressive given his competition and he was quite poor at stealing bases, managing just 22 in 47 attempts. He has good bat speed and gap power, but he needs to prove that his plate approach is good enough for him to hit the ball with authority. Varona has the secondary skills to be a useful big league player, but there are no guarantees with the bat at this point.
We will have to see just how much the Tampa Bay Rays will be paying Dayron Varona, but they are certainly signing him because they are enthralled by his defense and think his offense can come around. He appears to have the defensive tools to stick in centerfield, where his value would be increased and there would be less pressure on his bat, and he also received some experience at second base, third base, and catcher in Cuba. Especially since we’re talking about the Rays, they will see if he can play either of those two infield spots.
Varona will give the Rays outfield depth in the minor leagues and hope to establish himself as a useful big league reserve. We will have to see what happens with his bat, but the Rays see his defense, speed, and maybe even his versatility and see a player with the ability to help them in the future.