The MLB has officially declared 19 year-old Cuban defector Luis Robert Moirán (common name – Luis Robert) an international free agent. This means that MLB teams are able to sign Luis Robert during the current 2016-2017 signing period which ends on July 2. So who is Luis Robert, and will the White Sox be able to sign this young phenom?
Robert is a 6-3, 205 lb., right-hand hitting, 19 year-old Cuban outfielder who played professionally for the Tigres de Ciego de Avila of the Cuban National Series. In 2016, he posted a .401/.526/.687 slash line with 12 HR and 11 SB in 232 plate appearances in Cuba. He’s a summary of his tools based on the various scouting reports I’ve seen (grades listed as present/future potential):
Robert has a quick, short stroke with tons of power in his wrists. The short stroke is somewhat of an aberration, as many top Cuban hitters tend to develop a longer which they can get away with due to the shallower pool of pitching talent on the island. Robert continues to fill out physically, as his U18 scouting reports had him listed at 6-2, 175 lb. His power hitting numbers as a 19 year old in the Cuban National Series basically match the numbers posted by Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, and Yasiel Puig at the same age. From what I’ve read, Robert has at least above-average power currently, which could keep improving as he continues to fill out his frame. So I peg him with above-average power now, with the potential to be a 30 HR hitter in the bigs.
I think Robert’s short quick stroke will give him the ability to hit for average moving up the ladder. However, some scouts have expressed concerns about his contact ability. He tends to swing through some fastballs and has had problems laying off breaking pitches in the dirt. That being said, he’s still only 19 and should develop with the right coaching when he comes to the U.S. I’ve got him as an average hitter now, with the potential to be a .280 hitter if everything breaks right.
Robert played CF during his junior career in Cuba, and he certainly has the athleticism to stay there in the majors (see below). However, he spent most of his time manning the corner outfield spots for the Tigres last season. He will probably wind up as an average to above-average corner outfielder in the MLB, which doesn’t hurt his overall value in the slightest.
Here’s where Robert’s tools start making you drool. The idea of a plus hitter with room to develop is enough to get any baseball fan excited. But wait there’s more! Luis Robert allegedly ran a 6.2 second 60 at his initial open showcase workout according to MLB’s Jesse Sanchez. That’s a crazy number. That’s an 80 on the 20/80 scale. Billy Hamilton speed. To put it in perspective, Yoan Moncada, who is a burner prospect with plus-plus speed himself, ran a 6.6 second 60! If Robert can put that speed into play with his other tools, he becomes one of the top prospects in baseball, probably the equivalent of the #1 overall pick in the amateur draft.
When a team wants to sign a high-profile international free agent, the calculus isn’t as simple as ‘throw as much money as we can at the guy and hope that he signs.’ This year’s international free agent signings are subject to various rules under both the old and new CBA which will impact a team’s decision. The ‘old rules’ are in effect until the 2017-2018 international signing period which kicks off on July 2. Then the ‘new rules’ take effect. But teams that are looking to sign Luis Robert must consider both the ‘old rules’ and the ‘new rules’ when making their decision.
Under the ‘old rules’, each team had a ‘soft cap’ international bonus pool consisting of four ‘slot values’ based on reverse order of standings. So the worst team gets the biggest bonus pool and the best ‘slot values’. The bonus pool money and slots are used to sign international free agents. Under the ‘old rules’, teams are allowed to spend over their bonus pool allotment, but then they 1) pay penalties for exceeding their bonus pool and 2) are limited to a maximum individual signing amount of $300,000 in the upcoming signing period. The Angels, Blue Jays, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Rays, Red Sox, Royals and Yankees all overspent their bonus pool in past years, and therefore are limited to a maximum $300,000 for each individual player signed during the 2016-2017 signing period. In other words, they are out of the Luis Robert sweepstakes, as Robert could command a signing bonus upwards of $30 million.
One of the major changes under the ‘new rules’ is that the international bonus pool is now a ‘hard cap’. Teams can no longer go over their bonus pool allotment and pay a penalty down the road. The playing field is arguably more evened out by these new rules.
However, (and this is important for the Luis Robert situation) any pre-existing penalties from the ‘old rules’ will still apply to the 2017-2018 season. A number of teams who are interested in Luis Robert are also already over the soft cap of the ‘old rules’ for the 2016-2017 signing period and will be limited in the 2017-2018 signing period to the $300,000 maximum player signings under the old rules. The Astros, Athletics, Reds, Padres, and Cardinals are all over their bonus pool number and are planning individual workouts with Robert. For those teams, it makes sense to make a big bid on Robert as they getting penalized whether they sign him or not, and this is the last chance for them to spend this much on an individual international free agent.
The White Sox, oddly enough, fall into a third category. They currently aren’t penalized for either the 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 signing periods. If they do sign Robert, they will have to go over their bonus pool cap and will be penalized for the next 2 international signing periods. Therefore, the White Sox have to decide whether the additional cost of being limited to spending a maximum of $300,000 per player for future international free agent signings is worth it to make a run at Robert. I think they will decide that his services are worth it, but it is an extra wrinkle that the club must consider.
The White Sox Chances
One thing that the White Sox have working in their favor is the positive relationships that they have built with Cuban-born players over the years. It started with baseball legend Minnie Minoso in 1951. In more recent years, Cuban players Jose Contreras, El Duque Hernandez, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Jose Abreu, Michael Ynoa, and Yoan Moncada have been key members of the White Sox organization. Of note, current White Sox reliever Michael Ynoa and Luis Robert are good friends, which could give us an extra edge in what figures to be a bidding war.
The White Sox also boast a secret weapon in Marco Paddy, the Panamanian director of international scouting for the club. Paddy made the trip to attend Robert’s open showcase workouts in the Dominican Republic. Hopefully, our Cuban connection can provide the extra nudge needed to push Robert to our side.
Another selling point we can offer to Robert is that, given our rebuild and current ‘unsettled’ outfield, he can play for us in the majors very soon. There really is no one blocking Robert in either the minor or major league level at any of the OF spots (Avi Garcia’s early season rampage notwithstanding). And with the development of Tim Anderson, this version of the Sox have shown that they are willing to give youngsters everyday playing time in key positions.
At the end of the day, however, the decision rests with ownership. Kenny Williams, Rick Hahn, Marco Paddy, the international scouting department, the Cuban connection, and the fans can all want the club to sign Luis Robert, but if Jerry Reinsdorf doesn’t want to part with the big money it will take to land him, we can forget it about it. Robert is being projected to command an international signing bonus in the $25-30 million range. Additionally, any team that blows their bonus pool allotment by that much to sign Luis Robert will also have to pay a penalty in the same range as the bonus fee. In short, just singing Luis Robert could cost the White Sox between $50 and $60 million.
Unfortunately, I just don’t see Jerry spending that kind of cash on an unproven 19-year-old international free agent. Any fan of the White Sox and Chicago Bulls can testify that Reinsdorf just doesn’t spend the money needed to land top flight free agents. We can debate the merits of that approach from a business and on-field production perspective. But I think that Reinsdorf ultimately makes the White Sox unlikely to win the Luis Robert sweepstakes.
Article featured image of Luis Robert – courtesy of BaseballAmerica.com