St. Louis Cardinals’ General Manager John Mozeliak made a special overseas trip recently. He stood in attendance at a private workout, watching a teenager rocket fastballs in batting practice. Why?
Because the next great Cuban baseball player will soon land in a Major League organization and Mozeliak wants it to be his.
It was reported in January by Baseball America’s Ben Badler that Luis Robert had defected from Cuba last November and established residency in Haiti in order to apply for MLB free agency. On April 20th, Major League Baseball reportedly allowed the outfielder to become a free agent. He will be allowed to officially sign his deal on or after May 20th.
There is buzz all about the baseball world regarding the Cuban sensation. Following recent high-profile signings such as Yoan Moncada with the Boston Red Sox, Yulieski Gurriel with the Houston Astros, Lourdes Gurriel with the Toronto Blue Jays, and Lazaro Armenteros with the Oakland Athletics, Robert presents an exciting new option for teams looking to spend in the international pool. But, who is this Luis Robert?
Luis Robert Moraint goes by Luis Robert (pronounced like the man’s first name, according to a Cardinals official) in baseball circles. The 19-year-old international star is widely considered one of the two best international prospects in the game alongside two-way Japanese superstar Shohei Otani.
In fact, MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez attended one of Robert’s showcases for MLB scouts, and reported that one American League scout called Robert “the best player on the planet, and that’s no exaggeration.” A National League scout countered with, “Robert is up there. He’s a five-tool guy that can be in the big leagues soon. He has to be No. 2 behind (Shohei) Ohtani. He’s that good.” And, in exceptionally exciting news for Cardinals’ fans, St. Louis is said to be one of the favorites to sign Robert.
However, there is a major catch. The Cardinals will have to beat several other teams to get him.
Competitors and non-competitors
Robert is in an exceptionally unique situation. With the MLB's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, new rules for international signings will go into effect starting June 15th. Those restrictions will keep teams at a hard cap between $4.75 million and $5.75 million depending on the team. A team can trade for up to 75% more of its original bonus pool, so the maximum amount for which an international player can sign under the new rules is around $10 million.
While Robert is not expected to get the full $31.5 million Moncada received, he should fetch one of the highest international signing bonuses in history. With MLB declaring him a free agent, Robert will get that big money - if he signs between May 20 and June 14.
Several big money teams are ineligible to sign Robert due to prior overspending. With the previous CBA, if a team exceeds its international spending pool by more than 15 percent, the team is penalized with a 100 percent tax on the overage as well as relinquishing the right to sign any international prospect for more than $300,000 over the following two signing periods.
The Cardinals will be in that penalty category for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 signing periods, so this will be their final major opportunity to make a splash in the international market for the next two years-plus.
Teams breaking the bank in previous years that are not going to be able to bid enough to land the Cuban phenom include the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, and Toronto Blue Jays.
However, there are still some teams with money to spend during this signing period. Along with the Cardinals, the Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics, and Cincinnati Reds have been hot on Robert’s trail. All of those teams, save the White Sox, have already exceeded their bonus pools for the 2016-2017 signing period, so they would not incur extra penalties beyond the 100% tax on Robert's deal. The White Sox would surely go over their cap with a contact for him.
Robert proved his ability at three different levels in Cuba. He started capturing the attention of scouts as a 14-year-old in Cuba’s Under-16 league before moving on to the nation’s Under-18 league the following year. His first year on his 18U, Robert hit .325/.420/.475 and led the league with 21 stolen bases. He followed up that performance the following season with a .380/.530/.570 slash line while tying for second in the league in both home runs (3) and stolen bases (17). He spent part of his age-16 season in Cuba’s highest league, Serie Nacional, with Ciego de Avila. Robert went on to spend another three years in the league, progressing each season until he dominated the league as a 19-year-old in 2016.
In 232 plate appearances over 53 games, Robert slashed .401/.526/.687 with 12 home runs, 40 RBI, 11 steals, 38 walks, and 30 strikeouts, leading the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base-plus-slugging. The outfielder also tied for third in the league in homers behind 26-year-old Osvaldo Vazquez (17) and 32-year-old Yeniet Perez (14).
Robert’s talent is undeniable. MLB.com ranks him as the #1 international prospect with a 55-grade hitting tool, a 60-grade power tool, 70-grade running speed, a 50-grade throwing arm, and 55-grade defense. What does that translate to? Roughly a potential .270 hitter who puts up 25 homers and 25 steals while playing above-average defense in center field. If you’re looking for a player comparison, you might consider him an outfield version of fellow countryman Moncada, MLB.com’s #1 overall prospect, at his ceiling.
The potential impact
Should the Cardinals ink Robert to a contract, he would immediately become the organization’s #1 position prospect and would challenge the sidelined Alex Reyes for the top spot. For comparison, MLB.com ranks Robert as a better prospect than Atlanta Braves’ key signing Kevin Maitan, a switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop who draws comparisons to Miguel Cabrera. MLB ranks Maitan as the Braves’ second best prospect behind AAA infielder Ozzie Albies and the 28th overall prospect. Looking at scouting grades and the belief Robert would start in High-A, he compares favorably to #1 overall pick last year Mickey Moniak of the Philadelphia Phillies, currently ranked as MLB.com’s #17 prospect.
Robert is an exceptionally unique talent, and St. Louis is in a strong position to sign him. Bringing in the Cuban phenom would give the Cardinals a dynamic one-two punch of prospects on both sides of the ball with Robert and Reyes. Robert is expected to host another showcase for teams before his May 20th release to the marketplace.
The clock is ticking, and the Cardinals are hopeful Robert will in the fold when it hits 0:00.
Follow Scott Schook on Twitter @scottschook.
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