The San Diego Padres Hunt for Luis Robert

Former Cuban national team member Luis Robert is the last big name international free agent left. Will the Padres break open the bank one more time?

Since last June, arguably no major league team has done more to improve its minor league system than the San Diego Padres. 

With Cuban outfielder Luis Robert, eligible to sign as of May 20, the Padres can put a big cherry on top of what is already the best single year of amateur talent acquisition in the team’s 48-year history.

Since he became eligible to sign, Robert has conducted several private workouts with individual teams. Tuesday, he was at the Padres’ facility in the Dominican Republic - an opportunity that Padres international scouting director Chris Kemp claims is critical for the evaluation.

“It provides us with a chance to get up close with the player and spend some time with him. He was out at our facility on Tuesday and we had chance to chat with him over lunch and get to know a little bit more about him as a person away from the field.”

But in-person time with him is hardly new for the organization’s talent evaluators.

“I’ve seen him over ten times and our cross-checker has probably seen him more,” Kemp said by phone from the Dominican Republic.

“Also, A.J. [Preller, the Padres’ General Manager] has seen him quite a few times too.

“We definitely like him as a player and a person. We can see him becoming a future big league player and we plan to be in the mix to get him.”

While the Padres spent more than $15 million in last year’s amateur draft, and are paying other teams slightly over $35 million for veterans traded for prospects, their biggest investment, by far, has been on the international market.

Since the current signing period opened last July 2, the club has signed 45 players for a total cost of close to $80 million in bonuses and penalty fees.  The most notable additions have been from Cuba; left-handed pitcher Adrian Morejon ($22 million), outfielder Jorge Oña ($14 million) and $15.5 million total to three other pitchers.

Additionally, the team shelled out $8 million total for shortstop Luis Almanzar from the Dominican Republic and gave 12 of the top 50 international signing bonuses. The bonuses given to Morejon, Oña and Almanzar represent three of the four biggest outlays for amateur players in team history.

So, will the Padres make the final push and take a chance on Luis Robert?

“Because Morejon was a pitcher, it’s a little different on the number of looks that we saw,” said Kemp.  “Oña on the other hand was in the Dominican for close to a year, so we saw him well over 50 times and obviously liked what we saw.

“Since the process started a little late with Robert – he’s only been in the Dominican for a few months – is the reason we’ve only seen him around ten times.”

Robert, 19, is a six-foot-three, 205 lbs. outfielder with the ability to play center field, but with a more likely destination on the corners. Before leaving Cuba in November, he hit .393 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases in Cuba’s top league and was considered not only the quintessential five-tool prospect, but one of the five best players in the country.

“They are in the mix for him, just how high is another question,” said Baseball America’s Ben Badler. “I do think they will be one of the teams that will be there in the end.”

“He’s a very athletic, physical player for his age,” said Badler. “He brings some impressive tools to the table and has a good record of performance against players older than him in Cuba.  There is some risk due to the amount of swing-and-miss in his game, but he projects very well.”

“I’m not the guy at Baseball America that does the draft, we have quite a few who do that for us, but if Luis Robert was coming out he would fit comfortably in the first round.”

Under major league rules, when a player leaves Cuba, he must establish residency in another country to become eligible to sign with a major league club. On April 20, Major League Baseball cleared Robert, now legally resident in Haiti, to sign on or after May 20.

That is good news for Robert, because teams will face a hard cap on bonuses they can pay once the next signing period opens on July 2. That cap will likely be less than half of what Robert signs for in the next month.

It’s also good news for the Padres, who will be blocked from signing any player for more than $300,000 in the next two signing periods.

While theoretically, all 30 teams would be interested in Robert, the number of clubs that will actively participate in bidding for him is much smaller. The Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Royals, Diamondbacks, Angels, Rays, Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays exceeded their bonus allotments in 2015 or 2016 and can’t sign any player for more than $300,000 in the current period.

Furthermore, teams that have not exceeded their bonus allotments but already have handshake agreements in place with players for the upcoming July 2 period are unlikely to bid for Robert either.  Signing Robert now would trigger the two-year penalty and negate the work that their international scouting departments have already done.

So, the field will come down to teams that have already exceeded their allocations for this year. The Padres, Cardinals, Braves, Reds, Nationals and Athletics can all sign him without incurring any further penalty; if they are willing to pay major league baseball 100% of the signing bonus. The one outlier in the mix is the White Sox, who have not exceeded their signing bonus, but are said to be very much in the mix for Robert. However, for the White Sox to sign Robert they will also incur the same two-year penalties and have to pay double the signing bonus to MLB.

“I saw Robert at a tournament in Mexico City when he was 16 when he was on the same team with Jorge Oña, who was then 18,” said Badler.  “At those types of tournaments, Cuba always tries to send their very best players and the fact that he was included on that team at such a young age says something.”

“I thought Oña was the best player on that team, but Robert was not far behind.”

According to Kemp, it was Morejon’s performance at the same tournament that started the Padres on the path they’ve taken internationally over the last year.

If you are going to blow it out you need to get the top guy and he was it,” Kemp told MadFriars last July.  “Before we could do that, we had to get everyone around the table and agree on what we needed to find out if we were going to invest in getting him.”

Once they were sold on Morejon, it made sense to sign as many quality international players as possible, and do it before the rules of the market changed to make it impossible to accomplish again. So A.J. Preller and crew acquired more quality players than any club will be able to under the new system

If you are going to break the bank, this was the time to do it.

Signing Robert would be the knockout blow for a signing period that is already a win.

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