Betting on Cuba, ChiSox offer millions to 19-year-old Luis Robert

Amid doubts about Cuban pipeline, ChiSox bet millions on last major international free agent

Despite the reported agreement between the Chicago White Sox and the highly touted 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Luis Robert Moirán, Major League Baseball’s unfettered and seemingly insane love for anything Cuban seems to have ebbed in the first two months of the 2017 season.

The big news of Robert agreeing to a signing bonus up to $27 million, pending a physical, simply reinforces the point that Cubans have otherwise stopped making news in MLB. While the Astros’ Yulieski Gurriel, the Blue Jays’ Kendrys Morales and the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig and Yasmani Grandal remain productive, they are not stealing headlines. In New York, outfielder Yoenis Céspedes continues nursing a hamstring strain. And closer Aroldis Chapman, out with left rotator cuff inflammation, has not exactly set the American League on fire since his return to the Yankees’ fold.

Meanwhile on Chicago’s South Side, the anticipated arrival of third baseman Yoan Moncada remains on hold mainly due to a nagging thumb sprain amid first baseman José Abreu’s slow start with the White Sox.

To sum it up, only one new Cuban, the Indians’ Yandy Díaz, has debuted in the Big Show this season, a distinct drop-off from the past several campaigns.

Down on the farm, several recent headline acquisitions have lost their luster in the minors, namely two prospects slowed by persistent injuries: 23-year-old Roberto Baldoquín, currently playing shortstop for the Angels’ Class-A Burlington Bees, and 24-year-old second baseman Andy Ibáñez, who’s seen action in only a handful of games for the Rangers’ Double-A Frisco RoughRiders.

Robert will walk away with the second-most expensive bonus ever for an international amateur free agent. Once the 100 percent overage tax is calculated, the deal could cost the White Sox upward of $50 million, not far off Boston’s deal with Moncada, who was inked two years ago. Moncada got a record $31.5 million while it cost the Red Sox twice that amount.

But thanks to a depleted talent base on the island and recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement — which starting in June limits the maximum bonus to Cubans under the age of 25 to $5.75 million — we may have seen the last of the jackpot bonanzas for anyone from the land that gave birth to Adolfo “Dolf” Luque, Luis Tiant, Hall of Famers Martín Dihigo, José Méndez, Cristóbal Torrientes and Tony Pérez, Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, José Contreras and the Hernández half-brothers, Liván and Orlando “El Duque.”

In an interesting quirk of fate — the unexpected trade last winter that sent ace Chris Sale to Boston for Moncada — the ChiSox now have in the minors the two hottest Cuban prospects. As other teams are pulling back or rethinking their strategies, especially the Dodgers after shelling out more than $200 million for Puig and busts Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena — the White Sox are doubling down.

How Good is Robert?

Like several of his countrymen, Robert has generated considerable hype. Internet reports have been filled with glowing stories touting the young player’s seemingly limitless talents. “The best player on the planet,” boasted one American League international scouting director.

Unbridled exaggeration is so often the case with high-profile Cubans. Yet the impressions of experienced Cuba watchers and other international scouts shouldn’t be easily discounted. Robert, who stands 6-feet-2 and weighs 175 pounds, is a lean, mean, right-handed hitting machine. Baseball America likes his premium bat speed and sound, compact swing capable of driving the ball with high-exit velocity. And because of all the upside, Robert has been ranked as the second-best international free-agent prospect behind Japan’s two-way pitching and slugging phenom Shohei Otani.

Robert began young in Cuba, debuting in the National Series at age 16. He posted decent offensive numbers in his four seasons with league champion Ciego de Ávila, averaging .314 with 18 home runs and 82 RBI in a hitter-friendly circuit.

He also played on the Cuban squad that performed briefly in the low-level CanAm League last summer. But when he left Cuba in November 2016, he was not yet a league all-star, much the same as Moncada before his own early departure back in 2014.

Robert did earn all-star selection during the U-18 world tournament a couple years back. But he was left off the Ciego club that performed at the February 2016 Caribbean Series staged in the Dominican Republic. That team featured an outfield containing only two Ciego regulars and a handful of supplements from other squads, including star slugger Alfredo Despaigne and young prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr., another high-profile Cuban signee (seven years, $22 million) now being seasoned at Toronto’s Class A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays.

It seems logical to compare Robert with 6-2, 205-pound Moncada. The latter was also a touted prospect in Cuba, but never approached all-star status. The switch-hitting Moncada, however, has now been carefully nurtured in the Boston and Chicago minor league systems where he has expanded his game and made an undeniable mark as Baseball America’s 2016 Minor League Player of the Year and 2016 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game MVP.

Robert, by contrast, will likely need a couple of similar minor league campaigns before reaching the big time, perhaps not before 2019. A better comparison seems Gurriel Jr. Admittedly, I saw more of Lourdes than Robert in Cuba, a handful of games in the spring and fall of 2015.

Gurriel boasts more raw power. Robert holds a large edge, however, as a fielder since Lourdes never found a defensive position in Cuba. He started out as a shortstop before shifting with mixed results to the outfield and first base. Gurriel owns the family lineage, but Robert appears blessed with the larger dose of physical attributes — bat, arm, speed and glove — while possessing only slightly less power potential.

Is Robert the Last of a Disappearing Breed?

The potential is there with Robert and few are doubting his lofty prospects. The major question seems to be whether he might be the last of his kind, the end of the road when it comes to young, untested Cuban escapees who might have generated the hype and the money earned by the likes of Chapman, Céspedes, Puig, Abreu and Moncada.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports has already suggested that Robert is indeed the end of the line since the new CBA restrictions will block windfall deals for young Cubans unwilling to stay home until turning 25, when they can finally take advantage of MLB free agency.

While this assessment is largely correct, it should not, however, be taken as an end to the Cuban pipeline or what Passan labels the “MLB Cuban revolution.” No doubt that most MLB clubs have suffered enough disappointments after investing more than $750 million in Cuban prospects since Chapman’s signing seven years ago — per Passan’s calculations — to now err on the side of caution. And because of the massive desertion in past years, it’s also evident that the island’s talent has suffered a considerable depletion.

But the Cuban player font is hardly bone dry. One stellar prospect that could soon generate a new bidding war is Yoelkis Céspedes, 19, the younger half-brother of Yoenis and a speedy outfielder who impressed at the games played in Tokyo during the recent World Baseball Classic.

Another hidden talent is 21-year-old southpaw pitcher Liván Moinelo, now on loan in Japan. Besides Moncada, there are already other Cubans flying under the radar stateside in the minors, most especially 21-year-old right-hander Vladimir Gutiérrez, who’s pitching for Cincinnati’s Class A Advanced Daytona Tortugas. In his first 40.0 innings of work, he recorded 50 strikeouts and barely eight walks.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who already have All-Star Aledmys Díaz at shortstop, have invested in two new Cuban signees, 6-6 hurler Johan Oviedo and outfielder José Adolis García.

The Cuban invasion may have slowed, but as Robert’s signing shows, it’s not going to be entirely a thing of the past.

Featured Image: Charles Norfleet / Getty Images Sport

About Peter C. Bjarkman

Peter C. Bjarkman is the author of Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story (2016) and A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007, 2014). He is also the winner of a 2017 SABR Henry Chadwick Award, honoring baseball's top researchers and historians.Read more