One of the most intriguing names of the MLB offseason is a player that might not even end up in the major leagues next season. Cuban shortstop Yoan Moncada was declared a free agent by Major League Baseball last weekend, and just about every team in baseball -- including the Tigers -- has shown some level of interest. Moncada still needs to be unblocked by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before he can sign with a team.
Update: Moncada has been unblocked by OFAC and cleared to sign with a team by Major League Baseball. He is officially a free agent.
Who is he?
Moncada is a 19-year-old shortstop who has had scouts drooling for some time. He has been described as one of the most talented players Cuba has produced in recent years, which is saying something given the influx of talent the island has given Major League Baseball over the past decade. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, he is a salivating combination of size and speed. He has been described as a true five-tool talent. Oh, and did I mention he's a switch hitter?
Ben Badler of Baseball America addressed the hype when he profiled Moncada back in August.
How good is Moncada? He has more upside than Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, who just reached a $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox. He’s better than Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who’s in the Dominican Republic but is still likely several months away from free agency. If Moncada were eligible for the 2015 draft, he would be in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick. [Yulieski] Gourriel and [Alfredo] Despaigne would be safer bets, but there’s no player in Cuba with Moncada’s combination of youth, tools and hitting ability.
Why should we care?
Fangraphs' Kiley McDaniel didn't go into a lot of depth when describing Moncada last month, but this paragraph speaks volumes.
Moncada is 19 and packs a lot of tools into his 6’1/210 frame. He’s a plus-plus runner with above average raw power from both sides of the plate and the tools/skills to stick in the infield, possibly at shortstop. Moncada is the quick-twitch type with big bat speed that clubs covet and his track record of hitting at big tournaments and in Cuba’s professional leagues is excellent considering his age.
Moncada has also been described as "the best teenager to leave Cuba since Jorge Soler." Soler is top 50 prospect who made his MLB debut with the Cubs last season. Moncada has also drawn comparisons to Yaisel Puig for his combination of size, speed, and tools.
Speaking of tools, here are the grades on Moncada from one MLB scout, per MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. Remember, grades range from 20 to 80, with 50 indicating a league average skill.
Hit -- 60
Power -- 60
Speed -- 70
Arm -- 60
Field -- 50
Why should we stay away?
Given Moncada's age and lack of professional experience, he is subject to MLB's amateur free agent rules. This mean that the Tigers are limited to spending a certain amount of money within the signing period, which ends at the beginning of next July. Teams can exceed this spending limit, but they incur significant penalties. These penalties include a 100 percent tax on every dollar spent and a hard cap on how much money they can spend per player during the next signing period (which runs from July to July).
Doesn't seem too bad, right? Well, Moncada is expected to receive a contract in the eight figure range. Given the Tigers' apparent reluctance to spend into the luxury tax, it would not make a lot of sense for them to blow tens of millions of dollars on the international free agent market. This is especially true for a player like Moncada, who will likely spend some time in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Yesterday, Badler listed the Tigers as one of eight likely destinations for Moncada. Normally, I would brush this off given the financial consequences listed in the section above, but Badler is one of the foremost experts on the inner workings of the international free agent market. He notes the Tigers' ability to find cheap Venezuelan talent and their willingness to spend in the amateur player draft (before MLB changed the rules) as reasons why they could be players for Moncada.
Under international director Tom Moore, the Tigers’ strategy has been to spread their money around. The ceiling on their investments have generally been around the $420,000 they spent for shortstop Willy Adames and $400,000 for middle infielder Domingo Leyba, a pair of 2012 Dominican signings that have shot through the system quickly, with Adames helping net David Price at the trade deadline and now ranking as Tampa Bay’s No. 1 prospect. With their success finding those types of players and mining Venezuela for under-the-radar gems as well as any club, the $300,000 limit wouldn’t hamper them too much.
While this is all very intriguing, the amount of hype surrounding the Red Sox and Yankees' involvement in the Moncada sweepstakes leads me to believe that the Tigers will eventually be outbid for his services. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Spending upwards of $50 million on an MLB free agent is a risky venture. Spending that amount on a teenage prospect -- even one with as glowing of an evaluation as Moncada has received -- is a huge gamble.