Second in a three-part series.
FORT MYERS, Fla. — To some, the stakes in play on January 16, 2015, could have seemed daunting.
For Yoan Moncada, the opportunity to work out at JetBlue Park in front of a cluster of Red Sox evaluators offered the chance to make a convincing case for an unprecedented bonus for a teenager. For the Red Sox officials, the environment represented an opportunity to make a potentially franchise-changing decision about how far to go in pursuing the sort of talent that they almost never have an opportunity to acquire — with massive sums of money in play to give pause about the ramifications.
The consequences of a decision with the Cuban phenom were sufficiently weighty that some of the other 10 teams that conducted private workouts for him felt compelled to do so on multiple occasions. Moncada, who last November captivated the imagination of the scouting world with a dazzling if incomplete display of tools in Guatemala, made himself available to some teams two and even three times to showcase his skills.
For the Red Sox, whose process was being led by international scouting director Eddie Romero, there would be just the one workout on Jan. 16, the day that set in motion the team’s decision to spend $63 million to sign him.
“We felt like this was our Super Bowl,” said one team source in attendance that day. “We were going to do it right. We were going to run him through the gamut of on-field activity. I’m not sure there would be anything else we could have done or would have done that would have made us feel more comfortable short of putting him in actual games.”
That morning, agent David Hastings did the same thing he did on the morning of every workout for his clients, Moncada and another native of Cuba, 27-year-old Carlos Mesa. He checked the weather.
Unfortunately, the circumstances were no more promising than they’d prove for most of the private workouts Moncada — who’d relocated to the States and was living with Hastings in St. Petersburg — conducted in front of a total of 11 teams.
“The climate that we had in Florida this winter was horrible. It was cold, it was windy, we had rain to deal with. Every one, I’d wake up in the morning and be, like, ‘What’s the weather going to be like?’” said Hastings. “But it was important to showcase him to those teams. It was hard with the workout regimen that we set for Yoan. To have these private workouts, to schedule all that, and being a CPA with tax season, it was a little challenging.”
That day in Fort Myers was cloudy and cool (hovering around 60 degrees in the morning), with wind gusts of around 20 mph making the conditions a bit raw. A large roster of Red Sox front office members and scouts was on hand.
Romero was joined by Red Sox senior VP of player personnel Allard Baird, VP of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye, international crosschecker Rollie Pino, special assistant of player personnel Mark Wasinger, Latin American scouting coordinator Todd Claus, and Nicaraguan area scout Rafael Mendoza. Romero showed no sign of the anxiety he felt.
That group was joined by GM Ben Cherington, assistant GM Mike Hazen (who bounced in and out of the workout while handling that day’s arbitration deadline), assistant director of pro and international scouting Gus Quattlebaum, and newly hired global crosschecker Paul Fryer.
The cross-section of evaluators represented the uniqueness of Moncada. Romero typically evaluates players who are signed as 16-year-olds, talented teenagers who represent exercises in guesswork regarding their physical and tools development. He almost never encounters a player like Moncada.
“We sign 19-year-olds every once in a while,” said Romero, “but not like this.”
Moncada was more directly comparable to potential high school and junior college players in the States, both on the basis of his formidable, 6-foot, 215-pound frame (Claus compared him to a football safety) and his tools.
Romero, who was in charge of the scouting process, recognized the need to include those who could identify where Moncada might go in a typical amateur draft. Sawdaye (formerly the Sox’ head of amateur scouting), Quattlebaum, Wasinger, Pino, Claus, and Baird all fell into that category. So did Fryer, who also had the benefit — as Dodgers global crosschecker in 2012 – of having taken part in the scouting process that landed L.A. cornerstone Yasiel Puig.
“The input for all of them was essential,” said Romero. “I had my thoughts, but when you bring in that group and their years of experience across the various scouting platforms, when they see something, especially when they agree on something, that makes me feel a lot more comfortable.”
The Red Sox kicked off the day by introducing Moncada to their legendary pitcher and Cuban native Luis Tiant.
“You have one chance to make a first impression,” said Romero. “[Tiant] was amazing.”
“He sat down with us and explained to us what playing in Boston was like for a player with a Cuban background,” said Moncada.
The Sox sought to address the deficiency of the showcase workout in Guatemala, where Moncada could display his running speed and raw hitting tools while taking batting practice from both sides of the plate, but didn’t face anything resembling game circumstances. They wanted to test Moncada against professional-caliber pitching. And they wanted to be thorough in doing so.
The switch-hitter, the team felt, needed to face all manner of pitchers — lefties and righties, hard throwers and slop tossers — in order to get the fullest possible sense of his skills as a hitter. Could he handle command-and-control guys? Could he keep up with velocity? Could he make adjustments?
The team lined up five pitchers to throw, three with big league experience. The group included Brian Moehler, a righthanded veteran of 14 big league seasons who is now an amateur scout for the Sox (he was the scout in charge of the team’s efforts with 2014 first-rounder Michael Chavis); team pro scout Les Walrond, a lefty who appeared in 23 big league games and who pitched professionally as recently as 2012; Felipe Paulino, a hard-throwing righty who has appeared in 97 big league games and who was trying to make a pitch for a contract; Matt Hoffman, a lefthander with whom the team was finalizing a minor league deal; and one additional minor league free agent.
Moehler worked Moncada with a mix of mid-80s gravity balls, changeups, curves, and cutters. Moncada showed the ability to recognize what Moehler was trying to do, adjusting as appropriate, showing the ability to get to pitches on the inner half and demonstrate his power.
Against Paulino, who estimated that he threw 95-97 mph (he would sign a minor league deal with an invite to big league spring training on the basis of that workout), Moncada proved undaunted by velocity and showed a solid up-the-middle approach.
“He’s still young, but he showed a lot of adjustments facing me. I came there to do my job, to try out, and he did the same,” recalled Paulino. “I was surprised [that Moncada is 19]. Big, big, big huge body. It’s impressive, him coming out right now. He’s huge. He’s a pretty good talent – good swing, amazing body, he seemed poised. For me, it’s a pleasure that he faced me. I’m a major league veteran. To show me what he’s got, it showed me he’s got a good future here. It was January 16, a cold day, and he really stood in with good poise. He should be good for Boston soon.”
Though more advanced as a lefthanded bat than a righthanded one, Moncada showed a level, comfortable swing against a funky lefty like Hoffman.
“Maybe I would have done something different, but I didn’t know who he was,” Hoffman laughed. “I was coming back from the Dominican, playing winter ball, and they were like, ‘I want you to throw to him and someone else.’ I was like, ‘Sure, I’m on my way home anyway.’ I get there, you throw, you’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’ You just go about it like a normal day, and then next thing you know, you’re reading that he signed for $30 million. Righthanded, he looked like a pull guy. His swing was nice and steady, level plane. He wasn’t trying to overdo too much. He was hitting the ball square.”
Ben Cherington and John Henry on Yoan Moncada
All told, Moncada had what multiple attendees of the workout estimated at about 30 at-bats. The setting was imperfect — these weren’t real games in front of crowds — but against experienced pitchers (some pitching for jobs), Moncada looked the part of a mature, professional hitter with the opportunity to hold his own.
There were instances where he swung and missed. There wasn’t a single “wow” moment recalled by any of the attendees, a 450-foot home run or any single “drop the mic” moment. But given the elite bat speed that he’s shown in international play and whenever taking batting practice, the fact that Moncada could form a plan of attack and get the barrel of the bat on the ball — particularly given that he hadn’t played in real games in more than a year — offered all of the validation that the Red Sox needed for their evaluations.
“He showed the ability to make adjustments even with different types of pitchers, and he showed the ability to make adjustments between pitches. He impressed me,” said Fryer. “I think he must have had 30 at-bats that day after taking a long batting practice. For him to stay focused and concentrate on each pitch, that showed me as much as anything.”
Indeed, Fryer was struck by a contrast with the scouting process that led the Dodgers to Puig. Then, Fryer flew down to Mexico City and had a chance to watch Puig take batting practice twice before submitting his evaluation. With Moncada, the Sox had a chance to see how he was reacting to pitchers with big league experience who were mixing their full repertoires.
“It was kind of a controlled environment,” said Fryer. “To Moncada’s credit, he worked out for all these teams, and for some more than once. He didn’t back off anybody. Besides playing in games, we had as much history as we could possibly have with this guy. That was different than Puig. We had a lot more evaluations of him. You had a lot more history.”
In many respects, it was a better look than the Sox often get with their top position picks out of high school as well. In those instances, strong prep stars smash homers against 75 mph slop, the disparity in the quality of competition too great for a true evaluation. That wasn’t the case with Moncada.
By the end of the workout at JetBlue, the evaluators on hand felt they had enough to go on. They knew that Moncada was the type of talent they’d want to pursue, even at considerable cost.
“Some teams differ in how they go about evaluating players. I feel like we had discussed beforehand everything that we wanted to get out of the workout. The guys were here for a while that day. We felt like we had completed everything that we needed,” said Romero. “We asked amongst ourselves, ‘Do we need another workout?’ We were confident that, at this particular workout, it was thorough enough for us to be confident in our evaluations. We didn’t need anything else baseball-wise. . . . They did what they needed to do for us to feel comfortable going forward with the process.”
The question was no longer whether to pursue Moncada aggressively. The issue facing the Sox was to define how much they were willing to spend on him.
Yoan Moncada working out at Red Sox spring camp
Coming Monday: Were the Red Sox right to spend so much on Moncada?Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.