Third in a three-part series.
FORT MYERS, Fla. — If Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper had been free agents instead of players whose rights could be controlled only by the team that drafted them first overall, how much would they have made on the open market? In 2009 and 2010, the Red Sox had mulled those theoretical exercises while waiting for the Nationals to select both with the top pick.
This year, through Yoan Moncada, the exercise became real.
There was some variance in the views of Red Sox evaluators following Moncada’s thorough one-day workout at JetBlue Park in Fort Myersin January. There was the question of future position, whether Moncada’s pro career would start at second base or third, though virtually everyone agreed that if moved off of his current position of second, he’d have at least an average glove, perhaps better than that.
Hitting? The question was not whether evaluators thought he’d be good, but how good? His current and projected grades on the 20-80 scouting scale suggested a potential 25-home run hitter even if he doesn’t hit for significant average.
But if Moncada emerges as the hitter that the Sox believe they saw, then he’s a middle-of-the-order fixture. A 60 bat and 60 power – conservative grades, in the eyes of some – would still suggest an All-Star-caliber talent, a “core player” on a championship team in the eyes of one of the observers at his workout.
“He’s a special bat, so you find a place for him to play,” said the evaluator. “With a guy like Moncada, it’s about his bat. You’ve got to think he’s going to be a plus hitter with average to plus power. You’re very confident he’s a plus hitter with plus power.”
The makeup also checked out. The team was impressed with Moncada’s commitment to work, with his determination to excel.
The opportunity to talk not just with Moncada but with his training partner Carlos Mesa, the other workout attendee whom international scouting director Eddie Romero had known since scouting him and having dinner with him in El Salvador, reinforced the impression that the player had the right priorities, the necessary commitment to excellence.
“He’s able to be at ease, whether it’s with myself or other people he’s not familiar with, and then go perform on the field, show what he can do in front of strangers of multiple teams. He’s performed at the highest level on the international stage,” said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. “The truth is we’re still getting to know him. That process is ongoing. But we’ve been very impressed by him so far.”
Romero visited Moncada, Mesa, and agent David Hastings, who represents both, in St. Petersburg on a couple of occasions, both to demonstrate the team’s interest in them as players and to get to know them better.
“Everyone around this kid is saying he’s a class act,” said Romero.
Every box was checked: tools, aptitude, makeup, all in the type of athletic, powerful body that one almost never encounters in a dedicated, advanced, 19-year-old American baseball player. The natural scouting instinct is thus to seek comparable players, but in this instance, the challenge was significant.
Across the industry, the assessments have ranged widely of Moncada. He’s not Yasiel Puig, a natural standard to which all Cuban players are seemingly, and unfairly, held up as the top performer with the most electrifying and diverse set of skills to come from Cuba to date. Puig showed 80 raw power, a 70 arm, the potential for elite across-the-board tools replicated perhaps only by Mike Trout in the big leagues. Moncada is a rare player, but he doesn’t combine that specific skill set.
So if not Puig, then whom? When the switch-hitting Moncada swings lefthanded – his natural side – some see traits of Robinson Cano, though Cano is taller and more fluid, more effortless. Perhaps there are elements of a young Eric Chavez in his early career with the A’s. A taller Yoenis Cespedes?
“He’s different,” said Red Sox Latin American scouting coordinator Todd Claus, who noted that he had some 70 grades for Moncada on the 20-80 scale. “He’s beyond average. I personally didn’t come up with a comparison that he reminds me of such and such. He’s a unique animal.”
Ben Cherington and John Henry on Cuban player Yoan Moncada
Moncada represented a rarely seen amateur, the type of player who would have been taken in the top three or five of virtually any draft, and as the top overall pick in several.
The Red Sox’ challenge was defining a financial value for such a talent.
Global crosschecker Paul Fryer, who joined the Red Sox in November after holding the same position with the Dodgers, had seen the value of being bold when working with Logan White to scout Puig for just two batting practice sessions in 2012. The industry had been stunned by the seven-year, $42 million contract the outfielder received from Los Angeles as a 21-year-old.
But now, that deal looks like a bargain.
“I knew a guy like Yasiel wasn’t going to be available in the [next year’s] draft – he just wasn’t,” said Fryer. “He was somebody that I didn’t want to see – and the same with Moncada – once I saw him, I didn’t want someone else to get him. I didn’t want to see that guy playing for the Yankees or the Giants. When you see that type of talent, I think you’ve got to be aggressive and go after it. That’s what we did.”
The Red Sox reached a consensus view of Moncada’s skills, and were ready to make their aggressive bid – $25 million at first, $31.5 million in the end, with a massive 100 percent tax based on Major League Baseball’s rules about bonus limits for international amateurs. In all, signing Moncada cost $63 million.
“We had to go through a process and identify an area where we felt it was still a fair deal for us. We did that. We identified a range. That’s what we recommended to ownership, if we could get a deal done in this range, we recommend it. We think it makes sense. If we can’t, we can’t. So let’s enter the process and see if we can. Ultimately we were able to get the deal done in a range that we felt comfortable with.”
When Puig signed, the $42 million was spread over seven years. Same with Jorge Soler, the Cuban who received a nine-year, $30 million deal from the Cubs.
Boston’s largest bonus to a teenager prior to Moncada was $6.25 million to Jose Iglesias in 2009.
“Honestly, my initial reaction was, ‘Holy [expletive],’” said Claus. “The reason is, it goes to [Red Sox principal owner and Globe owner] John Henry, the commitment is unbelievable.
“We’re very lucky to scout in this organization, especially in my position, and have the resources from the top all the way to our area scouts in the Dominican, Venezuela, around the world, we’re so lucky to have the backing from the top. Mr. Henry says I want to win, and you guys are telling me that this guy is a top-five pick in the draft if he’s available, we haven’t picked there in a long time, let’s go do this,” he added. “Ultimately, it was his decision. It doesn’t go without risk. It blew me away.”
Of course, it might have been natural to have a moment of pause, recognizing that this is the sort of magnitude of investment for which a number of evaluators can be held accountable. If Moncada is sensational, the organization will be thrilled. If he washes out without ever reaching the big leagues – a fate that has befallen some top-five draft picks – a number of individuals will have to re-examine the process and explain why it didn’t work.
But the Sox felt that their conviction was strong enough – across the many voices who were party to the decision – that Moncada represented a risk worth taking.
“Ben took that on to ownership that, while understanding that it’s a significant investment, this group of scouts who I have utmost faith in see this guy as a potential impact player and the kind of player who will hopefully be worth this kind of investment,” Romero said.
The thoroughness of the process, Romero and Cherington said, was such that the team felt comfortable signing Moncada to a landmark deal despite many members of the decision-making team never having seen him in a game.
“We don’t feel like there was any question that we had that was not answered,” said Cherington. “That said, there is of course risk. That doesn’t mean anything is a guarantee. But we felt very good about the information we had to be able to make a recommendation to ownership and ultimately go into a negotiation where we felt good about our recommendation.”
And now, the Sox can start to take stock of the merits of their decision, to see Moncada on the field – finally, in games – and to explore the fruits of their efforts.
“It came down to the eyes of our scouts and ownership’s willingness to trust them, with Ben leading that charge,” said Romero. “We’ll see from here.”firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.