FORT MYERS, Fla. — It may seem like an enormous gamble the Red Sox took on Monday, awarding 19-year-old Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada a record $31.5 million signing bonus to join their organization.
In all, the cost will be a whopping $63 million, as Major League Baseball will tax the Red Sox at a rate of 100 percent for excessive spending on international free agents.
Moncada is lauded by scouts and has the size, strength, and speed that suggest he will be a star. But the only guarantee is that he’ll get every chance to fail, not that he will succeed.
For the Red Sox, it was a risk difficult to resist. Moncada represented an increasingly rare opportunity to obtain premier young talent simply by spending money.
MLB has put strict financial controls on the amateur draft so high-revenue teams like the Sox could not manipulate the system. New commissioner Rob Manfred is an advocate of a worldwide draft to create even more parity.
Meanwhile the influx of national and local television revenue has enabled even small-market teams to sign their best young players to contract extensions before they hit free agency, denying wealthy teams like the Red Sox and Yankees access to them.
Signing Moncada was akin to placing a bet before the casino closed for good. And the Sox bet big.
“The Red Sox felt he was worth a significant investment,” said David Hastings, Moncada’s agent.
The deal is pending a physical and that process will start on Tuesday at JetBlue Park. Moncada will travel to Boston as part of his exam and could join the Red Sox as early as Monday. He will start in minor league camp.
Moncada, a switch-hitter, left Cuba in June and quickly became the subject of an intense bidding war. The Dodgers, Padres, and Yankees submitted competitive proposals for Moncada, Hastings said.
The Yankees seemed particularly interested, holding a series of private workouts for Moncada at their facility in Tampa. But according to the New York Post, the Yankees were not willing to go beyond $27 million. Like the Red Sox, they would have been subject to a 100-percent penalty.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters that the team submitted its final offer on Sunday.
“We went to where we were comfortable going, and it was an uncomfortable number to put forth,” Cashman said. “But it still fell short.”
The Brewers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Giants, Rangers, and Rays also worked Moncada out but were not among the finalists.
To help secure the deal, the Red Sox also signed Carlos Mesa, a 27-year-old third baseman who has been described as a close friend and mentor of Moncada. Mesa was released by the Pirates organization in 2013 and played independent ball last season.
General manager Ben Cherington declined comment, leaving manager John Farrell to take questions.
“I’m aware of the reports and the story that’s been broken. But there’s nothing official to announce,” Farrell said.
Cherington later spoke about Moncada during an interview with Comcast Sports Network New England.
“He’s a very aggressive, physical, 19-year-old who has performed well in Cuba,” Cherington said.
Because the Red Sox exceeded their international signing limits in July, they will pay a 100-percent tax on the signing. That $31.5 million is due in full to MLB on July 30.
The Sox also will be prohibited from signing any international amateur players for more than $300,000 for the next two signing periods. That runs through 2017.
The previous bonus record for an international free agent was $8.27 million. That came in January when the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Cuban righthander Yoan Lopez.
But Moncada may be worth it. At 6 feet 1 inch and 215 pounds, he has drawn comparisons to Seattle Mariners star Robinson Cano. Evaluators have said if Moncada were available via the June draft of domestic players, he would be no worse than the second overall pick.
Scouts say Moncada is a better lefthanded hitter than he is righthanded but generates uncommon bat speed from either side.
“He’s got a lot of ability and projects to be a quality player,” Cashman said. “I don’t think anybody disagrees with the ability. I would doubt there’s any disagreement on the scouting assessment of the player. It just comes down to how much money you were willing to commit.”
Moncada played primarily second base in Cuba but that is not a position of need for the Red Sox, who have Dustin Pedroia signed through 2021. Moncada is considered athletic enough to move to a different spot, perhaps third base or the outfield.
“The Red Sox will decide what’s best and Yoan will abide by that,” Hastings said. “They treated him like a professional from the start. We were all impressed with Boston. They’ll bring him along carefully.”
Most scouts believe Moncada will require at least a year or two in the minor leagues. It is likely he starts his career in Single A.
For Cherington, it was his second aggressive foray into the international market in a span of six months. The Red Sox signed outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal on Aug. 23.
Castillo, 27, does not know Moncada well beyond once being on the same field for an all-star game in 2013. But he regards him as a five-tool player.
“I’ve seen him play very little,” Castillo said via translator Adrian Lorenzo. “He’s a complete player from what I know. It’s exciting. I welcome him.”
Castillo was not involved in recruiting Moncada. But team legend Luis Tiant, one of the best pitchers to come from Cuba, aided the process.
Tiant spoke to Moncada when the Red Sox hosted him for a workout at JetBlue Park.
“Big kid, very strong,” Tiant said. “I think he’s a third baseman. We talked a little and I told him to work hard. If he’s with us, that’s great.”
The Red Sox have options to work Moncada into their lineup should he prove worthy. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval could shift to first base at some point. Designated hitter David Ortiz, 39, has hinted about retiring in the next few years and that would create another landing spot for Sandoval. The addition of Moncada adds depth to an already well-stocked farm system and could facilitate a trade.
Unlike other Cuban stars who were smuggled out of the country, Moncada was given a passport and visa and allowed to leave by the government. He established residency in Guatemala and held a showcase workout for teams in November. Moncada’s performance in front of nearly 100 scouts created buzz throughout the industry.
MLB, with the approval of the United States government, declared Moncada a free agent on Feb. 3.
Hastings, a certified public accountant in Gulfport, Fla., has not previously acted as an agent for a major league player according to the MLB Players Association. Vice Sports reported in December that Moncada was referred to him by one of his clients.
Vice also reported that Hastings hired armed guards to protect Moncada while he was in Guatemala.
Moncada impressed scouts with his play in international tournaments and performed well in Cuba’s professional league, Serie Nacional. As a 17-year-old, he hit .283 with a .762 OPS over 172 plate appearances. Moncada returned for the 2013-14 season in Cuba and hit .273 with a .771 OPS.
In Moncada, Castillo, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Blake Swihart, the Red Sox have a collection of young, athletic players. Such players have become even more valuable given the decline in scoring across baseball.
“The two common denominators are youth and athleticism,” Farrell said. “Health is a main contributor to staying on the field and putting up numbers . . . That’s why you’re always going to see young players involved in our team.”