First in a three-part series.
FORT MYERS, Fla. – It began five years ago with a single line on an Excel spreadsheet.
The evaluation overseen by director of international scouting Eddie Romero that led the Red Sox to their $63 million investment in Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada took shape slowly, over much of the span of his teenage years. While it was a workout in Fort Myers in January that offered the decisive component of the scouting process, by the time Moncada arrived at JetBlue Park to work out for team officials, the Red Sox had already seen Moncada in games – more than 20 of them, to be precise – dating to 2010.
It was that year that Latin American scouting coordinator Todd Claus encountered a 15-year-old in an international tournament in Mexico. Even then, Moncada stood out.
“The same thing [stood out] as today really, except he has even more bat speed. The overall tools package and physicality, he just stood out, man. He was a man among boys,” Claus recalled by phone. “[There was] definitely a different sound [of the ball off the bat] and bat speed. That’s a tool. It’s just a really fast bat. He’s an explosive guy. He has explosive, short, quick movements.”
While Moncada was always a head-turner in international settings, however, the first report that the Sox received from Claus on him was far from extensive. After all, in 2010, defections by Cuban baseball players occurred at more of a drip than the current flood.
There were young talents, like Jose Iglesias, who were leaving the country and getting rewarded with millions of dollars, but none as young as Moncada or his 16-and-under teammates. And so, when Claus filed the initial report covering Moncada as part of that team, he provided the Sox with just the broadest of sketches.
“At the time, my personal protocol of what I was doing was team-sheeting the entire 16-and-under team. I wasn’t writing 25, 30 individual reports. What I was doing was commenting on the tools and saying if this guy were to defect, this is what I think he is. It’s literally an Excel spreadsheet of one page, and each guy has one line across a horizontal page,” said Claus. “You’re breaking down his tools, saying, ‘Here’s what he is and here’s what he’s got a chance to be.’ You know that you’re going to have to go through more process if they do defect. At that point, it’s just a very macro evaluation.”
Still, that initial impression of Moncada’s physicality and explosiveness received further support (not just for the Sox but for the entire scouting community) over the years. Claus saw him at another 16-and-under tournament in 2011, again in Mexico, a look that ratified those initial impressions.
Two years later, Moncada appeared on Cuba’s roster for two more international 18-and-under tournaments. At the World Port tournament in the Netherlands, the infielder did not appear in games, but he did offer glimpses of his tools and athleticism while taking infield and batting practice. Then, finally, in late 2013, Moncada took the field for seven games in an 18-and-under tournament in Taiwan.
In a tournament field that included multiple players who would be taken in the first round of the 2014 draft (including 2014 No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken), Moncada’s talent proved undeniable. He represented a middle-of-the-order hitter who looked better than the top U.S. amateur pitchers he faced (a group that included a pair of first round talents, Justus Sheffield and Jacob Nix).
“He didn’t back down,” recalled Romero, who attended that tournament with Red Sox Pacific Rim coordinator Jon Deeble. “He played in every game. He stood out as one of the better players, and very likely the best player. That was the first time I had gotten an extended look at him in games.”
That tournament proved the last time that the Red Sox – and, in all likelihood, any other major league team – saw Moncada play in live games. In addition to those eight games in Taiwan, along with a few more from his previous international tournaments seen by Claus, the team also eagerly consumed any of the not-so-spectacular video it could glean from Serie Nacional contests in Cuba, where Moncada was a top-of-the-order hitter for Cienfuegos while pairing with shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena (who defected and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Dodgers) to form an athletic double-play combination.
Despite viewing the value of that video as limited relative to live looks, members of the Sox’ baseball operations department watched whatever footage it could acquire over and over to ensure as good an understanding as possible of Moncada’s skill set.
“No stone was left unturned,” said one part of that review process.
Then came the buzz. Moncada had stopped playing for Cienfuegos around the end of 2013. In the summer of 2014, word circulated in the baseball world that he’d left Cuba, though the precise circumstances of that departure weren’t clear. Nor was the matter of whether or when he might be available to big league teams.
Still, the Red Sox knew they had to be ready.
“We simply made a decision at that point, we don’t know enough about that guy, but let’s make sure we have the information we need to make an informed decision if indeed he comes out and becomes a free agent given the circumstance we’re in,” said GM Ben Cherington. “We spent a lot of time over the last several months doing that. Some of that was scouting, some of it was analysis and work in the front office.”
That process built toward the opportunity to put eyes on Moncada again in November.
Moncada had set up residency in Guatemala. CPA-turned-agent David Hastings flew to the country several times to find a baseball trainer for Moncada to work with and to prepare for a landmark event in the 19-year-old’s path to professional ball in the U.S.
Through conversations with the trainer and some baseball teams about what they might want to see while evaluating a young prospect, Hastings attended to the details of organizing a showcase for all 30 clubs to attend. But when he went to visit Moncada in Guatemala a week before the showcase, Hastings realized that the work to set up the event was incomplete.
“The field that we were able to get, the grass was, like, up to here,” Hastings said, holding his hand at his thigh. “I was like, ‘Come on. Let’s make this look like a baseball stadium.’ But in the end, they really did a great job.”
On Nov. 12, Moncada faced his future. The act of going through the familiar paces on a baseball field was made foreign by the audience that was eyeing him, perhaps 100 executives and scouts.
“I’d never done anything where I was being presented amongst 30 teams,” Moncada said through Romero. “When I went out, especially to start with the running, I was feeling some pressure, I was feeling nervous. As the workout went on, as I got into my defensive drills, I started feeling a lot more comfortable. That’s definitely something I’m not going to forget, seeing everybody that was there and going through that kind of showcase.”
The look was valuable if imperfect. While game activity couldn’t be simulated – “We couldn’t do the live pitching in the showcase because there were no pitchers in Guatemala. We really didn’t want to trust a pitcher who might conk him,” noted Hastings – Moncada could show off his running speed, his raw power in batting practice, and some of his defensive skills.
What he showed that day in Guatemala – with Romero 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, Claus, and Nicaraguan area scout Rafael Mendoza – betrayed no sign of the anxiety he felt.
“That look in Guatemala, we weren’t getting a complete look. It was a combine. … [But] he was relentless. He had a professional, relentless demeanor at this workout. At 19 years old, there’s all these heavyweights looking at him, and he just went about it, like, ‘I belong here,’” said Claus. “He just had short, explosive movements with his feet, with his hands, with his bat, with his arm – everything. He did some things in that workout that did stick out, [like] driving a ball 400-plus feet from both sides of the plate [with] explosive bat speed.
“He was taking feeds at second base one time. The guy made a bad feed, he reached out, barehand picked it, and turned it. It was silly. It was an athletic, instinctive, ‘Holy [smokes], what just happened?’ It happened really fast. Everybody just looked at each other, scratched their head and said, ‘Did you just see that?’”
The look was tantalizing but incomplete. Scouts might feel comfortable pulling the trigger and signing an amateur to a bonus in the tens of thousands of dollars based on one look. But given that Moncada might cost a team 1,000 times that sum, no one was going to contemplate signing him based on what he’d done in batting practice and a non-game setting.
Teams needed to see more. The Red Sox needed more.
“In my reports, I said I’d really like to see him in live at-bats. I hadn’t seen him in three or four years,” said Claus, a sentiment echoed by virtually every other scout in attendance. “I wanted to see him in live at-bats before I made my own judgment.”
“In Guatemala, he didn’t face live pitching,” said Romero. “The best way to evaluate a player is always in a game environment. It was just tough for them to do that in Guatemala.”
The next step of the process thus proved a defining one: A private workout for team officials in Fort Myers on January 16.
Coming Sunday: Yoan Moncada’s $63 million workout.