Cuban phenom Luis Robert has been cleared to pursue a Major League contract according to reports early this afternoon. According to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, he will not be able to sign with a Major League club until May 20th, which is enough to give the Cardinals a window to get a deal done with Robert.
The Cardinals have kept a close eye on the 19-year-old prospect in the hopes that Major League Baseball would declare him a free agent before the end of the 2016-17 international signing period on June 15th. The reason? The Cardinals have blown through their international spending cap this year, spending over $9 million in bonuses, so they will be subject to a hard cap of $300,000 for individual player signings in the 2017-18 international signing period thanks to a new provision in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
Robert defected from Cuba back in November and established residency in Haiti in March. He is widely considered, along with Shohei Otani to be the top unsigned international prospects in the world. Robert is a five tool player. At least one AL executive has called him the best player on the planet. And while the hype may seem a little extreme, it’s not just all fluff.
Just look at his numbers. He was hitting .401/.527/.687 with 12 home runs in 52 games for Ciego de Avila before he defected in November. In 2015, as an 18 year old, he hit .305/.384/.413 with 5 home runs in 68 games. He was also teammates for three years on Ciego de Avila with Jose Adolis Garcia, who the Cardinals signed in February and was the Cuban National Series’ MVP that season.
During a fan Q&A before one of the exhibition games, Mozeliak spoke about Robert. “I will say, from a high level, he is one of the most exciting players to come along in many many years. You know, you hate to use that phrase ‘Once in a generation’ type player. I actually don’t know him well enough to make that comment, but I know that from a scouting stand point he’s ridiculously talented and I assure you that many many teams are hoping that get to engage in that and the Cardinals will be one of them” (h/t to Redbird Daily for that).
A few weeks ago Robert held a showcase event in Dominican Republic and the Cardinals had scouts and lieutenants there to watch. Their interest in the young player has been made clear.
So they’re interested, they intend to pursue, and when all things are considered, I think Robert is as close to a “must sign” player as the Cardinals will ever come across. Here’s why.
First, the Cardinals desperately need a dynamic young offensive player. There is a lack of top tier offensive talent in the Cardinals’ minor league system and the organization on the whole. I’ve spoken often about the hole in the organization left behind by Oscar Taveras‘ untimely death because Mozeliak had blazed him a path to the Majors.
Robert is that kind of dynamic talent who definitely has definitely flashed some power. He is on par with the best of Cuban talent that has come to the Majors, which so far as seemingly worked out.
Second, the Cardinals are in a unique situation as a franchise. This may be their last opportunity to add a dynamic young prospect this year. They lost their first two picks of this season’s draft to the Astros as a result of the hacking scandal. And as I’ve already discussed, they’ve blown through the international spending cap this year, which places them under a hard cap penalty in the 2017-18 international signing period starting in July.
Third, those rules which place the Cardinals in penalty also help them out for now. The Cubs and the Dodgers are out. The Red Sox and Yankees will be out until the next international signing period begins. The Astros, Athletics, Braves, Padres, Reds, and Nationals are all int he same position as the Cardinals, having to pay a dollar-per-dollar penalty on his contract.
The White Sox may be the only team that has expressed interest who are not in the penalty.
Fourth, the Cardinals are flush with cash. And on the verge of a new television deal beginning. If anything, that cash might be the only thing they’re willing to part with. Based on the suggestions I’ve seen, Robert could get a bonus worth around $30 million. That means he would cost the Cardinals around $60 million once you consider the penalty.
While Robert hasn’t talked much about what he’s looking for in a team, but he did speak in an interview with MLB.com that he was paying attention to his former teammate Garcia, who the Cardinals signed in February.
The Cardinals have also signed three other Cuban players in Jonathan Machado, Randy Arrozarena, and Johan Oviedo in this year’s international signing period. They also have Aledmys Diaz playing for them in the Majors.
Ultimately it makes sense for him to maximize his financial return, but having the comfort of players you know and your countrymen, I can imagine would make life a little more comfortable in a foreign country.
But Mozeliak has gotten what he wanted. They now have a chance to sign him and the clock is ticking. Hopefully they can make it happen.