The Major League draft typically lags behind it’s pro sport league brothers for glitz and buzz. Players drafted out of high school or college rarely appear in the Majors quickly. It often takes up to five years within being selected to make The Show. Our society is not wired for delayed gratification, even if it is for stud baseball players. The MLB International signing period thus is often an even bigger waiting game. Scouts and General Managers dole out millions in contracts to teenagers. This is often based even more on tools and potential than for drafted players who often have at least a small sample playing in the United States.
The MLB International signing period and the coverage of it, is thus more reserved for the hardcore fan and stat geek. Or like yours truly those with a vested interest in international baseball and prospects. Increasing numbers of Cuban teenagers are appearing in scouts cross hairs and signing with MLB organizations during this period.
The supply of Cuban players has been exascerbated by the number of players leaving the island earlier and earlier. These players thus represent a different breed than the players who ventured to America in previous generations. Many have no experience playing in the Cuban National Series or for the Cuban National team. However, signing a 16 year old raw athlete from a baseball incubator and developing them essentially from the ground up does represent a bit of a lottery ticket in many instances.
The rules around signing and dollar amounts available to teams can be a bit confusing at times. Changes since the mid 2010s have seen teams gain even greater cost certainty with spending pools being capped. The maximum for 2021 was $6,431,000. That is some teams start at that amount and can lose money based on signing major league free agents.
For example the Yankees lost $1,000,000 in pool money for signing Gerrit Cole. Teams can also trade for International pool money, although this was suspended during Covid-19. Teams can also sign unlimited prospects if they are willing to accept less than $10,000.
Luis Robert likely represents the last true young Cuban free agent. His deal for $52,000,000 in early 2017 was before the advent of the current system. The White Sox were so high on Robert that half of that deal was a tax penalty paid by the team. Robert received $26,000,000 as his signing bonus. Certain teams thus see the International market as their best opportunity to sign young impact players. For reference current stars Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Eloy Jimenez were all acquired via this system.
Even if the dollars have been reduced we have seen Cubans receive the largest bonuses during recent periods. Victor Victor Mesa led the market with a $5.25 million bonus in 2018. January 2021 saw the Astros give a market pacing $4 million to Pedro León. Thirteen Cubans signed during the 2017 period. This includes Julio Pablo Martinez and Adolis Garcia who have been featured on this page. 2018 is the recent peak with 18 players signing. The numbers have dipped to on average under ten players since. 2022 looks like it will fall in between that peak and the reduced numbers. Five Cubans appear in MLB.com’s top 25 list. Most of them already having handshake deals in place with MLB teams.
This class represents one of the younger batches of Cuban players. Many of the players will be 17 when the period begins. It will likely be many years before we see many of the players. Perhaps even longer before the investment in them pays off. This list doesn’t include a few intriguing names though.
Typically a defecting player must establish residency in a third country. They can then apply for free agency before becoming eligible to sign. We saw many players leave the Cuban National team during June’s Olympic Qualifier in Florida. Twelve more defected during September’s U23 tournament in Mexico. Many of these players will not qualify for this signing period. Some will also wait as most of the bonus money has already been spent.
The outlier in that group is Oscar Colas. He likely would have signed in 2021 but Covid delayed his free agency. This left minimal dollars for a player generating as much buzz as he has. One player that left in June and has been granted Free Agency is César Prieto. Prieto is twenty two years old. He is arguably the most accomplished player at least at a relatively young age to become eligible in quite some time. The former Elefante was the rookie of the year in 2018/2019. Batting champion in 2020/2021. Prieto holds the Cuban Rookie hit record and hitting streak record as well.
Another player who has had success in Cuba’s Top League and becomes available at a mature but still young twenty-two is Jeison Martinez. In many other years he might be the top prospect. He projects closely to former Mayabeque teammate and previously mentioned top signing Pedro León. The depth of the market has seen him fly under the radar. Take an in depth look at the former Huracane via Cubadugout
Combined the signees might not even surpass the now benchmark $26,000,000 Luis Robert received in 2017. This cost certainty for teams is of course counter balanced by opportunity cost with such limited dollars. However, teams that do their diligence and grab the right player can often find diamonds in the rough. Ironically in players who often grew up playing on rough diamonds. 2022 might not be a record setting MLB International Signing period in dollars or number of Cubans signed. It might be record setting in terms of impact though.